Zimbabwe’s Delayed Power Transition

Erik Nolan Analysis

5 minute read

The quickly evolving situation in Harare is endemic of the success of a coup d’état, but is especially notable because of the factors surrounding the Zimbabwean military’s seizure of state institutions and the house arrest of sitting president Robert Mugabe. Mugabe, having ruled the nation since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1980, is now 93 years old but has not explicitly named a successor. The presence of soldiers and APCs in the streets of Harare, media broadcasts anchored by fatigue-wearing “defenders of Mugabe” and the closure of several foreign embassies in the country all denote that a military coup is underway.

Ironically, the tensions leading to the coup stem not from external Western interference, or political opposition. Even the abysmal Zimbabwean economy has failed to act as the catalyst for military intervention under Mugabe. The actions being taken in Zimbabwe are a result of internal political fractures within the upper echelons of the state government that have their roots in the formation of the country.

The question over who would succeed the Marxist president had been increasingly prominent since the ZANU-PF, the anti-imperialist, pan-African socialist party and Mugabe’s political foundation, suffered significant losses in the legislature’s composition in 2008. Upon regaining control of the legislature in 2013, the ZANU-PF and Mugabe’s closest ministers have been locked in a muted struggle over Mugabe’s succession—and until recently, the heir-apparent was speculated to have been Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the ZANU-PF’s chairman and Mugabe’s political protégé. This was upended when First Lady Grace Mugabe removed the V.P. and demoted him to a far less influential cabinet position, thus spurring the Zimbabwean military’s mobilization and lockdown of the country.

Framing the coup from the military’s perspective has gained significant traction amongst the citizens of Zimbabwe, as evidenced by the lack of domestic resistance to these developments. One Zimbabwean legislator went so far as to deem the coup constitutional on the grounds that the military was restoring powers back to the president after having them “usurped” by his wife. However, this endorsement did not stop the military from arresting the ZANU-PF youth leader Kudzai Chipanga. The ZANU-PF’s youth wing has fierce loyalties to Mugabe and Chipanga’s arrest diminishes the populist clout which the youth wing could leverage against a military coup. However, Grace Mugabe has slipped through the military’s nets and is reportedly hiding in Namibia. Her apprehension by the military, barring any uprising, would be the final nail in the coffin and cement the coup d’état against any interference from outside parties.

This is perhaps the most crucial juncture in the unfolding power transition for Zimbabwe. If Grace Mugabe has fled successfully and retains key contacts inside the country, an attempt to reestablish her legitimacy could propel Zimbabwe towards civil war. While such a prospect currently seems unlikely, the next few weeks will reveal the extent to which both factions are willing to go to establish themselves as leaders of the country.

Responses from the international community have so far proffered caution and eschewed any clear support for both the military and Mugabe. South African president Jacob Zuma urged restraint against the civilian population, but has otherwise made no indication on whether he supports the military or the Mugabe establishment. Many western countries have also closed their embassies and urged citizens and staff to lay low until the situation is resolved. Amidst the calls for peace and civility, and a relative sense of calm in Harare, one can infer that there are no present external threats to the military.

That such an endogenous shock to Zimbabwe took so long to materialize is testament to Robert Mugabe’s skill at managing the military as well as the factions in the ZANU-PF, but with Grace Mugabe’s latest maneuverings it appears that the pair flew too close to the sun. Now that the ZANU-PF has splintered it appears that the old guard, headed by Mnangagwa, is poised to transfer power with the help of the military back to the previously deposed Vice President. Outside the legislative assembly, the ZANU-PF makes no pretense of upholding democratic institutions, as the military has for years had a strong commitment to upholding the revolutionary spirit of the party, even to the point of force. The more recent party members, divorced from the fight for independence in the 1970s, were drawn to the youth wing within the ZANU-PF; but, these loyalties pitted party’s members against each other as Mugabe would offer positions to Mnangagwa only to take them away or alienate him from factions in the party. Throughout their adversarial relationship, however, Mnangagwa positioned himself within the state’s security and intelligence apparatuses, and acted as a key facilitator for several business transactions to gain the necessary political leverage over Mugabe. And now, it appears to have paid off in spades.