By Andrei Popoviciu, a 3rd year International Relations student in the War Studies department at KCL. Because of his strong interest in journalism, he is editor in chief of IR Today and runs a weekly podcast called IR Unedited on KCL Radio.
ROBERT MUGABE BY JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
On November 14th, 2017 Zimbabwean military troops drove tanks into the capital city, Harare. They patrolled the streets, blocked access to government buildings and took over the state television station to insist that “this is not a military takeover.” But it clearly was. Troops invaded the presidential palace and put the president, Robert Mugabe, in custody. The military assured everyone that the president is safe and secure together with his family. The African Union (AU) chief said the political crisis in Zimbabwe “seems like a coup”, while calling on the military to restore constitutional order. Today, on the 21st of November, Mugabe resigned after being ousted from the party but not without a fight. However, in all this political turmoil and fight over influence, the people of Zimbabwe have been forgotten.
After a military coup, it is common to assume that the next step is a transfer of power. However, it is very clear that this was no revolution. It is rather a fight between the country’s elites. Zimbabwe is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and what we’re seeing is a fight to keep it that way. Once praised as a war hero and a Marxist guerrilla, Robert Mugabe helped Zimbabwe gain independence from Britain in 1980. He became president under Zimbabwe’s new constitution with the wide support of the people. But soon he digressed into a repressive dictator, securing his power through aggression and threats. Reports by the New York Times, the Economist and the Guardian show Mugabe sponsoring torture and killing his political opposition.
Within a generation, Mr. Mugabe has turned an entire country upside down. Now that Mugabe is 93 years old (the oldest head of state in the world) and in poor health, the fight for political influence is more intense than ever. The scramble for political influence and for office reached its peak. Consequently, this has caused a split in Mugabe’s own party, Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
On one side, we have the old guard led by Mugabe’s former VP – Emmerson Mnangagwa. Like Mugabe, he fought for Zimbabwe’s independence and has a past that include human rights abuses against political opponents and ethnic minorities. As an old friend to Mugabe and VP since 2014, Mnangagwa was the apparent heir for many years due to the strong support from ZANU-PF and the military. But all that changed on November 6th when Mugabe’s government said that Mnangagwa had exhibited traits of disloyalty and fired him.
The reason for firing his VP stems from Mugabe’s wish to assign someone else as head of state. Grace Mugabe was the obvious choice for him. Hence, his support for his wife taking his place after he dies was not hidden. She has recently risen in power within the party, but remains extremely unpopular nation-wide due to her luxurious ways of life and extravagant shopping habits, earning her the nickname “Gucci Grace”. Nonetheless, her involvement and wish to take over the vice presidency (and later the presidency) together with Mnangagwa being fired, might have been the trigger of the coup that ended Mugabe’s 37 year reign.
The military has sided with Mnangagwa as the next leader, and on November 15th they took control of the capital under the curtain of a “guardian coup” in the alleged interest of the people and the country. Zimbabwe’s military says it has seized power to target “criminals” around President Robert Mugabe, who it is said is “safe and sound” in custody. However, their interests seem to be more self-motivated: they want to secure their own power. They have control over lucrative farming, mining operations and access to foreign currency. To keep this power, they need a united ZANU PF who faces elections scheduled in 2018. Thus, on the 19th of November, they ousted Mugabe as the party leader and gave Mnangagwa the position. As the new party leader, he now had the full support of the party together with the support of the military. On the same day, under the pressure of an impeachment ultimatum, Mugabe delivered a lengthy and long-awaited speech, with the expectation that he would announce his resignation. Living up to his persistent reputation, he failed to do so while shocking everyone of how determined he is to hold the grip of Zimbabwe.
All changed on the 21st of November after lawmakers began impeaching proceedings against him. Mugabe, a man who once said that “only God will remove me” – resigned as the president of Zimbabwe on the same day. Statesmen and lawmakers have erupted into cheers together with the people in the streets. The political rival of ZANU PF, Movement for Democratic Change, seconded the motion for impeachment and showed how there was a striking sign of the consensus in the political class that Mr. Mugabe had to go.
However, something is missing from all of this. The people of Zimbabwe. Whoever ends up in charge, Mnangagwa, the military, or Grace Mugabe, corruption will continue. All these actors want to keep the status quo, but for the general population, the status quo is a society of unequal opportunity and poverty. These power imbalances and the elitism of the country have kept back the economic and social development of Zimbabwe. Seizing power and control over the political apparatus seems to have been the key thing Mugabe and the political class have focused on since gaining independence.
During Mugabe’s 37 years of leadership, massive corruption was common place. There have been repeated allegation of Mugabe and his cabinet embezzling money from diamond and mining industries. He is known for his aggressive hand in supressing opposition and the violent crackdowns he led together with the country’s Fifth Brigade when he was believed to have killed up to 20,000 people, mostly opposition supporters. He was accused of rigging elections and squashing any whim of political opposition while even winning the state-owned lottery in 2000.
Moreover, Zimbabwe’s flourishing economy began to disintegrate after a program of land seizures from white farmers, and agricultural output plummeted and inflation soared. Transparency International estimated that Zimbabwe loses a billion dollars a year to corruption. All this while Zimbabwe’s economy has suffered. Almost a quarter of Zimbabweans are currently in need of food assistance and 72% live in poverty. At one point in 2008 inflation hit the rate of 231,000,000% and GDP growth has been stagnant according to the World Bank in 2017. This has made Zimbabwe one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, a problem it shares with much of the region. Hence, why low levels of economic growth and high levels of poverty are common conditions in African states that have experienced military coups.
South African state media reported that “it has reliably learnt that Zimbabwe is likely to have a transitional government”. Also, international and regional response show leaders trying to stabilise the crisis through diplomatic assistance. South African Defense and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and State Security Minister Bongani Bongo arrived in Zimbabwe for discussions with authorities, according to the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation. UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutters has appealed for “calm, nonviolence and restraint,” deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said in a statement to CNN.
What is uncertain in the near future is Zimbabwe’s political leadership. What is not is that Zimbabwe’s elites are fighting over their own interests while the people are forgotten.