A former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe reflects on the November 2017 coup in that country and wonders: How did he miss the signs that it was coming?
BY CHARLES RAY
Sometimes unexpected things happen, and your brain has a hard time accepting them. That was the case for me in November 2017, when I heard from friends in Zimbabwe that there were signs of a possible coup. I had predicted that the military would never remove President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s ruler for 37 years. I thought they were misreading the signs; I was wrong.
My contacts with the military during my tenure as U.S. ambassador, though limited, had led me to believe that the military was too legalistic—even when engaged in illicit activity, the brass tried to portray what they were doing as legal. Because a coup is a pretty blatant power grab, it’s difficult to make it look legal. In addition, since the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)—the party the military has sustained in power since independence in 1980—has effectively been in sole control of the government since the 2013 elections, it would be overthrowing itself. I had been saying that in lectures on Zimbabwe since retiring in 2012, whenever a question about the possibility of a coup came up.
So I was shocked on Nov. 15, when emails and Facebook posts from Zimbabwe and reports in the U.S. and international media showed soldiers and tanks on the streets of Harare, and a military spokesman on Zimbabwe’s state-controlled media stated that the army had “guaranteed the safety of Mugabe and his wife”—though it would target criminals around the former ruler. How could I have been so far off the mark?
One of the biggest mistakes I’d made was defining “coup d’état” too narrowly. I’d pictured something akin to the military takeovers I’d seen in Sierra Leone in 1992, Thailand in 1990 and South Korea in 1979, or the series of coups in Vietnam in the 1960s, where cabals of military officers summarily deposed the existing leadership and took over key government departments, administering them directly, often for extended periods of time.
While the events in Zimbabwe from early November had some of the hallmarks of a traditional military takeover, there were also some uniquely Zimbabwean aspects. First among these was Defense Minister General Constantine Chiwenga’s announcement on Nov. 13 that the military would intervene if the expulsion of senior ZANU-PF figures continued. Second was the role of Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace, whom many Zimbabweans have dubbed “Gucci Grace” because of her profligate shopping habits. Third was the persistent, powerful role of a generation gap in Zimbabwean politics.
The path to the Nov. 15 events actually began in December 2014, when President Mugabe fired then-state vice president and deputy leader of ZANU-PF, Joice Mujuru, a liberation war veteran who had been viewed as his most likely successor. Seven ministers considered loyal to her were also sacked. At the time, this action was widely viewed as clearing the way for Emmerson Mnangagwa, then the defense minister and considered the second-most-likely Mugabe successor, to move up. A former justice minister, the 74-year-old Mnangagwa had served as an intelligence officer during the liberation struggle and had the support of many senior military figures.
However, Mujuru’s ouster also coincided with actions by Grace Mugabe to increase her own political profile. In the weeks leading up to the ouster, Grace had attacked Mujuru in public appearances and the press on several occasions. She had recently been appointed to the leadership of the ZANU-PF Women’s League; she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree; and she began to be more involved in political affairs. Several commentators remarked at the time that Grace seemed to be positioning herself for a post-Mugabe political berth. But other than a few press reports in the opposition media speculating on this, not much was made of it. With Mujuru gone, and Mnangagwa moved into her party and government positions, it looked like Mugabe was finally doing something he had resisted for decades—making a decision on his successor.
One of the biggest mistakes I’d made was defining “coup d’état” too narrowly.
Fast forward to 2017. Along with regular reports of Grace Mugabe’s extravagant spending habits, and an incident in South Africa where she assaulted a model she’d found in a room with her sons (she escaped punishment for the assault when the South African government allowed her to claim diplomatic immunity), the local and regional media began to focus on Grace’s increasing involvement in politics. Her public comments in October and early November 2017 about the possibility of succeeding her husband were highlighted.
Increasing tension between Grace and Senior Vice President Mnangagwa also surfaced. She, and finally Mugabe himself, accused Mnangagwa of corruption, plotting against Mugabe and other actions detrimental to the party. In October, he fell ill while attending a function outside Harare and had to be flown to South Africa for treatment, where it was determined that he’d suffered some kind of food poisoning. He maintained that he’d been poisoned by ice cream produced at one of Grace’s many dairy farms, a charge that both she and her husband vehemently denied. But the feud escalated, culminating on Nov. 13, 2017, when Mugabe fired Mnangagwa from his party and government positions, and the latter fled the country, claiming that he and his family were in danger.
Mugabe’s move was seen by many as part of a new plan for succession: his wife would replace Mnangagwa as one of the country’s two vice presidents at the December 2017 party conference, which would then position her to replace him as party and country leader.
But on Nov. 13, shortly after Mnangagwa’s firing, Gen. Chiwenga made a public announcement, warning that the military would not stand by while senior party figures and liberation fighters were pushed aside.
There has long been a rift in ZANU-PF between the older generation who fought during the liberation war, and those party members who were too young to fight. Many of the latter, now in their 40s and 50s, had formed a group around Grace Mugabe that came to be known as the G-40. Among them were Minister of Local Government, Rural Development and National Housing Saviour Kasukuwere and Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo. It is this group that was thought to be behind the expulsion of Mnangagwa and a few other older party members. The G-40 reacted immediately to Chiwenga’s threat, accusing him of treasonous conduct.
Two days later, the military made its move. The headquarters of the Zimbabwe Broadcast Corporation, the state-controlled television system, were occupied; and tanks and troops were stationed at key points in Harare. Mugabe and his wife were placed under effective house arrest, and troops were sent out to round up other members of G-40, such as Kasukuwere and Moyo.
Though some of the military’s motivation may be attributed to the desire of senior officers and party officials to protect their access to the public trough, to fund the lavish lifestyle that many of them lead, one cannot underestimate the long-standing schism between those who participated in the liberation struggle and those who didn’t. This generational clash has played a key role in Zimbabwe’s politics, with the older generation clinging tenaciously to power and the younger chafing at being made to wait its turn. While Mugabe’s firing of Joice Mujuru had raised eyebrows, giving Mnangagwa and a few other senior party members the ax was seen as a deliberate effort to sideline liberation figures. The apparent effort to push Grace forward as a successor added insult to injury as far as senior military and political leaders were concerned.
November’s events show that internal ZANU-PF fissures have as much potential to produce violence as does the presence of opposition political parties. Should these differences manifest themselves within the ranks of the military, there is potential for even greater violence.
If not for the seriousness of the situation, the Nov. 15 “coup d’état” in Zimbabwe might have been treated as some kind of rehearsal for a colossal April Fool’s joke. It certainly had many of the characteristics of the film “The Mouse That Roared,” a satire about a small country that “invaded” the United States in order to be defeated and, thus, eligible for American assistance.
First, the head of the country’s defense forces “announces” the possibility of a coup two days before the actual event. Most of the coups that I am aware of were planned in secret, their targets only becoming aware when the tanks show up at the gate. Very sporting, and quintessentially Zimbabwean, of Chiwenga and his collaborators to give fair warning. Further, in most of the military takeovers I’ve seen up close, the deposed head of state is either sent into exile or flees (Sierra Leone), is arrested (Thailand) or is killed (South Korea and Vietnam). Robert Mugabe and his wife are placed under the “protection” of the military.
But a coup by any other name is still a coup. To paraphrase Tendai Biti, the opposition politician and a former finance minister: “If it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Call it “under protection” if you will, but it sounds like “house arrest” to me. The same thing goes for the military’s statement that their action was not a coup d’état. Tanks in the street when there’s no parade mean basically one thing.
From that point, however, the military’s actions didn’t seem to come from the standard coup playbook. Coup leader Chiwenga met with Robert Mugabe in what looked like a cordial meeting based on news photos of the event. Along with Mugabe’s Catholic priest, Father Fidelis Mukonori, the coup leaders negotiated with the 93-year-old potentate, who had ruled the country continuously for 37 years, to get him to resign. Mugabe was allowed to communicate by phone with South African President Jacob Zuma; he was given access to the media; and he was even allowed to call a Cabinet meeting.
The military had given Mugabe a deadline for his resignation, stating that if he did not do so, the case would go to parliament for impeachment proceedings. ZANU-PF filed a motion for impeachment, which was supported by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai.
Mugabe dug in his heels, refusing to resign and insisting he was the legitimate president and should be allowed to serve until the July 2018 elections. But when he called for a Nov. 20 Cabinet meeting, and 17 of his Cabinet members chose instead to attend Parliament, where his impeachment was on the agenda, he finally relented, and his letter of resignation was delivered to the speaker of the Parliament.
For nearly four decades, Mugabe had manipulated those around him, playing on the liberation hero ethos and, by not naming a successor, making it difficult for anyone to work against him. During my tenure as ambassador (2009-2012), the two main contenders were Mujuru and Mnangagwa, and whenever one seemed to be edging above the other in popularity, Mugabe would do something to restore equilibrium.
That equilibrium was destroyed when he fired Mujuru and elevated Mnangagwa in 2014, at about the same time Grace was beginning to make her own political moves. What role Mugabe played in her actions is a matter of speculation, but I believe it’s safe to say that both Mugabe and his wife overestimated his popularity with the senior members of his party and the military.
Mugabe’s move was seen by many as part of a new plan for succession: his wife would replace Mnangagwa as one of the country’s two vice presidents.
The initial refusal to resign and the insistence that he be allowed to serve out his term were classic Mugabe. Only he can say whether he seriously thought he had a chance of succeeding, or if he was just bluffing to see how far he could push things. But his Nov. 20 cabinet meeting that saw 17 of his cabinet ministers ignoring his summons has to have told him that he’d lost the hand, and that it was time to fold.
On Nov. 24 Emmerson D. Mnangagwa, known throughout the country as “the Crocodile,” was installed as the leader of ZANU-PF and interim president of Zimbabwe. A teenager during the liberation struggle, he served in intelligence, and after independence was justice minister and, later, defense minister. He has worked closely with Mugabe for decades and, while he lacks Mugabe’s charisma and popularity, is considered a ruthless and calculating person. No one disputes his intelligence and capability.
Like his mentor, he knows how to say what key listeners want to hear. During his inauguration address, for example, Mnangagwa adroitly targeted a variety of audiences. To the private sector and foreign investors, particularly the Chinese, currently Zimbabwe’s main trading partner, he promised a country that was efficient and safe for investors. To the political opposition, he spoke of drawing from all talent and from all groups to achieve his objectives. Next year’s elections would be held, he said, vowing that they would be “free and fair.”
He committed to keeping Zimbabwe’s citizens “secure,” without explaining what that meant. And not alienating his support in the party and military, many members of both having enriched themselves through rent-seeking activity, he spoke against corruption without calling out or identifying individuals.
His first public address as head of state had none of Mugabe’s fire and belligerence. And while some in the opposition were disappointed that he didn’t delve into more detail on certain issues, he didn’t seem to upset anyone too severely. His announcement of Cabinet positions after his inauguration is also not surprising. While he did bring a couple of outsiders into government, his cabinet prominently features senior military men, senior supporters and even a few holdovers from Mugabe’s Cabinet.
Interestingly, no opposition politicians are included, which signals that his priority is probably to consolidate control over ZANU-PF and ensure its continuing control of the reins of power.
The coming months will be interesting for Southern Africa watchers on both sides of the Atlantic. Even though Mnangagwa promised that the July 2018 elections will take place as scheduled, the devil is, as always, in the details. Zimbabweans and a lot of the world will be watching what happens between now and July. Will the elections—assuming they are actually held—really be free and fair, and without the violence, intimidation and cheating that have characterized past elections? Taking the helm of a party seriously weakened by infighting between generations, will Mnangagwa be able to maintain his support with senior military and party members? If not, will they abide by his promises to allow an election that could see them losing?
Will the United States, the European Union and the rest of the international community be willing to work with the interim government—beyond the official statements reminding Zimbabweans that they now have an opportunity to develop a government that responds to the will of the people and that there should be respect for the constitution and human rights? A useful component of most international statements is that it should be left to the courts to decide the legality of the military’s actions in November. But beyond that the international community has to decide if it is willing to work with all parties to ensure a free and fair election.
U.S. policy toward the members of ZANU-PF has been less than cordial for the past decade, while the European Union has shown more flexibility over the past five or six years, even relaxing some sanctions. As Zimbabwe gears up for possible elections in July, it remains to be seen whether or not the United States will change its somewhat inflexible position.
What role will China play in Zimbabwe’s political situation? While the Chinese government has stated that beyond “monitoring” it has no involvement in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs, Gen. Chiwenga’s visit to Beijing shortly before the military’s move is highly suspicious. Few are convinced that the Chinese did not have forewarning of the coup, and that they probably tacitly agreed with it. Given their desire to see stability in the country—and the prospect of instability Mugabe’s machinations on behalf of his extremely unpopular wife generated—it’s hard to imagine the Chinese objecting to the military “making it possible” for a steadier hand to take over at the helm.
Events in Zimbabwe since November have sent shock waves throughout Africa, and other “leaders for life” have to be looking anxiously over their shoulders. What happens in Zimbabwe between now and July will also have a significant impact on views regarding democracy in Africa. If the stars align, and everyone involved acts in good faith, Zimbabwe could see its first-ever transition to a truly representative government, which could embolden others on the continent. If Mnangagwa can keep his ZANU-PF hardliners in check, and actually include representatives of opposition parties in the governing process and, at the same time, ensure a fair and peaceful process leading up to elections, I would say the future is, if not bright, at least not dim.
Mind you, however, I have learned my lesson. This time, I make no predictions.