Continued from last week
Many of those mansion builders were comrades-in-arms from Zimbabwe’s war of independence. They, their families, and their business cronies were not eager to give up power or wealth. They were especially disinclined to share power with those they derisively called “the salad eaters”, younger Zimbabweans who had not been involved in the liberation war and had grown up in the cities eating at fancy restaurants.
By Linda Thomas-Greenfield & Bruce Wharton,US Diplomats
Younger members of the ruling party — some technocrats and some opportunists — began to challenge the old guard. This group of younger government officials and business people aligned itself with Grace Mugabe and became known as the “Group of 40-Year-Olds”, or “G40”.
Grace was widely reviled in Zimbabwe for her venality and predilection for extravagant shopping trips. In 2003, when food insecurity brought on by a combination of “land reform” and drought threatened millions of Zimbabweans, Grace was accused of spending US$120 000 on shoes and jewellery in a single shopping trip to Paris. She was also a prime beneficiary of her husband’s “fast-track” land reform programme and seized farms, businesses and real estate for her personal benefit. Zimbabweans began calling her “Gucci Grace” and “Dis-Grace”.
The University of Zimbabwe awarded her a doctoral degree three months after she entered the programme, an act of such blatant disregard for educational standards that the university’s vice-chancellor was later arrested for it.
As Mugabe’s age (93 in 2017) caught up with him and his grip on power and his senses began to decline, the rivalry between the old guard and the Grace Mugabe/G40 faction intensified. In 2014, Grace emerged as a serious political player, attacking then vice-president Joice Mujuru in public speeches, using vulgar language and expressions that shocked many Zimbabweans.
At the same time, Grace’s role as nurse and caretaker for her increasingly frail husband was growing. Mugabe was becoming more prone to falling asleep in public, mumbling and stumbling, and needing more frequent trips to Singapore and Dubai for medical attention.
The old guard’s nightmare scenario was one in which Grace’s power grew in direct proportion to Mugabe’s failing health, as she became the sole gatekeeper and conveyor of his wishes, taking his political legacy and power for her own. The intra-party fissures between the G40 and the old guard intensified and threatened those who thought they had earned the right to rule and profit from Zimbabwe because of their service in the war for independence.
Mugabe fired Mujuru in December 2014, accusing her of “factionalism.”
Typical of the political balancing act Mugabe had choreographed for years, he then appointed his long-time aide, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to succeed Mujuru as vice-president. As long as neither the G40 nor the old guard had too much power and the factions balanced each other out, Mugabe was safe. He was also trapped, though, in the finely balanced, no-clear-successor, political structure he had built.
Triggering the coup
In early November 2017, Mugabe hinted that he might name his wife as vice-president. This strengthened the G40’s hopes of taking power and threatened the old guard and the military. The ruling party’s Youth League called for Mugabe to dismiss Mnangagwa, and Grace joined in the chorus.
Provincial ruling-party committees began to pass resolutions calling for Grace to be made vice-president. On November 6, Mugabe dismissed Mnangagwa as vice-president, and Mnangagwa fled to Mozambique fearing for his safety.
On November 12, then Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, returned from an official trip to China. The G40, working with Zimbabwe Republic Police commissioner-general Augustine Chihuri, planned to arrest Chiwenga upon his arrival at the airport in Harare.
Chiwenga, however, was tipped off, and soldiers, disguised as baggage handlers, overpowered the police and prevented Chiwenga’s arrest. On November 13, Chiwenga released a statement warning that the “purging” of Zanu PF officials must stop. In response, a party spokesman accused Chiwenga of “treasonable actions.” That was it.
On November 14, there were reports of unusual movement of military vehicles on the northwestern approaches to Harare. That night, military forces took control of state television and radio and placed Robert and Grace Mugabe under house arrest at their residence.
Security forces arrested or pursued a number of G40-aligned government officials. Some gunfire was heard in the city, and a few G40 officials sought refuge or went into hiding.
On November 15, Major-General Sibusiso Moyo spoke to the people of Zimbabwe via state television and radio. He denied that there had been a coup and said that the military was “only targeting criminals around (Mugabe) who are committing crimes … that are causing social and economic suffering in the country”.
Moyo sought to re-assure the country that Mugabe and his family were “safe and sound.” Moyo went on to say: “As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”
Over the next six days, Zimbabweans lived in suspense, as negotiations took place among the military, Mugabe, and South African facilitators.
On November 17, Mugabe was allowed out of his home to preside over a graduation ceremony at a local university. On November 18, thousands of Zimbabweans took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations calling for Mugabe’s resignation. On November 19, Zanu PF dismissed Mugabe as its leader, but he was allowed to deliver a televised speech in which he was expected to announce his resignation as president of Zimbabwe. Much to the obvious consternation of the military officers sitting with him during the speech, he did not resign.
On November 20, the Zimbabwean parliament voted to begin impeachment proceedings against Mugabe on charges of “allowing his wife to usurp constitutional power”. On November 21, as impeachment proceedings were underway and with the prospect of a Gaddhafi-like demise becoming more real, Mugabe formally resigned. When the Speaker of Parliament read Mugabe’s resignation letter to parliament, members of both the opposition and ruling parties began to cheer, ululate and dance.
Mnangagwa returned to Zimbabwe on November 22 and was sworn in as president on November 24.
In his inaugural address and in the months that followed, Mnangagwa proffered a welcome change of rhetoric from his predecessor. He acknowledged the mistakes of previous economic and land reform programmes and pledged to correct them. He spoke of his determination to fight corruption, create jobs and improve relations with the IFIs and the West.
Zimbabwean businesspeople believed Mnangagwa was pragmatic about business and investment and he would make good economic decisions.
Civil society and media leaders perceived a greater tolerance for criticism of the government than had been the case under Mugabe.
In the first weeks of the “new dispensation”, as Zimbabwean politicians called the Mnangagwa government, things were looking up.
As Mnangagwa assembled his cabinet, there was hope he would reach across the aisle and appoint some members of the opposition. That did not happen. Instead, Mnangagwa’s cabinet was heavy on career military officers who traded in their epaulets for pinstripes, confirming for all that this was nothing less than a coup.
Chiwenga, who on November 13 had warned against purging Zanu PF officials, became one of Mnangagwa’s two vice-presidents and remained head of Joc.
Moyo, promoted to lieutenant-general upon retirement from the military, who had taken to the airwaves on November 15 to re-assure Zimbabweans that no coup was underway, became Foreign Affairs and International Trade minister. Air Marshal Perence Shiri, former commander of the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, became Minister of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement. Lt Gen Engelbert Rugeje became the national political commissar for Zanu PF.
Each of these career military officers nominally retired before assuming their new civilian positions, but their presence in such senior positions gives rise to serious questions about who is really in charge in Zimbabwe. More than once, Chiwenga has appeared to contradict or ignore a statement or policy position from Mnangagwa.
Two months before the July 2018 election, the deputy minister of finance, Terence Mukupe, said what everyone was thinking, that there was no way the military would allow the opposition to win.
Mukupe said to supporters: “How can we say, honestly, the soldiers took the country, practically snatched it from Mugabe, to come and hand it over to (opposition leader Nelson) Chamisa?”
Still, the general impression among common Zimbabweans was that Mnangagwa brought improvement and, more importantly, Mugabe was out. The opposition was allowed to campaign in rural areas that had been off limits to them for years. People were less fearful of speaking critically of the government in public places.
International media, long denied visas to report from Zimbabwe, were able to operate openly and file stories. Incidents of political violence declined. Mnangagwa invited international observers from Europe and the US to observe the 2018 elections, and his government appeared interested in seeking to rejoin the Commonwealth.
Perhaps most important to ordinary Zimbabweans, the predatory actions of the Zimbabwean police — seeking bribes at road checkpoints every few kilometres — stopped.
Inside government, no one spoke of a coup.
Rather, the events of November 2017 were called a “military assisted transition”. Outside of government, it was called a coup or, with Zimbabwe’s typically wry sense of humour, the “coup that wasn’t a coup” or the “not-a-coup coup”. It was, of course, a coup, albeit one that had been informally endorsed by a jubilant public, officially endorsed by Zimbabwe’s High Court, and tacitly endorsed by neighbouring states, the Africa Union, and all of the nations that sent election observers to the July 2018 elections, including the US.
2018 elections fall short
What Mnangagwa and Zimbabwe needed to fully quell the coup/no-coup debate, or show that a coup could be a good thing, was a peaceful, transparent and credible election. Only through such an election — scheduled for July 31 2018 — could Mnangagwa’s government be certified as legitimate.
That legitimacy was needed to restore confidence in Zimbabwe; resolve differences with former allies such as the United Kingdom, EU, and the US; rebuild relations with the IFIs, and attract new investment.
To be continued next week.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield retired from the Senior Foreign Service of the US in 2017 after 35 years of service. She is a senior counsellor at Albright Stonebridge Group in their Africa practice and a distinguished fellow of African Studies at Georgetown University. She was assistant secretary for African Affairs from 2013 to 2017 and director-general of the Foreign Service and director of personnel from 2012 to 2013. Thomas-Greenfield was ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012. Ambassador Wharton, a retired member of the Senior Foreign Service of the US, served as the US ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2012 to 2015, and principal deputy secretary of state for African Affairs from 2015 to 2016. He also served as the public affairs officer at the US embassy in Zimbabwe from 1999 to 2003.