Commentary: Lessons from Zimbabwe’s coup

The speed of events in Zimbabwe this week has taken even experienced Africa watchers by surprise. An effective army takeover; President Robert Mugabe placed under house arrest and his wife – and would-be  successor – reportedly fleeing the country.

Soldiers stand beside military vehicles outside Harare, Zimbabwe, November 14,2017. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

It’s still unclear who will end up running Zimbabwe. But whoever prevails will need the backing of both the military as well as China, Zimbabwe’s primary foreign investor.

By Thursday, reports indicated the 93-year-old Mugabe was still trying to persuade top generals that he should be allowed to serve out his presidential term until elections next year. The generals were believed to favor handing power to Mugabe’s former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Here are some key lessons from what we now know:

1. China is emerging as a key powerbroker on the continent.

Nobody in Beijing or Harare is saying whether China was told in advance about plans for the takeover. Shortly before Zimbabwean tanks took to the streets, however, the Chinese Defense Ministry made a point of reporting that Zimbabwe’s top military commander had met with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing the previous week.

The news was widely reported, particularly in southern Africa, alongside the breaking coup developments. Many regional observers suspect China, which backed guerrilla fighters from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union movement during its war against then-Rhodesia’s white minority regime, was in the loop on events in Harare, and broadly supportive.

With Beijing strikingly increasing its holdings in sub-Saharan Africa in the last decade, expect this kind of signaling to be a key part of events on the continent from now on.

2. No autocrat lasts forever.

Described by a U.S. ambassador as a “brilliant tactician,” Mugabe was regarded as one of the great survivors of international politics. Charming and utterly ruthless, he was willing to use ethnic division, death squads, media manipulation and a host of other unsavory tools to crush all opponents. In 2008, his main rival withdrew from a runoff vote after government forces beat, killed or intimidated thousands of opposition voters.

Ironically, he’s now been undone by the same advancing years that once protected him from internal challengers who previously seemed content to wait for time to take its toll. Since he entered his 90s, this dynamic changed as it became clearer that Grace Mugabe, an ambitious woman more than 30 years her husband’s junior, was angling for her own shot at the presidency. The scheming and backstabbing culminated last week in the firing of Vice President Mnangagwa – a onetime favorite as Mugabe’s successor – in what was seen as a move to strengthen Grace Mugabe.

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3. “Keeping it in the family” isn’t always possible.

Trying to transfer power to a close family member is hardly an unusual strategy for an ailing potentate. In countries that are not constitutional monarchies, however, it can be a divisive or impossible process.

Dubbed “Gucci Grace” within Zimbabwe for her reported shopping habits, Mugabe’s wife was never popular. Perhaps more importantly, her growing influence alienated and upset established figures in the ruling Zanu-PF party and government structure. They were clearly beginning to move against her before last week’s ouster of Mnangagwa.

Nor are the Mugabes the only dominant family in Africa to have had a bad week. Earlier this year, Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos handed power to his deputy after 37 years in office as part of the deal that also put his daughter Isabel in charge of state oil firm Sonangol. It lasted less than three months – she was fired on Wednesday in a move analysts said was a clear attempt by new incumbent João Lourenço to trim family power.

4. Entrenched power structures are just that. Entrenched.

When he was ousted from office last week, it briefly looked like the end of the road for Mnangagwa. Now, the man sometimes nicknamed the “Crocodile” looks likely to be handed power by the actions of the Army.

This is not a uniquely Zimbabwean situation. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is in many respects a similar character, a senior Army official who projected himself as a safe pair of hands through the chaos that followed the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and his sons.

These individuals are not just bright, ambitious characters who have waited in the wings for decades. They also have access to an entire generation of similar figures with similar frustrations. That can make for a powerful network when it comes to this kind of situation and a need for sudden, decisive action.

5. Imagery and narrative are crucial.

The speed and success of the military takeover in Zimbabwe contrasts dramatically with the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey. Then, a relatively small group of military officers attempted to move against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Taking on a leader who was at the peak of his powers rather than an ailing nonagenarian, they faced a tougher task than their Zimbabwean counterparts. But the Turkish plotters also failed to seize key government buildings and allowed Erdogan to address the nation and coordinate with still-loyal military units.


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In Zimbabwe, the military appears to have been united. Little force was used – and in at least one case, a poorly-maintained tank was unable to make it to the capital. None of that particularly mattered. The speed with which Mugabe was contained, the television appearance of a military spokesman and the visible presence of armored vehicles on streets was enough to show that the political reality had changed.

Whoever takes over in Zimbabwe now will need the backing of the military, but that doesn’t mean those behind the seizure of power can expect a free rein. By Thursday, China’s closely watched state-run “Global Times” was warning that prolonged instability in Zimbabwe might deter further Chinese investment. For Africa, the end of the Mugabe era may mark the start of a new chapter in China’s involvement on the continent.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.