Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (Photo by Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Anadolu Agency Getty Images
By David Meyer
November 15, 2017

It appears that the world’s oldest head of state, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe, may finally have reached the end of the road. The Zimbabwean military rolled its tanks into the capital Harare on Tuesday, and reports suggest Mugabe will step down on Wednesday.

Is this a coup or—as the military has suggested—merely a matter of “targeting criminals around” Mugabe? There may be an element of truth to both characterizations.

Here’s what you need to know about the situation in Zimbabwe, and how the country got there:

Who is Robert Mugabe?

Robert Mugabe is a massively divisive figure—a despot and an educator, reviled by many for his policies, but also revered as one of Africa’s greatest revolutionary statesmen.

He has been in power since 1980, first as prime minister, then as president. Nominally a socialist but in reality far more of a conservative, he was one of the heroes of the guerrilla war against the racist, white-minority regime of Ian Smith in the late 1970s. Once in power, it was Mugabe who renamed what was then Rhodesia (in honor of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes) as Zimbabwe (a reference to the country’s famous, ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe).

In his early years of power, Mugabe, who comes from the Shona people, waged a military campaign against Matabele dissenters in the west of the country. Tens of thousands of people were killed there in a campaign called the Gukurahundi, or “wind that sweeps away the chaff before the rains.”

A more positive aspect of Mugabe’s tenure has been his efforts to develop the country; it has an Africa-leading literacy rate of 90%.

Things really took a turn for the worse in 2000, when Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government started forcibly seizing white-owned farms. While the need for redistribution had been a long-running issue, the farms largely went to Mugabe’s allies—his second wife, Grace, reportedly had six. Zimbabwe was long-known as southern Africa’s “breadbasket” but, with a drought also taking place at the time, the nation’s vital agricultural sector collapsed, leading to repeated famines and spectacular inflation. In the years since, millions have fled the country, with many crossing the border to South Africa.

What’s the military’s aim?

With ZANU-PF due to choose new leadership next month and a general elections scheduled for next year, this year has seen furious maneuvering in the party elite. The key players here are: Grace Mugabe, who wants to succeed her husband; Emmerson Mnangagwa, until last week the vice-president; and General Constantino Chiwenga, the head of the army.

Mnangagwa is himself a veteran of the war of liberation, and has been a member of the party for 54 years. He is close to the military, which is also led by veterans. Mnangagwe’s nickname is “Crocodile” and the faction backing him to succeed Mugabe is known as “Team Lacoste,” in reference to the clothing brand with the crocodile logo. Grace Mugabe, meanwhile, is allied with a younger faction within ZANU-PF—she is 52 years old—called Generation 40 or G40.

Grace Mugabe does not enjoy popular support, particularly after she allegedly beat up a model in South Africa, and after her sons took to flaunting their lavish lifestyles on social media as many ordinary Zimbabweans endure poverty. However, she is the president’s wife and, after Mnangagwa criticized her and the president last week, he was fired and had to flee to South Africa.

Mnangagwa’s firing was a seminal event, as it pointed—rather explicitly—to the Mugabes’ effort to eliminate from the top levels of the ZANU-PF anyone who stood in the way of Grace Mugabe’s path to the presidency.

The termination of Mnangagwa prompted General Chiwenga to demand that the Mugabes end their party “purge,” setting off a clash between the army Chiwenga heads and the ZANU-PF party still under the Mugabes’ thumb.

On Tuesday, the party accused Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct.” By the evening, the army’s tanks—under Chiwenga’s control—were rolling into Harare, and Mnangagwa was reportedly returning to the country.

What’s the latest?

After reported gunfire and explosions, the army took over the state broadcaster, ZBC. On Wednesday morning, a military spokesman appeared in fatigues to ensure the nation that the Mugabe family was “safe and sound and their security is guaranteed.”

“We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” said the spokesman, major general S.B. Moyo. “As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”

Moyo told the civil service that the army was moving to protect them against the purge, and told the judiciary that the aim was to “ensure that as an independent arm of the state you are able to exercise your independent authority without fear of being obstructed as has been the case with this group of individuals.”

Local journalists suggested that Mugabe is negotiating safe passage out the country for his wife, and is preparing to step down. The president will reportedly address the nation at 1pm local time.

Chris Mutsvangwa, a veteran and senior ZANU-PF politician who was suspended from the party last year for disloyalty, described the situation as “a correction of a state that was careening off the cliff.”

“It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife,” he said.

How are the country and the region reacting?

Evan Mawarire, a pastor who has been a prominent activist against Mugabe’s regime, said citizens should “remain calm and hopeful, alert but prayerful, to support and encourage each other and to stay away from violence and lawlessness, from rumors and lies.”

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the country’s main opposition, called for a peaceful return to constitutional democracy.

The most important outside player here is South Africa, Zimbabwe’s southern neighbor and the region’s preeminent power. President Jacob Zuma issued a brief statement on Wednesday calling for calm and expressing “hope that developments in Zimbabwe would not lead to unconstitutional changes of government.”

Zuma said later that he was sending his defense and state security ministers to Harare to meet with Mugabe and the Zimbabwean army.

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the South African opposition Democratic Alliance party—and an ally of the fractious MDC—called for Mugabe to resign immediately, and for “fresh elections to be held in Zimbabwe as soon as practically possible.” Maimane criticized the South African government for its longstanding policy of “quiet diplomacy” with its neighbor, pointing a finger at Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, for allowing Mugabe to remain in office after he lost a 2008 election.

The U.S. embassy in Harare told its employees to stay home on Wednesday, and advised Americans in the country to “shelter in place until further notice.” The EU Delegation to Zimbabwe also said it would be closed for the day.

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