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Zimbabwe’s recent political turmoil: The end of Mugabe?

Recent events in Zimbabwe have been extraordinary. Indeed, they have also been changing in a dramatic fashion. Like many other Zimbabweans in the diaspora, I have been glued to my computer since the military took control of the country on the 15th of November 2017, in order not to miss any of the unfolding events.

On the 6th of November 2017, President Robert Mugabe fired his vice president and longtime ally, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the head of the ‘Lacoste’ (crocodile) faction within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), in what a UK-based academic, Alex Magaisa described as the ‘end of a special relationship’ between the two. Some argue that this was the precursor to an attempt to elevate his young wife Grace to the position of vice president, and thus help her run for the presidency in the next general elections. In this view the firing of Mnangagwa was orchestrated by Grace, who leads the ‘Generation 40’ faction (G40) within the ruling party. Inter-factional tensions involve a generational fault line: the G40 consists mainly of young ZANU-PF cadres with no liberation struggle credentials, while the Lacoste faction is mainly composed of older liberation veterans.

On the 15th of November, Mnangagwa’s sacking prompted the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) to ‘seize power’ from the 93-year-old veteran, who has been the country’s president since independence from Britain in 1980, and place him under house arrest. Despite some viewing this as a coup d’etat, the ZDF claimed that their operation targeted only ‘criminals around the president’, and that the intervention was further triggered by the economic crisis that has plagued the nation for so long. For many, the motivation put forward by the military makes a great deal of sense.

But wrestling power from a democratically elected president is contrary to Zimbabwe’s constitution and will be met with disapproval by the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Committee (SADC). The military is well aware of the fact that a coup is illegal and hence not acceptable to the international community. SADC convened an urgent meeting in Botswana on the 16th of November in which it urged the actors involved to respect the constitution, making it clear that it does not support an unconstitutional change.

Whether this is a coup or not seems unimportant to many Zimbabweans, who simply want to see the back of the elderly president through whatever means are necessary. Indeed, the message in the streets has been clear: ‘Mugabe must go!’, voiced by ZANU-PF supporters as much as those of opposition parties.

On the 16th of November, the South African president, Jacob Zuma, sent an envoy to meet Mugabe and the military. During this meeting, Mugabe indicated his reluctance to step down, arguing that he is the ‘right and legitimate’ leader of Zimbabwe. Patrick Zhuwao, his nephew and a cabinet minister, said that Mugabe is ‘ready to die for what is correct’. But the ZANU-PF central committee reported that ten ZANU-PF provincial structures were ready to give Mugabe a vote of no confidence.

These events have prompted mixed reactions from Zimbabweans. Regardless of race, ethnicity or political leanings, people express anxiety, euphoria and hope that change is coming. For some, this marks the ‘end of the Mugabe era’, as the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), Morgan Tsvangirai puts it. Many believe that this is the final demise of the veteran leader. Some are beginning to imagine a Zimbabwe without Mugabe. Others are hopeful that a long-awaited change is now about to begin, although ZANU-PF will still be in control.

After the ‘anti-Mugabe’ protests of the 18th of November, a friend of mine in Matobo wrote: ‘I have never seen such unity amongst Zimbabweans…Thousands of people in the streets saying ‘Mugabe must go’’. My father-in-law said he never thought that there would be someone daring to say ‘pasi naMugabe!’ (down with Mugabe!) in his lifetime. In a country with a long history of repression, these events are unprecedented. Many Zimbabweans feel ‘liberated’ from an oppressive regime. Some of those who attended the protests in Harare and Bulawayo held placards thanking the ZDF and General Constantine Chiwenga for ousting Mugabe, and some have even dubbed this a ‘second liberation day’.

A man who seemed for years to be simply irremovable and irreplaceable now finds himself in a very tricky situation. Pressure is mounting for the veteran leader to resign, from within ZANU-PF, the war veterans’ association, opposition parties and leaders of SADC countries. Tellingly, even the war veterans, who have been loyal to Mugabe since he offered his support for the seizure of white commercial farms in the early 2000s (later dubbed the ‘Fast Track Land Reform Programme’), are now calling on Mugabe to go. Similarly, on the 17th of November, the president of neighbouring Botswana, Ian Khama, urged Mugabe to resign, arguing that he no longer ‘enjoys the diplomatic support’ of countries in the region. Of course, Khama’s remarks come as no surprise to anyone following Southern African politics: Khama has been outspoken in his criticism of Mugabe for a long time now.

Even his party’s Central Committee recalled him as the leader of the party on the 19th of November. Apart from Mugabe, his wife Grace has also been expelled from the party for inciting hate speech, while most of his remaining allies – for the most part members of the G40 faction – have also been expelled from the party. In an official statement, the ZANU-PF Central Committee gave President Mugabe until Monday 20th November to resign, threatening to impeach him if he refuses to step down. Since he has failed to render his resignation on this date, the impeachment process is set to start on the 21st of November. While the impeachment process is legal and constitutional, Alex Magaisa has warned that ‘the legal process is by no means a simple and quick affair’. Given his infamous stubbornness, it is unlikely that he will throw in the towel without a fight.

What’s next for Zimbabwe?

As events unfold, there are more questions than answers. Is it likely that Mugabe will relinquish power, having clung on it for the last 37 years? Will the President concede to the deal tabled by the generals and their backers without a fight? Is Mnangagwa a suitable candidate to take Zimbabwe forward? What are the implications of these events for democratic processes in Zimbabwe? Let me attempt to reflect on some of these.

Speculation about the formation of a ‘transitional government’ comprising axed former vice president Mnangagwa (as president), Joyce Mujuru (also, former vice president), ZAPU leader Dumiso Dabengwa and MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai, has been rife since the military took control. This arrangement, some argue, will be acceptable to the international community. However, at the time of writing, it is still unclear whether a coalition government can form. Patrick Chinamasa, a ZANU-PF chief whip, is claiming that the solution concerns only the ZANU-PF, raising questions about the viability of an ‘inclusive government’ in the post-Mugabe era.

In the next few days we will see how Mugabe and Mnangagwa play their cards in their attempts to garner support from the SADC and the AU. While this undoubtedly started as a succession battle within ZANU-PF, labeling the military’s intervention as a ‘coup’ merely to ‘bolster’ Mnangagwa’s aspirations would be an oversimplification. Such a position underplays the voice of ordinary Zimbabweans in the current developments. Judging by the size of protests in Harare and Bulawayo, it is clear that Mugabe is now highly unpopular as a leader of both party and country. Zimbabweans will welcome any efforts to get rid of the old man – even if it means siding with their enemies. The opposition (MDC-T) has tried to do so through electoral processes for many years, but failed. Social media activists, led by the prominent Pastor Evan Mawarire - founder of the #ThisFlag movement – have also failed. Over the years, the same ‘securocrats’ have been instrumental in crushing opposition and sustaining Mugabe’s rule.

During my high school days in the early 2000s, when MDC was newly formed and the abduction and disappearance of opposition activists was commonplace, a friend used to jokingly say; ‘in Zimbabwe we have freedom of speech, but we don’t have freedom after the speech’. In a country where memories of political violence and intimidation are never far away, the anti-Mugabe protests on Saturday presented an opportunity for ordinary Zimbabweans to air their political views freely without fear of being abducted and murdered.

Pinning all hopes on Mnangagwa would be ill-advised. Many political analysts have expressed concerns about his past human rights record. During Mugabe’s 37-year rule, Mnangagwa was instrumental in helping Mugabe to maintain his rule, masterminding electoral rigging and playing a central role in crushing the opposition. But Zimbabweans have been waiting so long to have a new leader that many have adopted a ‘cross that bridge when comes to it’ approach. Removing Mugabe is the first priority!

There are hints at support for Mnangagwa coming from some Western governments, but such support has been harshly criticized. Blessing-Miles Tendi, a UK based academic and analyst, argues that support for Mnangagwa is a case of ‘double standards’ on the part of the UK, a government that has justified its involvement in Zimbabwean politics through calls for strengthening the democratic process and defending human rights - ideals that are in tension with Mnangagwa’s reputation. As James Hamill puts it, ‘expecting such a person to now make a deathbed conversion to the democracy, constitutional government and good governance he has spent an entire career liquidating is dangerous nonsense’.

Thus, it might be too early to celebrate. ‘The road ahead’, as Max Gomera puts it, ‘is still littered with landmines and fog’. The future of Zimbabwe hangs in the balance. We must wait and see how events unfold in the days to come. Chimurenga (uprisings) woyee!



Tapiwa Chatikobo is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His PhD research focusses on the relationship between livestock production and changed tenure system in the post-FTLRP period in southern Matabeleland. He also holds an MSc degree from Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

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