by Dr Heike I Schmidt
The possibly longest and softest military coup is now in its third day in Zimbabwe, seeing further negotiations between the 93-year old president Robert Mugabe and the military with an entire entourage of power brokers involved. As much as the president had been seen to be frail, his stamina in place and supported by the South African government, the president of the African Union, and also SADC, the Southern African Development Community, who all demand constitutional instead of regime change with a transitionary government, it appears that a democratic Zimbabwe is not even on the horizon.
On Wednesday 15 November the military coup occurred quickly and efficiently with a minimum of violence by moving armoured vehicles and army presence into the capital city Harare, detaining the President and his wife in their private residence, and arresting key figures such as government ministers, the police commissioner, and the leader of the ruling party’s Youth League who, the previous day, had declared their undying support for the First Lady.
On Wednesday morning Major General Moyo spoke on government television, the station having been seized by the military, explaining that this is not a coup and instead the military action served to target criminals. While detaining the head of state and members of government does most certainly constitute a coup, the military has been more than true to their word that the purpose of their actions is regime change but regime correction. What has happened since Tuesday night are negotiations within the ruling party, ZANU-PF to find a way forward while circumventing the First Lady’s ambitions to succeed her husband. This is the most popular aspect of what has happened because Grace Mugabe, nicknamed Gucci Grace for her extravagant tastes and spending habits, is greatly unpopular throughout the country. In fact on Wednesday morning a deep sigh of relief could be heard throughout the country as the prospect of a Mugabe dynasty appeared to be prevented.
Meanwhile today Mugabe presided over a graduation ceremony in Harare, unaccompanied by his wife. What on the surface may seem to be ‘business as usual’ is the exact opposite. Mugabe’s public appearance was an extraordinary performance considering the circumstances and his age, and sending a clear signal to the nation that he has gained the upper hand in the negotiations by retaining the decorum of elder power while under house arrest, facing the entire Zimbabwe Defence Forces, supported by the Veterans’ Association and the detained Youth League leader.
The media have focused much on Mugabe as the villain, the oldest and longest ruling autocratic leader, having been head of state since independence in 1980. What is easily forgotten are two important aspects. One is that the increasingly statist performance and pageantry of Mugabe as the true leader of the nation, enforced with Youth League violence especially during elections, has coincided with the nation state’s existence. Democratisation is necessary, but a Zimbabwe without Mugabe truly is a new Zimbabwe for the first time since independence and that, together with a rather weak opposition, can be scary even in a population with the average age of twenty.
More importantly, while great man history is popular and often successful, something for which Zimbabwe is a prime example, the human rights violations and atrocities for which Mugabe is responsible were not carried out by him single-handedly. The current negotiations between the military and Mugabe that involve an option of replacing him with his recently dismissed deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa would put another party elder into place who, as Minister of State Security, oversaw Gukurahundi, the political genocide in the south of the country in the early 1980s that killed up to 20,000 people, mostly ethnic Ndebele and supporters of the opposition party ZAPU and since in various government roles state sponsored violent interventions.
As the longest and softest coup carries on, democracy will have to wait for another day.