Fall of Mugabe and What It Says About Africa

Overthrow of Mugabe  

Robert Mugabe, the only ruler Zimbabwe has known, resigned on November as his party, ZANU-PF, moved to impeach him. The 93-year-old Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years and was Africa’s second-longest ruling president at the time of his removal. His vice-president and the man behind the intra-party coup, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was sworn in on 23rd November as his successor.

His fall was precipitated by his decision to sack Mnangagwa on 6th November at the behest of his ambitious wife, Grace. Mnangagwa, a former intelligence chief, fled to South Africa and issued a warning to Mugabe that the party “is not personal property for you and your wife to do as you please.” After urging Mugabe to stop a purge of Mnangagwa’s supporters, the Zimbabwean army staged a de facto coup on November 14 placing both Mugabe and his wife under house arrest while claiming to protect him from “criminals around him.” Despite widespread anti-Mugabe public demonstrations and the cabinet refusing a presidential summons, the former president broke an understanding with the military to resign on television.

Mnangagwa then publicly called on Mugabe to step down. When the ruling party initiated a cumbersome procedure to impeach the president, he sent a resignation letter. Mugabe and his family, as part of the agreement that led him to agree to step down, have been promised immunity from prosecution and harassment. The ex-president reportedly said he did not wish to live in exile but to die in his own country. While urban centres in Zimbabwe broke out in celebration, it was unclear what the rural areas and Mugabe’s Shona tribesmen felt. However, years of hyperinflation – at one point, the local currency became so worthless that the rupee and a dozen other currencies were declared legal tender in Zimbabwe – and political repression have long eroded Mugabe’s image as the man who liberated the country from white minority rule.

While Mugabe’s fall has been welcomed by Zimbabwe’s opposition parties, it is less clear this will mean a shift away from ZANU-PF’s quasi-authoritarian rule. Mnangagwa, known in the country as “the Crocodile,” oversaw many of Mugabe’s brutal crackdowns on dissidents and opposition parties. But he is widely seen as a person who would bring stability to an economy badly damaged by Mugabe’s whimsical policy decisions. The newly sworn-in president promised to usher in a new “era of democracy” but that is being taken with a pinch of salt by the opposition. 

Soft coups:  The coup that overthrew Mugabe was notable for its attempts to project itself as anything other than a military takeover. While tanks were positioned in the streets of Harare, the army chief, General Constantino Chiwenga insisted they were there to protect Mugabe. Even when this claim became untenable, the military initially tried to get the ageing president to resign on national television and, when that failed, began a complex but constitutional impeachment process to remove him. Compared to the normally bloody history of coups in Africa – the continent has had over 200 since 1960 – the army’s determination to maintain at least a façade of legality is striking.

However, analysts say this reflects a growing recognition that coups marked by violence and illegitimacy are increasingly difficult. They are often followed by public unrest and rebellions. They also trigger international and bilateral economic sanctions which are often hard to reverse. A coup government can also be suspended from the African Union. The last 15 years has seen a “hardening anti-coup attitude,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at Birmingham University, United Kingdom. “Leaders don’t have much of an incentive to encourage free and fair elections but a coup threatens everybody, so it is much easier to get a consensus on anti-coup norms than democratic norms.”

Mugabe will be the third African leader who has been in power for over 20 years to lose office this year. Angola and Gambia being the other two countries. There are now only seven African countries with rulers in the “20- year club”, with Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea leading the pack with 38 years in office.’

Chinese whispers:  Speculation has arisen about a possible Chinese role in the coup in Zimbabwe because a key coup leader, General Chiwenga, flew to Beijing and meet Generals Li Zuocheng, chief of the joint staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army, and Chang Wanquan, China’s defence minister, just days before the coup.

The Chinese government strongly denied these claims and called such speculation “illogical, inconsistent and filled with evil motives”. Beijing said the allegations were designed to “drive a wedge between China and Africa and to undermine China’s image.” The Chinese foreign ministry declined to provide any details of Chiwenga’s visit.

Ross Anthony, director, Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, was quoted as saying, “I’m sure this [coup] was being brought up [during Chiwenga’s visit] – but that’s not to say China had any part in it.” Even in places where China has large investments “as far as I can tell they’re not in the business of actively promoting coups.”

Shen Xiaolei, an Africa expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argued “Chiwenga’s visit was arranged long ago, so it’s impossible he visited China over this matter.”

However, there is widespread belief China was at least tipped off about the coup. China refers to Zimbabwe as an “all-weather friend” – a term Beijing uses to describe allies like Pakistan – and used the phrase when its generals met Chiwenga.

China has an outsize profile in Zimbabwe, largely thanks to being the country’s largest trading partner, largest foreign investor and because of its domination of two key sectors, diamonds and tobacco. China is also the principal provider of arms to the Zimbabwean military. Journalists have reported that Harare taxi drivers half-joke that white colonial rule has been replaced by Chinese control.

Beijing has long supported Mugabe, but is known to have been angry at his move last year to nationalise Zimbabwe’s diamond industry, which is largely Chinese owned, and is believed to have been alarmed at the prospect of his wife taking power. Chinese media has already been quick to praise Mnangagwa, noting he was educated in “Marxism and military engineering” in China.

A more stable economic policy would attract non-Chinese investment into Zimbabwe, reducing Beijing’s authority. But Beijing has a strong and close relationship with almost the entire ZANU-PF leadership. Anthony said, “The fact that they go to China now is significant...China is now a global power which has to be consulted.”


November 24, 2017

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About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhury

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.