Early reports from Zimbabwe suggest the military has taken control of the country to prevent Grace Mugabe from becoming President Robert Mugabe’s anointed successor. She was scheduled to be nominated as ZANU-PF vice president at a party conference next month, after the expulsion of the previous VP, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The military take-over is preempting these moves. Mr Mugabe and his wife appear to be in military custody. There has been no public statement by him so far.
The coup was sharply criticized by the ZANU-PF Youth League, an ally of Grace Mugabe. Finance minister Ignatius Chombo, another ally, has been detained. The coup was supported by the War Veterans Associations, an ally of Mnangagwa, who has now returned to the country from South Africa, where he had been staying since his expulsion.
These political affiliations highlight the factional nature of the coup: It is not about ending Mugabe’s dictatorship, but about who within the ruling party will get to keep the spoils of the corrupt system. Grace Mugabe, whose luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the people made her deeply unpopular in the impoverished nation, would have been an extremely risky choice for the party. The military leaders feared she would redirect funding to herself and her allies, away from the military, other civil servants and other party factions.
Her opponents are anything but angels. Some have been involved in the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland in 1983-84, when over 20,000 people are estimated to have been killed. The so called War Veterans (many of whom are too young to have participated in the independence war of the 1960s and 70s) were involved in violent takeovers of farms and violence and gross human rights violations against supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the disputed 2008 election.
Even if the military were to force Mugabe to resign or to retire to a purely symbolic position, the real question will be if the military and the factions taking over from him will allow free and democratic elections to take place in the coming year. I think this coup is a milestone, but the struggle is far from over.