Rose Jaji (PhD), University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe
A non-coup coup; a coup by any other name is still a coup. What is interesting about the recent coup in Zimbabwe, is that while the world found occupation in whether what had happened was a coup or not, Zimbabweans themselves were in utter disbelief that President Robert Mugabe was finally on his way out and sooner than expected. Most of them had become resigned to him leaving the presidency upon his death. Focused on the goal to see President Mugabe out of office, no one seemed to care anymore about how this would happen; the end justified the means. Now that his departure seemed possible and imminent, they wanted him to leave soon, or, in the words of some of the people interviewed by the media during the march, they wanted him to leave “like yesterday”.
While Zimbabweans may have had grievances against the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) and other security institutions in the country for their role in President Mugabe’s violent and brutal rule, this was outweighed by the fact that they did not want the man they reviled so much staying in power until they could engage in the next round of the futile exercise of voting him out. Against this pragmatism, the coup became “cool”, according to one of the placards carried by demonstrators. As non-violent as the coup was, it provided humorous moments as when men and women in the Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU PF), the ruling party in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, came out to disown President Mugabe and his wife. - The same people had treated the couple like a cult for decades, kneeling and groveling to the shock and amusement of ordinary Zimbabweans. When exactly did it occur to them that President Mugabe and his wife were not good for the country? Had they not presented President Mugabe as the ZANU PF candidate in the election in 2018? One can only wonder how Mr and Mrs Mugabe felt watching this level of betrayal from those who had, as recently as days before the coup, praised them to the skies.
Zimbabwe was born out of a bloody and bitter war of liberation which saw the country transform from Rhodesia, which was ruled by a white minority government, to Zimbabwe, at independence in 1980. People who had participated in the war as political leaders or combatants became leaders in post-independence Zimbabwe, and the fact that the country had been liberated through war was never let to rest in history. It became the cornerstone of the new country’s trajectory, leading to critics’ observation that the country was being driven forward by people who had their eyes permanently fixed in the rear-view mirror. War veterans and the ZDF, whose leadership also has a history in the liberation struggle, decided that they had a stake in the country’s trajectory, calling themselves ‘stockholders’. While this role was not as salient at the beginning of the new country’s life, when they did not see any threat to ZANU PF, it became a thorny issue in the country’s politics with the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Army generals issued a statement during the 2002 elections stating that the presidency was a ‘straitjacket’, and that they would not salute a president who did not have liberation war credentials. Since then, Zimbabweans’ aspirations to chart a new path for the country have been thwarted by the army, in collaboration with other security institutions and the war veterans. As the electorate rejected Mugabe at the polls, it is these institutions that made sure that Mugabe remained firmly entrenched in power.
The irony in the situation that unfolded in the last half of November 2017, is that it is this same army that had previously subverted the will of the electorate that placed President Mugabe under house arrest and forced him to resign. Seen in this light, the ZDF statement that what had happened was not a coup makes sense; they, more than anyone else, knew that the president they were forcing out had not been constitutionally elected. Rather, he was their own appointee legitimized through flawed elections. If the army had ruled the country with President Mugabe as their face, the only difference now was that they had just come out in the open for all to see who was really in charge in the country. The ZDF had staged a coup in Zimbabwe. What coup? The ZDF had just destroyed its own creation – a president beholden unto the army, his party, himself and his family, with Zimbabweans being reduced to spectators of the painful political drama. It is not surprising then that the ZDF found itself on the same page with citizens of Zimbabwe regarding Mugabe’s removal. The citizens may have envisaged removing him through the ballot box, but in a country where this had already been frustrated, they did not have the luxury to wait until 2018 when they would be presented with another opportunity to try the same failed means of removing him. Here was an unanticipated opportunity to finally bid Mugabe farewell and Zimbabweans embraced it with both hands.
It was incredible for Zimbabweans to see the same institution that had kept Mugabe firmly ensconced at the state house lead the movement to jettison him from a seat he had clearly shown no intention to vacate. It is in this context that euphoric scenes unfolded in Harare and other major cities when Mugabe’s resignation was announced. However, the congruence of interest between the ZDF and citizens of Zimbabwe seems to go only as far as the objective of removing President Mugabe from office is concerned. It is important to note that Zimbabweans’ desire to see Mugabe out of office is not synonymous with the desire to replace him with Emmerson Mnangagwa. In as much as there are people in ZANU PF who had this objective, the marchers consisted of a disparate mass of people ranging from opposition supporters, to ZANU PF members and war veterans. People from diverse political backgrounds converged on the streets, driven by the fact that they were simply fed up with the ZANU PF modus operandi. In a country where people had come to think that their relationship with Mugabe was a till-death-do-us-part affair, anyone or anything for that matter was better replacement, and many people became optimistic about the possibility of change. Surely Mnangagwa, the new president, would not repeat the same mistakes that he had watched for decades being made by his long-time boss! Was he blind?
It appears that the honeymoon between the ZDF and Zimbabwean citizens is already in the twilight of its existence. Some fundamental issues that were momentarily lost in the jubilation that followed President Mugabe’s forced resignation are coming back as a sobering reality. Realization of what this coup was about has just begun to sink in for citizens. It was never about the people of Zimbabwe and sympathy for them; it was about ensuring that the army would remain the ‘kingmaker’ in a post-Mugabe dispensation. It needs to be remembered that as Zimbabwe’s economy went down the drain, senior army officials remained firmly in Mugabe’s corner. Similarly, when President Mugabe turned against white farmers for supporting the newly formed MDC, and seized their farms presumably for the benefit of poor landless black Zimbabweans, the war veterans were the foot soldiers in this enterprise, and led both the farm invasions and ZANU PF’s violent election campaigns. As such, the issue for the army and war veterans, who consider themselves a reserve army, is that people without a history in the liberation struggle were getting an upper hand in the party, thus threatening those who saw themselves as inextricably connected to the party. While the purging of party members had been going on since 2014, when then Vice President Joyce Mujuru was fired from both the party and government, things came to a head when the man who succeeded her, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was purged. Mugabe’s wife led the campaign to fire from the government, and expel from the party, all those whom she saw as obstacles to her ambition to take over from her husband. She may also have wanted someone sympathetic to her to take over which is why the now fired defense minister’s name was thrown around as a potential successor to Mugabe. It became clear to the military and the war veterans that if the purges continued unchecked, they would lose their grip on the party, and lose the benefits that had accrued to them over the years, because of the system of patronage that had become the backbone of the party.
While the army had remained reticent regarding its disapproval of the establishment of a Mugabe dynasty, war veterans were very vocal in their rejection of such a succession arrangement. Jabulani Sibanda, the war veterans’ leader who was notorious for his violent campaigns to force people to vote for ZANU PF in previous elections, was immediately expelled when he condemned Mrs Mugabe’s usurpation of executive power in what he termed a ‘bedroom coup’. All other dissenting voices, such as his successor Christopher Mutsvangwa and his executive, were also ejected from the party for standing in Mrs Mugabe and her allies’ way. The coup was more about wrestling the party from Mrs Mugabe and her Generation 40 allies, denigrated as johny-come-latelies, because of their lack of liberation war history. While the army statement issued on state television mentioned the social and economic suffering in the country, this appeared to be of interest to them in so far as it had become detrimental to ZANU PF and the top army personnel’s position in the political and economic matrix. It is surprising that citizens’ suffering became an issue when upheavals started in ZANU PF, yet the same army and war veterans had forced people to vote for the party when they were hungry and suffering. War veterans, much as they have toned down the rhetoric, and the army, have not relinquished the idea that they have the right to determine who governs the country. In what way is the change envisaged by Zimbabweans going to occur when the same people who stood in the way of change for so long remain adamant that they have the right to decide on who rules Zimbabwe? It will come as no surprise when (not if) army General Constantino Chiwenga becomes one of the two Vice Presidents.
Citizens’ disaffection with President Mugabe came in handy to legitimize the coup as they flocked to the streets to register their anger. What could the outside world say against the coup, knowing the history of Mugabe coming back into office after disputed elections and seeing tens of thousands of Zimbabweans marching on the streets? Some of these citizens held placards telling the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to stay out of Zimbabwe’s affairs. Mugabe had been showing signs of both physical and mental incapacitation for quite some time. Having stated that he would be his party’s candidate in the 2018 elections, the future of the party and, by extension, the country, became even more uncertain, especially with his wife assuming executive powers. As Mnangagwa would later admit, when his former boss called him back to the country so that they could talk, his reply was that the people of Zimbabwe had spoken. He also reminded Mugabe that he himself had said that when the people said he should go, he would go. How convenient! And this was coming from a man who had openly admitted that he stayed in touch, getting updates from the ZDF, on how the coup was unfolding in Zimbabwe. It is not clear whether this was a faux pas on his part, or just him clearly showing that he did not care what anyone thought about him instigating a coup to defeat the G40 faction and assume power. Much as the people had said that they wanted Mugabe gone, they had not said they wanted Mnangagwa to lead the country. There is a difference between the two. As the coup dragged on, Patrick Zhuwao, Mugabe’s nephew, observed from exile that the people marching on the streets were being used in the single-minded desire to see Mugabe out of office, very few people paid attention to what exactly he meant. Some dismissed his views as a case of sour grapes. Former First Lady Grace Mugabe predicted the coup, but no one paid serious attention to her, at least outside ZANU PF, because of her meddlesome, bullying and quarrelsome nature which had resulted in people dismissing her as a mental case. She knew what was brewing between Team Lacoste, the faction behind Mnangagwa, and the ZDF, but her method of communication coupled with people’s anger with her husband and herself made sure that very few people outside her G40 faction cared about what she was saying. Her message got lost in her selfish and incoherent rants, and the coup was a matter of her words coming to pass.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who has taken over from Robert Mugabe, has been the latter’s right-hand man for decades going back to the liberation struggle. If people decide to vote against him in next year’s election, which he has said will go ahead as scheduled, is he prepared to relinquish power? Can the war veterans and the army chiefs allow someone without liberation war history to rule the country if the electorate chooses such a person? What will the war veterans do, having placed themselves, like the army, in a strange position of letting people vote and then appointing themselves the only people to decide who leads the country? What kind of democracy can take place in such a political system? Can the new marriage between the army and war veterans on the one hand, and citizens of Zimbabwe on the other hand, last? At the moment, it appears to be more of a marriage of convenience in which the two have been brought onto the same side by their shared desire to see President Mugabe gone, albeit for different reasons.
The harbinger of things to come has been President Mnangagwa paying tribute in his inauguration speech to the same man he had just toppled from power and replaced, and his declaration that Mugabe’s birthday would become a national public holiday. People who had just flooded the streets of Harare to express their desire to see Mugabe leave office were now being told to commemorate his birthday! Hope for change would be short-lived, as President Mnangagwa went on to appoint to his cabinet most of the same people who had been ministers under his predecessor, with a sprinkling of military men, to the dismay and disappointment of Zimbabweans who had expected a break from the last thirty-seven years that had brought untold misery upon them. Zimbabwe Vigil Coalition, a group of Zimbabweans in the United Kingdom who have staged weekly protests at the Zimbabwean embassy in the UK since 2002, described President Mnangagwa’s cabinet as ‘contaminated by genocidaires from the armed forces and discredited former Mugabe freeloaders’. Having announced that the country had entered a new era of inclusivity and unity, why is it that there is no diversity in Mnangagwa’s cabinet? The people who came to march on the streets of Harare came from various racial, religious and age groups, yet the same people who were there under President Mugabe have been retained in government. Is it that black and old people are the only ones who can move Zimbabwe ahead? Is the country short of well-trained people who understand how to run an economy and a country in the twenty-first century? And how do people trust the same leaders who were in a government that denied them basic economic, political, social and human rights? Why is the Ministry of Youth for Zimbabwe not under someone aged thirty-five years or younger, when France was able to recently elect a thirty-nine-year-old as president?
So far, there has been no desire to make a clean break from the country’s gerontocratic politics and leadership style under President Mugabe. Is the new-old driver driving the country with his eyes fixed in the rear-view mirror too? Unity and diversity do not end with speeches; they are not rhetoric but practice. So far, not much has shown that President Mnangagwa intends to take a complete break from the past, leading some Zimbabweans to kick themselves for having gotten so carried away by the removal of President Mugabe to the point of believing that a new Zimbabwe had arrived. If the new president would listen to the voices of ordinary Zimbabweans, he would know that he does not need to unleash violence or rig the next election. All that he needs to do is to turn the words in his inauguration speech into action. Although ZANU PF single-handedly created the misery that living in Zimbabwe is for many of its citizens, it is foolhardy for the party to think that it can single-handedly bring Zimbabwe back on its feet again, and perhaps to its former glory of being the bread basket of Africa. The blurred line between President Mugabe and President Mnangagwa was captured by a placard at the recent Zimbabwe Vigil Coalition march, ‘The tyrant is gone – the tyranny remains’.
If President Mnangagwa has not introduced radical changes because he thinks they will rock his boat, one can only hope that his strategy is to introduce them piecemeal and not maintain the status quo. He has the good will of Zimbabweans, even those who have an antipathy for ZANU PF. For the sake of Zimbabwe, many people are prepared to set aside their grievances and work with him to build a better Zimbabwe. In his speech, when he returned to Zimbabwe after his brief self-imposed exile, he stated, ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God.’ If President Mnangagwa cares to listen, he will find that God has been and is speaking a lot in Zimbabwe, and God knows what’s good for himself. All that President Mnangagwa needs to do is to abandon his predecessor’s arrogance, appreciate the implications of his own words, and pay attention to people who have not been listened to for close to four decades. If he wants bygones to be bygones, citizens should still have the space to decide how they want to proceed on their grievances. It is not only jobs that determine the welfare of citizens; they are the ones living with aggrieved members of society. Reconciliation and forgiveness are not imposed by leaders; they come from giving citizens the space to talk about their pain and receive an apology. The wounds inflicted on many in the country cannot be talked into healing; they need action unambiguously directed to healing them. People need to live in a peaceful environment where they can exercise their rights which are enshrined in the country’s constitution. A good starting point would be to repeal the redundant laws that enabled his predecessor to abuse citizens. When the people speak, it is because they want what is best for themselves and their families. This is not antithetical to patriotism, because what is good for citizens is also good for the country. Above all, President Mnangagwa needs to understand that he has a better chance of freely and fairly winning the next election with the majority of citizens, and not a few cronies, on his side. It is the ordinary citizens whose votes count.
Zimbabwe provides lessons for Africa. Over the years, some Africans expressed the view that Mugabe remained in power for so long because Zimbabweans voted for him or they were extraordinarily patient. This is a bit unusual coming from people who have also experienced the same situation of leaders who refuse to leave office when citizens vote them out. Mugabe stayed for so long for the simple reason that he had the guns on his side and Zimbabwe is a country where the state (which is conflated with ZANU PF) has a monopoly on violence. Mugabe had no choice but to resign when the army turned against him. Many Zimbabweans believe that violence would only have exacerbated the situation drawing from other African countries’ experiences where violent rebellions envisaged as short-term strategies to bring immediate change have turned out to be protracted cases of civil war. It does not take much time to destroy a country, but it takes a long time to rebuild it. It would help other African countries to look for non-violent solutions and avoid unnecessary shedding of blood and destruction of their countries. African leaders who base their power on military support instead of the electorate need to understand that this support can be withdrawn when the army loses confidence in the incumbent. The best way to lead a country is to get a mandate from citizens through free and fair elections. What would the huge numbers of people who came out on the streets of Harare to demand that Mugabe resign have meant for him had they come out to protest the coup? Leaders who come into office through unconstitutional means need to understand that there is a high probability of leaving it through the same means. Mnangagwa needs to remember this too. Oppressing citizens may go on for decades, but history shows that there always comes a time when this comes to an often abrupt and disgraceful end. Mugabe may be learning this lesson now as he spends the remaining time of his life probably asking himself one question: What went wrong? Many African leaders still see themselves as bosses and not servants of the people. Mugabe is a good example of what happens to such leaders. The best lesson for African leaders who cling on to power is contained in Mnangagwa’s message on the voices of the people.
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