News of President Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s imminent ouster from office continues to swirl. After nearly four decades at the helm The Commander-in-Chief is set to be removed by his own army, any day now. As the country waits, Bernard Matambo traces the intrigues of factional politics within Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, the mistrust and ambition which have led to the break in the chain of command.
The General’s Speech
General Constantino Chiwenga, the Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, sits in a meeting room at King George VI (KGVI) army barracks. Flanked by the Zimbabwean military’s top brass, he glances twice to his left, adjusts his spectacles and, in a grave voice, salutes his general officers and welcomes the press. The date is 13 November 2017.
Like his late predecessor, General Vitalis Zvinavashe, Chiwenga hardly ever held press conferences. The generals, it seems, reserve their pronouncements for a few public holidays associated with the military – Independence Day, Heroes’ Day, Defence Forces Day – and also, of course, election season. It is not election season; it is November, a month in Zimbabwe carrying with it none of the usual military-affiliated holidays that would entice KGVI to emerge from the barracks and show their clean-shaven heads in the press and on television.
November can be a hot, gruelling month in Zimbabwe. The skies are clear and low, and the sunshine is everywhere. The land, scabbed, awaits the first rains. Harare records temperatures in the high 30s Celsius, still suffering the hangover of the previous month’s heatwave. But if the Harare rumour mill is to be believed, at ZANU–PF headquarters, the temperatures are in the upper 60s and climbing, for there is upheaval in the party. Things are not well. The vice president, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, has just a week earlier been unceremoniously fired from both the ruling party and national government. For well over a year, Mnangagwa and his loyalists within the party have been duelling with a rival group of ruling party politicians that have closed ranks around First Lady Grace Mugabe. Tensions that were once oblique and simmering in the undercurrent of the party, have surfaced and turned vocal.
For Zimbabweans, the ructions provide for a disquieting spectacle. Led by an increasingly powerful first lady, the charge against Mnangagwa progressively turns acerbic, with the VP openly humiliated in the press and at national party rallies where, on stage a few seats from President Mugabe and his wife, Mnangagwa is seen taking it all in. If the first lady’s words pain him, he gives nothing away. He remains calm and stoic on the podium, looking into the horizon as though the storm is happening in a distant place he has never heard of. It is uncomfortable to watch and not long after – indeed a few days following a rally at Bulawayo’s White City Stadium – Robert Mugabe relieves his trusted comrade of his duties. For his own safety, Mnangagwa, a former spy chief and key ally of General Chiwenga in the factional world of ZANU–PF succession politics, flees the country.
But here now is Chiwenga, calmly facing the cameras and microphones. He looks resolute. And if his voice was sombre when he greeted his general officers, as he begins reading his prepared speech, Chiwenga’s voice gradually builds up and becomes stronger, as though something is marshalling the confidence within him, powering his message through and disseminating it into the quiet room.
His message is this: there is indisputable instability within ZANU–PF and, as a result, great anxiety within the country. The party of liberation, Chiwenga says, has been infiltrated by counter-revolutionaries who are seeking to destroy it from within and hand the country back to foreign domination; as such, the gains of the liberation struggle are now under threat, and the army as major stakeholder is obliged to take corrective measures. Reckless utterances denigrating the military, and purging of party officials with a liberation background must stop, Chiwenga states, and the known counter-revolutionaries must be exposed and fished out.
This is uncharted territory. General Chiwenga, it seems, is freely wading into the ZANU–PF succession battle. A ferocious animal is entering the waters, but the tide of the river is uncertain. The temperature in Harare rises a few notches. Things, as Zimbabweans say, have ascended to another level. While the impartiality of the Zimbabwean military has been routinely questioned over the years, never before has the military come out in such a nakedly partisan manner. More crucially, never before has it effectively called the ruling party to order. While the General had referred to the constitution of Zimbabwe, namely Section 212, which states that the function of the Defence Forces is to protect Zimbabwe, its people, its national security and interests, and its territorial integrity. This reference had made for an unconvincing element in his argument; as according to section 213 only the President as Commander in Chief has the power to determine the operational use of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces. Is this the beginning of an attempted coup? Has Zimbabwe’s longest serving full general finally overstepped the mark? What is happening in Harare? Which way will things go?
It all comes with the sense of smell
It isn’t in the churn of the Harare rumour mill yet, but it will soon be. A few days prior to General Chiwenga’s speech, President Mugabe reportedly summons Commissioner General of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, Augustine Chihuri and his deputy, Innocent Matibiri. As part of a plan to purge the security services of Mnangagwa loyalists, Mugabe tasks Chihuri and Matibiri to detain General Chiwenga upon his return from official business in China. Mugabe reportedly knows of Chiwenga’s loyalty to Mnangagwa.
Mugabe, in one version of events, can smell a military coup approaching. While the military leadership and the president have for years enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, the bond of late has begun to loosen. Never having uttered a word against the military in decades, the president chastises the generals in public at the 2015 ZANU–PF congress at Victoria Falls, reminding them to stay out of politics. More damaging, however, is the president’s failure to reign in his wife and some of the cabinet ministers allied to her. For the generals, it appears, the writing was on the wall.
But here now are Chihuri and Matibiri with a job to do. The two men reportedly assemble several police agents, mainly from the Zimbabwe Republic Police Support Unit, the police service’s abhorred paramilitary wing. On the day of Chiwenga’s return, they show up at the newly renamed Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, ready to arrest him. But this is Zimbabwe and, unbeknownst to them their plan has leaked. Military intelligence not only catches whiff of the intended operation, but also its specific details. They alert Chiwenga well before he leaves China. A plan is put in place to secure the general’s landing.
A team of soldiers reportedly disguised as National Handling Services (NHS) freight company workers, enters the airport and, as the police take up their positions to arrest Chiwenga, the soldiers react. Outnumbered and outgunned, the police are disarmed and the plan is foiled. General Chiwenga remains a free man. But things certainly cannot continue as usual. Something has to give.
The intrigues of factional politics within Zimbabwe’s ruling party symbolically begin more innocuously. In a simple black and white photograph.
The year is 1980, on the 27 January. Here is Robert Mugabe smiling brightly and making his way through a 200,000–strong crowd. It is his first rally back on Zimbabwean soil. A ceasefire has been signed and the war is over. The pulse of the unborn country beats out wildly, anticipating political independence. For many in the crowd, he has been, up to this point, an eloquent voice on the radio, the learned force behind the struggle. Here he is now in the flesh, donning a safari suit, smiling without inhibition, fist pumping the air. He is here, Robert Mugabe has returned. To his left, he is flanked by his personal aide and the head of internal security in ZANU, Emmerson Mnangagwa. On his right is the military hero, leader of the guerrilla army, Solomon Tapfumaneyi Mujuru. These three men are walking towards a country that has not yet been born, a country in which over the years, they shall fall out with each other. Each shall create his own perimeter of party allies. Things will be triggered by the death, in September 2003, of Simon Muzenda, Robert Mugabe’s deputy of 28 years. With his position open, mistrust and ambition shall fuel the two men to jostle towards the centre. Mnangagwa, as party secretary for administration, shall seek to replace Muzenda. He will seek the help of his own allies, one of them, a certain Jonathan Moyo. On his perceived path to power, Mnangagwa will author what becomes known as the “Tsholotsho declaration”.
Mnangagwa’s plan, however, will be undone by Mujuru and his own allies, the latter’s faction putting sustained pressure on Mugabe and managing to weave Mujuru’s wife – Joyce Teurai Ropa Mujuru – into the vice presidency in 2004, replacing Muzenda. Joyce Mujuru, a former guerrilla leader and a generation removed from Mugabe, will for nearly a decade be considered the ageing leader’s understudy.
But that will all change.
Solomon Mujuru dies in 2011, his body burnt beyond recognition in an inferno at his farmhouse, the fire supposedly started by a candle that the General, in an inebriated state, forgets to put out. The evidence, however, suggests the fire was fuelled by an accelerant. Spear-headed by an until-then shy and reserved Grace Mugabe, a charge to unseat Joyce Mujuru ensues, the attacks on her overwhelming and relentless. They play into the hands of the other man who has been biding his time, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The assault on Mujuru culminates in Mnangagwa ascending to the vice presidency.
But these things the photo cannot tell us: it cannot tell us the future. It cannot tell us, too, that Mnangagwa’s turn in the fire shall come. It cannot tell us what he will do then.
Monday 13 November 2017, 8pm. Zimbabweans sit glued to their television screens, awaiting the evening news broadcast. ZBC, the national broadcaster is meant to be impartial, yet it has relieved itself of all pretence and comfortably serves as the ruling party’s mouth piece. Zimbabweans, it appears, have learned to listen to the subtext of the official news. Now they expect an official response to General Chiwenga’s speech. Video clips of it are shared across social media and, while Robert Mugabe is in the twilight of his life, at 93 he remains the resolute and largely inflexible no-nonsense leader; either him or the party will have to issue an equally strong response.
Zimbabweans are disappointed. The news hour passes with no reference to the day’s key event. It appears that, according to ZBC, no general has issued a speech and, as such, no response is required. The non-response, however, is telling: the temperature has risen another few degrees. A blackout on ZBC about the speech seems to have been ordered. This reeks of an uncertain ruling party, one that has yet to figure a path out of the quagmire that Chiwenga has created. Perhaps the government is trying to buy some time. Only time will tell.
On the internet, however, the responses to the General’s speech launch almost immediately, setting Zimbabwean social media ablaze. Most notably, Professor Jonathan Moyo, Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education and Chiwenga’s sworn enemy, responds through his Twitter account. “Kungovukura vukura ini zete kuvata zvangu!” Moyo announces, dismissing Chiwenga’s words as the mere barking of a dog.
It is an excoriating remark. Chiwenga and Moyo have been trading mutual un-pleasantries in the Zimbabwean newspapers for months, with Chiwenga often asserting that Moyo is an enemy of the state bent on destroying the ruling party from within. Moyo, in kind, offers broad but unambiguous allegations of Chiwenga and his allies’ involvement in the Gukurahundi genocide of 1981-1987, a genocide in which Moyo lost members of his immediate family, including his father. More pointedly, Moyo often questions the veracity of Chiwenga’s PhD coursework with the University of Kwazulu–Natal.
As one of the ruling party politicians allied to the first lady, Professor Jonathan Moyo has no reason to worry; his camp, a week earlier, had successfully ejected Mnangagwa from the party. Furthermore, the provinces have begun nominating Grace Mugabe to replace the former VP. The bigger battles are won. The matter of the general is no big news. Jonathan Moyo can sleep peacefully, and ZANU–PF will follow his lead; they will sleep on an official response until the morning. Another camp suggests that the Robert Mugabe Zimbabweans have known for 37 years will not tolerate such a naked and direct challenge to his authority. When morning comes, he will tear into Chiwenga. By reading the statement, Chiwenga has effectively signed his own dismissal papers. But Chiwenga is no fool, another school argues. He will not stick his neck so far out unless he has an ace up his sleeve. What is his ace?
While his speech is not an ultimatum, one wonders what will happen if the ruling party does not comply with the speech’s three recommendations. No dates or specific retaliatory actions are mentioned, and neither does the speech allude to any interest in such; only that the ruling party is obliged to take corrective measures. This, theoretically, can mean anything.
Something about Chiwenga’s speech carries the whiff of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s pronouncements in 2013, when, as Minister of Defence and Egypt’s highest ranked soldier, he issued a 48-hour ultimatum during that year’s political crisis, threatening that the Egyptian army would intervene if a solution to the country’s crisis was not found. Forty-eight hours later, El-Sisi effectively removed Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, President Mohamed Morsi, from office. But Egypt’s was an active national crisis, one that soundly engulfed the whole nation and all levels of society. In contrast, the Zimbabwean situation is one of only a single party’s failure to manage its internal affairs, to attend to its widening cracks and crevices. Yet, one still wonders whether the Zimbabwean situation will play out the Egyptian way and end up with a sitting president out of office – and not just any president, but one of the world’s longest-serving presidents and, at 93, its eldest by a country mile. It is a stretch of the imagination, but not an implausible one. Only time will tell.
If the road to be taken is a military coup, however, then the Zimbabwean military has a big problem on their hands. A very big problem. Military coups have become worse than unfashionable on the continent since the advent of the African Union and the African Renaissance – out are the coup mongers and in are the African problem solvers, who look among themselves and not to the West for help. Whereas for decades coups were simply things to be frowned upon by other African leaders, with the usurpers at worst receiving a wag of the finger, getting into power through a military coup is no longer acceptable. There will be no more slaps on the wrist of the hand that tries to enter the cookie jar. Getting into power through a military coup is akin to showing up for a birthday party with the bubonic plague; no longer can you be part of the club.
The Zimbabwean military will have to face a continental body whose credibility had been built on fostering democracy and maintaining peace and security among member states. A coup d’état is not something the AU will stand for. If this is the option the military is looking at, no joy it seems, awaits them on the other side; particularly not with a coup against Robert Mugabe. He has the arsenal of the Zimbabwean constitution on his side. Section 208, part 2 states clearly: “Neither the security services nor any of their members may, in the exercise of their functions: a) act in a partisan manner b) further the interest of any political party or cause c) prejudice the interest of any political party or cause d) violate the fundamental rights or any freedoms or any person.”
The date is 2017,Monday, 13 November. Zimbabweans go to sleep in their familiar beds. Yet, something in the air is different. The following day is Tuesday, 14 November.
Kudzi Chipanga stands at the head of the table in a wood-panelled room at ZANU–PF headquarters. Flanked by other youth league members, Chipanga hands are in the air and he is clapping rhythmically, singing along to the song the youths are immersed in. The slightly opened blinds reveal the lazy yellow light of mid-morning Harare. The song is implicitly denouncing General Chiwenga’s speech, with one beefy youth in particular heavily punching the air before him, his whole body shaking with the exertion of it, as though he is a heavyweight boxer who has stepped into the ring and is psyching himself up before a championship bout. It seems he is spoiling for a physical fight with the General, but that will have to wait.
As ZANU–PF youth secretary, Chipanga occupies a powerful position within the party. He leads one of its three key wings, the other two occupied by Mugabe (first secretary) and his wife Grace, who leads the women’s league. Having aligned himself to the group closest to Grace Mugabe, Chipanga and the youth league, are, in a way, the group’s first line of defence. Chipanga is playing his part.
The music comes to a stop and Kudzi Chipanga sits before the camera and microphones. He announces first that his statement is being issued without fear, regret or compunction in defending the revolution and the leader, Robert Gabriel Mugabe. This is the party’s first response, and Chipanga is using big words, words like regret and fear. But this is only the beginning. Soon he is on the go, marshalling the bits within him that he most likely believes resemble his inner-younger-Mandela. This, he says, referring to defending the revolution, is an ideal we [the youth] live for, and if need be, we are prepared to die for. Chipanga has taken the nation to the sweet spot, heightening the stakes. The vanguard is willing to lay down lives for the revolution and its leader.
The last youth league leader to express such sentiments was Julius Malema, in his defence of Jacob Zuma. Malema, then firebrand youth leader of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), later falls out with Zuma, forms his own revolutionary party and campaigns for the eventual removal of Zuma from office. If this is an omen of things to come, Chipanga and his leader are heading for a fallout. But then again, what do omens know of anything? Chipanga and his leader are their own men.
Chipanga goes on to assert that Chiwenga’s statement is an expression of his own opinions, those not shared by the rest of the command structure. He quotes the same section of the constitution that Chiwenga has referenced, then offers an equal and opposite interpretation of it, a reading that leaves the general in violation of the country’s constitution. “We the youth are watching in our millions,” Chipanga says, “and those who wish to ride on the back of the tiger will end up on the inside of the tiger.”
It is a clear provocation to the military leadership, most of whom at an age younger than Chipanga’s youthful 30-something had risked their lives in the liberation war. But Chipanga, a born free, is pulling no punches and taking no prisoners. He does not need them where he is going. He closes his statement by quoting Robert Mugabe, albeit clumsily: “The guns will follow the politics not the politics following the guns.” The quote itself is an attempt to backtrack from an earlier statement Robert Mugabe had given during the height of the liberation war. “Our votes must go together with our guns, Mugabe had said, “After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun, which produces the vote, should remain its security officer – its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.” It was a statement meant to assert a symbiotic relationship between the guerrilla armies and the black African population. It had worked for its time. But in post-independence Zimbabwe, the statement now carries with it an aura that keeps the military and former liberation war combatants very closely interested in the ballot box and its potential outcomes. Now that the President and the military are in a thaw, politics is trying to get ahead of the gun once again.
Chipanga’s comrades in the room applaud him with drugged enthusiasm. It has been a tough speech, a tough pointed speech directed at a military leadership that in turn prides its own strength and resilience. The ball is now in the military’s court.
But if politics is to lead the gun, as Chipanga says, the senior politicians for now are missing in action. For all of Chipanga’s bravado, General Chiwenga’s speech was not directed at the youth league, but the entire party. While sending the youth league to respond to the general may be meant as a slap to his face, it is evidently an insufficient response from the party. And while Chiwenga mentions nothing of the government, it is clear the executive’s authority is under threat. The executive, however, will not respond. Robert Mugabe carries on with the business of the day. While Harare throbs with intrigue and gossip, he chairs a cabinet meeting which, as usual, goes on for most of the day. He emerges after 6 pm to head back to his private estate, the Blue Roof mansion in Borrowdale Brook.
By late afternoon, some news begins to trickle into the Harare rumour mill. Four tanks are spotted on the Chinhoyi highway; they are making their way towards Harare. Four tanks. No, six. One of them has broken down on the highway. Soon, photos of the broken-down tank begin to circulate on social media. If this is a coup, it is off to an ominous start. It seems amateurish and not well thought-out. Has no care been taken to at least check the equipment before moving it? Is there an actual operation underway anyway? Things seem unclear.
Soon a video surfaces, shot from a stationery car parked on the shoulder of the road. The camera at first seems to be simply shooting footage of a dark strip of road engulfed by a dull Harare grey, the sort of grey that envelopes the city before a storm. A woman’s voice soon emerges in the background however, warning the videographer not to try and be a champion, supposedly by taking the footage. Tired of the Western media’s portrayal of Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular, Zimbabweans are generally camera-averse. It isn’t unheard of to have phones and video cameras seized and people manhandled for trying to shoot unauthorised footage. Soon, however, through the dull grey a multitude of tanks and armoured trucks are seen coming into view, zooming past the car, heading towards the city. We have seen more than ten of these, the videographer says, and these guys are not smiling at anyone.
The temperature is rising. No longer simply a rumour of four or six, the cavalcade of tanks could be seen roaring down the highway. They are coming from Inkomo Barracks on the outskirts of the city. Inkomo, one of the military’s main barracks, is home to its mechanised brigade. Soon, more video footage of even more tanks emerges, tearing down the highway. Some, it seems, are heading towards the Presidential Guard barracks in Dzivarasekwa, on the edge of the city. Zimbabwean social media goes into overdrive. Some tanks are blocking Kirman Road, the road that leads to the Presidential Guard barracks. This seems to confuse things. Are they off to defend the president against whatever physical threats are emanating from General Chiwenga’s statement? Are Chipanga and ZANU–PF correct, after all, that the General’s views are not those of the whole command chain of the defence forces? And is this another section of the command taking action? Things are unclear and the situation is fluid. Excitement, intrigue, confusion seems to hang in each clip. “This is real,” an incredulous voice says in one, “it’s happening.” “I think they mean to scare the old man,” another voice in another clip says. “They are for the old man; they mean to scare him,” another voice adds calmly.
Robert Mugabe, 42 years at the helm of the ruling party, a position taken up following 11 years in Rhodesian prisons, does not have a track record of being scared. And if the movement of these tanks and armoured trucks is an attempt at removing him from power, the evidence on record does not point to one who will let go easily. Over the years since independence, he has skilfully ejected potential rivals from the ruling party, abolishing some key positions or leaving them vacant along the way. He has absorbed some of them into his own, warding off any future pretenders and cementing his own overwhelming power within the party. Even in recent years, when his power appeared to be waning, in the wake of electoral challenges, Mugabe manages to hold on to power, even outmanoeuvring opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in a power sharing government (2009-2013) when it seemed obvious Tsvangirai had the upper hand, at least theoretically. Granted, Tsvangirai is not tough to outflank, and Mugabe stubbornly refuses to initiate any security sector reforms. The military is his. He won its support and loyalty back in the bush, back during the armed struggle. But now, it seems, that loyalty is being tested.
As ZANU–PF ’s spokesperson, Khaya Moyo, Minister of Publicity and Information has the unenviable task of fighting ZANU–PF ’s fires and flash floods in the press. Today is no different. It is after 6 pm and the party is finally issuing an official response to Chiwenga’s statement. Khaya Moyo emerges from the cabinet meeting to face the press.
If the timing of the response is an attempt to understate the gravity of the situation, or to contain the potential fallout from the general’s speech, the content of Khaya Moyo’s statement points to anything but. Chiwenga’s utterances do not represent the views of the rest of the command and are meant to disturb national peace and stability, the statement says, before going on to use the t-word: Chiwenga’s statement suggests treasonable conduct on the general’s part, as this is meant to incite insurrection and violent challenge to constitutional order. Khaya Moyo is responding on behalf of both the ruling party and government.
Finally, the government is responding; the gloves are coming off. But the gloves, it seems, are coming off too late. The statement is ignorant of the day’s events, implying a government out of touch with its own environment. By late Tuesday evening, nearly 40 army trucks, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers are stationed at Two Presidential Guard Barracks in Dzivarasekwa, awaiting orders. By 9:30 pm, further orders are received and as the tanks move forward onto Harare’s well-worn, potholed streets, Zimbabwe is making its way down a path unknown.
The tanks and armoured vehicles head towards central Harare, sealing off the supreme court, ZANU–PF headquarters, the parliament building and Munhumutapa building, the executive seat of government. As some tanks fan out to other strategic locations within the city, others head into the northern suburbs of Harare, where several of the Zimbabwean elite live. They are heading to the residencies of government officials perceived to be allies of First Lady Grace Mugabe.
Sometime before midnight, the military seizes ZBC Pockets Hill studios, from where the national broadcaster transmits televised news. It is a page from a coup manual. This time, there will be no blackout on whatever news is to come. “The government is intact”, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa is quoted by the BBC as telling Reuters. He dismisses any talk of a coup despite claims otherwise on social media.
Explosions are heard in Harare, the BBC reports a few hours later. They are coming in the direction of the northern suburbs. This, however, could mean anything, as the northern suburbs is a broad descriptor covering a vast geography including State House, the official residency of the president, all the way to Borrowdale Brooke, where Robert Mugabe actually resides. Such heavy explosions, however, are rare in Harare. The last significant explosions of this scale occurred late in 1978, during the liberation war. Was this to be taken as a sign?
Khaya Moyo is on the telephone with one of Robert Mugabe’s most trusted lieutenants, Dr Sidney Sekeramayi, Minister of Defence. Does he know what is happening, Moyo wants to know. Sekeramayi says no, then says he will call General Chiwenga to find out. General Chiwenga tells the Minister of Defence he will get back to him. General Chiwenga does not. General Chiwenga, it seems, has read The African Coup Manual well: the fewer people in the know, the better your chances. The general seems to be on track.
The Instrument of Time
A favoured instrument of torture during the 1980s by apartheid South Africa police interrogators was the instrument of time. Between sessions of physical torture, interrogators would shift the time on a visible clock, thus heightening the prisoner’s sense of disorientation in the torture chamber. It was designed to both confuse and break their spirit, heightening their sense of isolation and triggering feelings of perpetual suffering.
But the arms of time themselves do not have to be moved to heighten feelings of disorientation for an individual already in the face of debilitating and overwhelming odds, particularly when their life is under threat. It is unclear, however, if these considerations account for the seeming inconsistencies in not only time but, also, the exact events that take place in the late hours of 14 November 2017, the hours that bleed into the smaller ones of 15 November.
Shortly after 7 pm, Grace Mugabe puts in a phone call to a cabinet minister. She is asking to get WhatsApp and Twitter shut down in Zimbabwe. This phone call is most likely to the recently appointed Cyber Security and Threat minister, Patrick Chinamasa.
No one will stand for a coup, she adds. It cannot happen. The minister reportedly tells Grace Mugabe that this is the role of another minister, not his. Is there anything that can be done, Robert Mugabe follows up on the same line. The minister offers the same response, then the phone goes dead.
This is simply one version of how these hours bleed. In another version, around 9 pm at Robert Mugabe’s mansion in Borrowdale Brooke, Grace Mugabe summons Albert Ngulube, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) head of the president’s security detail. Robert Mugabe is asleep and no one wants to wake him up. But Grace has just arrived home from a meeting in Mazowe where she owns land and a school, and has built an orphanage. She has noticed tanks on the road and wants to know what is going on. Ngulube, a central intelligence veteran, does not know. At 10 pm or so, however, he decides to head over to the CIO headquarters where he thinks he will be better placed to find out. On his way to headquarters, Ngulube comes across the military.
What happens immediately after this, remains unclear; three various threads of the tale appear. In one version, Ngulube stops to confront the soldiers and threatens to shoot them, before he is assaulted himself. In another version however, the soldiers are said to appear out of nowhere, and throw him into an armoured truck. In this version, Ngulube is able to put in a phone call to his wife before his cellphone, along with his gold chain and watch, are seized by the military. A third version has Ngulube noticing he is being followed. He pulls over and in turn is seized by the soldiers.
The threads, however, bind and hold at the end; in every version, the troops accuse him of spying for the President. This is essentially true; as head of civilian intelligence in Zimbabwe, it is widely acknowledged as essentially part of his job description. How he is seized, however, will become immaterial to how he is treated.
Not having heard back, at 10:30 pm or so, Grace Mugabe puts in a call to Ngulube. Ngulube, a spymaster, has cleverly saved the first lady’s sensitive phone number as first lady. Upon noticing the identity of the caller, the troops explode and begin assaulting him. Unconfirmed reports will later state that he is taken to the Presidential Guard Headquarters, stripped naked and assaulted for hours. The beatings will only stop following intervention from the military police. At that point, Ngulube is near death.
Earlier that evening, in another part of Borrowdale, Kudzi Chipanga receives a phone call at around 6 pm. It is the Police Protection Unit (PPU). They need his residential address, they say; they have intelligence that he is going to be attacked that evening by unknown assailants. Would he come down to ZRP Morris Depot? Chipanga, who already has four private security guards on his property, complies. He makes his way to ZRP Morris Depot and returns home with a police constable assigned to protect him.
Later that same night, around 2 am, Chipanga receives another call, this time from Savior Kasukuwere, the powerful Minister of Local Government and National Housing. Kasukuwere, an energetic, tough and relatively youthful party bureaucrat also serves as national commissar of the party. It is in this latter role that he has fallen out with the war veterans, key Mnangagwa allies. Kasukuwere wants to know if Chipanga is safe.
Only hours before, Kasukuwere receives a phone call of his own. It is from his friend and political ally, Professor Jonathan Moyo. This is no night to be sleeping, Professor Moyo knows, particularly not at his own home. He has been tipped off about an impending attack on his home and warned not to spend the night there. Taking heed of the advice, Professor Moyo calls Kasukuwere, seeking refuge for himself and his family. Kasukuwere takes his friend in.
Now he wants to know if Chipanga is okay. Kasukuwere tells Chipanga his own house has come under attack by unknown people who had fired guns. He is certain the home of Ignatius Chombo, the finance minister, is also under attack. Chombo, Kasukuwere is certain, has been picked up. Kasukuwere then tells Chipanga he is headed to Mugabe’s Blue Roof mansion to seek refuge himself. Kudzi Chipanga has to act and is back on the phone. He contacts the PPU for advice. What should he do? he asks. The PPU advises him to run. “Run or seek refuge at Borrowdale Police Station”, they say.
Chipanga chooses the latter. He takes his wife with him. There, according to Chipanga, they are kept for two hours before assailants pounce and assault them. Later, Chipanga and his wife are handcuffed, blindfolded and bundled into a vehicle. He is taken to an unknown location. Kasukuwere, Moyo, and their families, by all indications, make it to the Blue Roof. As wanted people, how had they accessed the Blue Roof mansion, if Ngulube was picked up by troops keeping watch over it? Moyo would later share that, on the night, 15 to 25 heavily armed Special Air Service (SAS) came to his residence, destroyed the gate and entrance of his home and shot their way into every room looking for him. They would not find him, as Moyo, wisely, was not there. But it is unclear how Moyo was privy to this information.
Even more strangely, however, the assailants with guns, as Kasukuwere had put it in his call to Chipanga, would only fire at his residence from the outside. They would not destroy the entrance to his home and shoot their way from room to room as had happened at Moyo’s home and, as it turns out, Chombo’s residence as well. Are the assailants given a range of orders – pick up Chombo and Moyo, scare Kasukuwere to his boots? At Kasukuwere’s home, according to Moyo, sustained gunfire carries on for 15 minutes, a painfully long time to be under siege by any account. But as suddenly as it begins, the gunfire stops. Kasukuwere and Moyo emerge 10 minutes or so later to find the assailants gone.
As far as Grace Mugabe allies go, Chombo has it the worst. Earlier in the week, Chombo, still the party’s top bureaucrat as secretary of administration, calls on provincial party structures to exercise restraint and observe procedure in the purging of Mnangagwa’s allies from the party. Mnangagwa’s allies are dismissive of Chombo’s remarks. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and restraint and procedure, it seems, are not of much interest. The assailants shoot their way into Chombo’s residence, who has private armed guards protecting his home. Following an exchange of gunfire outside, during which one of Chombo’s guards is reportedly shot and killed, the assailants make their way into Chombo’s home. They rush in, wearing masks. All of them have guns. Chombo is to be taken into military custody. He will mention nothing of the injuries he sustains from the military’s assault on him.
But in those same small hours, however, The Zim Media Review twitter account reiterates for the record that there is no coup in Zimbabwe. The review, it seems, has done its part in reading The African Coup Manual closely. They have made some considerations. The ZBC, The Zim Media Review notes, has not been cordoned off by soldiers and is on air as normal. Furthermore, Robert Mugabe has been in a cabinet meeting until around 6 pm that day, which again is business as usual. There has been no house arrest, as has been purported in some outlets. Finally, The Zim Media Review notes, the presence of the tanks earlier in the day is part of a junior cadet training exercise. Like the majority of Zimbabwean citizens within the country, The Zim Media Review is clearly not aware of the events that have been taking place on what will turn out to be the most significant night in Zimbabwe’s post-independence history.
Images of Colonel Mamadou Bamba begin to make the rounds in African social media groups. He sits in a television studio, looking both stunned and sinister. It is early morning and the forcefulness of his stare reveals both terror and tiredness. In his hand, he holds a document from which he is now reading, announcing a coup. This is Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, 17 September 2015. Colonel Bamba is right to look terrified by his actions; the junta’s coup lasted all of six days. It’s not a military coup until this guy shows up, the taglines accompanying the meme read. This too is true. A military officer has to show up on screen, deny the coup, for an African coup to be a coup. Without knowing it, Zimbabweans are now awaiting this messenger. When will he arrive?
At 4 am Zimbabwean time, the drumbeat that precedes every news broadcast on ZBC television is heard. It is an unusual hour for a televised news broadcast, but these are unusual times. On the screen sit two male news presenters. They are new to both the ZBC and the business of television. Dressed in smart, crisp military uniform, they looked poised, calm and unhurried. Beneath their military headgear, they wear faces the majority of Zimbabweans have never cared to notice. While one of them is dressed in military fatigues, they are men cut from a separate cloth to Colonel Bamba. They appear in control, as though sitting before the ZBC camera is their secret calling. Soon, the camera focuses on the officer in fatigues. In his hands he holds a document from which he is about to read. He issues his morning greeting to the nation before proceeding to his statement, getting right to the point.
“Following the address we made on 13 November 2017, which we believe our main broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and The Herald were directed not to publicise,” he says, “the situation in our country has moved to another level.”
At this point, the camera zooms in on him. He looks healthy, likeable and serious, someone who could offer you a free dinner and actually mean it. The nametag on his fatigue says “SB Moyo.” The military insignia on his shoulders spell out “Major General.” This is Major General SB Moyo. The we in his speech insinuates the whole military is united, or at least its highest ranking officers are united. He assures the nation first, that Robert Mugabe and his family are safe and sound, and that 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,” Major General Moyo says. “As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect the situation to return to normalcy.”
After addressing various sections of Zimbabwean society, including the civil service, the judiciary, parliament, political parties, general citizens, the churches, the youth, among others, Major General Moyo makes his point abundantly clear to the nation and the world: this is not a military takeover of government. What the defence forces are doing, he says, is pacifying a degenerating political, social and economic situation in the country, which, if not addressed, will result in violent conflict. He asks the war veterans, a bloc that over the past 12 months has famously fallen out with their patron, Robert Mugabe, to play a positive role in ensuring peace, stability and unity in the country. All leave for defence forces members, he continues, is cancelled and all members are to report to their barracks with immediate effect. He urges the other security services to cooperate, and makes it clear that the military intends to address all human security threats in the country, and any provocation will be dealt with appropriately. Zimbabwe is now heading into unknown waters.
Robert Mugabe awakens in the same bed he went to sleep in, but in a different country. Earlier he receives a telephone call from President Jacob Zuma of South Africa. Zuma himself is fighting his own battles, the latest being fending off, yet again calls for him to resign from office. But this is not about Zuma and South Africa: this is about Mugabe and Zimbabwe. President Mugabe tells Zuma he is fine, but confined to his home.
This is Robert Mugabe, the African strongman. Not only is he saving face, giving the impression that he is in control, he is quietly issuing a signal to the African Union and the regional body, the Southern African Development Community, that this is an internal Zimbabwean matter and, as such, will be resolutely handled by Zimbabweans among themselves.
“It looks like a coup”, Alpha Condé, President of Guinea and current AU chairperson says later that day. Condé calls on the military to halt their actions and restore constitutional order. But he has only said it looks like a coup, not that it is a coup. The AU, outside the SADC, for now does not have too much muscle in the matter. There are no soldiers rampaging the streets and beating up people as in previous coups elsewhere on the continent; there are no guns being fired randomly, and no one is being dragged by their belly fat from the hidden compartments of their homes. Indeed, there has been no sporadic and wild expressions of joy. The sitting president has not fled and the military leaders under whose arrest he is are still saluting him as their commander-in-chief. It looks like a coup that went to private school, African social media report, in awe of the absence of visible violence and anarchy.
Photos emerge later in the day of the military leadership and Robert Mugabe, shaking hands and smiling for the cameras. Reportedly now under house arrest, Mugabe will be allowed out to preside over a graduation ceremony in his official role as chancellor of all national universities. The tanks, however, will stay on the streets, keeping key institutions under watch while businesses carry on as usual in Harare. Citizens walk past them casually, largely unbothered by the troops on the street. The new normal of the day carries on in Zimbabwe. But the new normal flaps like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck. It is indeed a duck.
Things are happening in the background. As negotiations between the president and the military leadership stall, the levels, as Zimbabweans say, rise another notch. Over the following days, Robert Mugabe sits tight as he is pressed to resign. He sits tight as Mnangagwa’s allies vociferously call on him to go, vociferously call on Zimbabweans to come out on the streets in their millions over the following days and demonstrate against his rule, the same streets the same men had once defended in Mugabe’s name against the same people they are now calling on. And wouldn’t you know it, the Zimbabwean people heed the call. Democracy rights activists who had been thrown in jail by the police and had their families threatened by unknown assailants team up with expelled ZANU–PF youth leaders, the military, and war veterans, in rallying calls for a national day of protest against Mugabe’s lengthy rule. Once, these sections of society were at war with each other. The military which had reportedly assaulted Zimbabwean citizens in the run-off of the 2008 elections now stands shoulder to shoulder with the very same citizens, with the citizens cheering them on. It is a Saturday when they all take to the streets, and march to State House to express their displeasure.
It is not the first-time that Zimbabweans have wanted to do this. In June 2003, the Movement for Democratic Change had tried to rally Zimbabweans to march towards State House and finally push Robert Mugabe away, but the military and the police were heavy-handed, and the protest never quite took off. It seems now, however, everybody is on the same page, finally. Let’s get rid of him first; we will deal with the rest later, Zimbabweans say. But true to form, Robert Gabriel Mugabe stays put. Then, on Sunday, he calls a press conference. All day he keeps the nation on tenterhooks. What is he going to say?
He is finally going to resign, the rumour mill rages on. It makes sense, the Saturday crowds were enormous. The nation waits. Finally, he appears on national television. In come the generals, each saluting him and shaking his hand. It looks like the end of something, something that perhaps could have been ended years earlier and with better dignity. But that has not been the path taken. Finally, he sits down and faces the cameras. At 93, he looks and sounds every bit like a 93-year-old would at such a late hour, after a gruesome day, and such a cruel, cruel week. He struggles through his speech, and for more than 20 minutes the nation listens carefully as he says nothing. It is exasperating, but the longer he carries on, the less it all matters. His power is long gone, and so is his authority. At the end of his speech, the generals barely clap. “Asante sana,” Robert Mugabe finally says. And Asante sana, Zimbabweans want to say back.
Two days later, their chance will come. Dismissed from a party he helped found, sustain and partially destroy, facing impeachment from a parliament full of ruling party legislators now crossing the floor to appease his former deputy’s faction, Robert Mugabe signs his resignation letter and has it hurried to parliament. First the legislators, and then the whole nation, erupts with unhinged joy. Finally, the nation exhales.
“Asante sana,” it says back.
But is it all over? Has Robert Gabriel Mugabe finally called it a day, having been forced out by as obvious and nearly archaic an operation as a coup?
Only time will tell.
The pages of Zimbabwe’s history continue forward. The country ploughs on, a ship into the sea. The waters remain unknown.
This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.
The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?
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