Security Exchange News

The Coup and the Crocodile

29 November 2017

“This is not a coup” said Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo after the military seized the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). Moyo was addressing the nation after Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) were deployed to Harare and President Robert Mugabe and his wife ‘Gucci’ Grace were placed under house arrest. “We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” repeated Moyo. The most succinct rebuttal to the army’s message came from Ugandan writer Charles Onyango-Obbo, who tweeted: “If it looks like a coup, walks like a coup and quacks like a coup, then it's a coup."

In the ensuing days, Mugabe was sacked by his ruling Zanu-PF party, who declared that impeachment proceedings would begin against the 93-year-old before his resignation speech was read out in parliament. The announcement sparked celebrations across the country and signalled the end of Mugabe’s disastrous 37 years in power. He has been replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa – known as the ‘Crocodile’ – whose sacking as vice-president sparked Zimbabwe’s political crisis.

Although Zimbabweans have been celebrating the demise of Robert Mugabe, they are even happier about the fall from grace [pun intended] of his wife and former heir apparent. Since their marriage in 1996, Grace Mugabe garnered a reputation for voracious spending that was only matched by her Machiavellian political ambition. In recent years she led a faction of Zanu-PF known as the Generation 40 (G40), seen as rivals of the ‘Lacoste’ faction and led by Mnangagwa (taking its name from his alias). Many believe she was behind the decision to sack Emmerson as VP. Days before the army seized power, Grace told a rally of G40 supporters in Harare: "We must deal with the real snake behind the factions and discord in the party. We are going to the congress as a united party.”

By removing Mnangagwa, Grace assumed that she would be appointed as veep before succeeding her husband as president. Unfortunately for her, she underestimated both her rival's support and the disdain in which she was held in by many Zimbabweans. Spending thousands on Ferragamo shoes while the country was in economic ruins was never going to endear her to the wider population. Earlier this year she also sparked a diplomatic crisis after she was accused of assaulting a model in neighbouring South Africa.

Now that the curtain has fallen on the Mugabe dynasty, there is cautious optimism about the future of Zimbabwe. The country has huge potential, with reserves including ferrochrome, gold, copper, iron ore, lithium, diamonds and platinum group metals. However, the economy is in a perilous state, riddled with debt and in dire need of structural reforms. “Zimbabwe is in debt distress, and its total public and external debt is unsustainable,” said the IMF back in June. “Attaining debt sustainability would require sharp fiscal consolidation and external support from the international community.”

Mnangagwa has been quick to acknowledge that dealing with the economy needs to be his first priority. After returning to the country last week, he said: "We want to grow our economy, we want peace, we want jobs, jobs, jobs". The new president needs to quickly win the approval of foreign governments and international monetary bodies, such as the IMF and World Bank, but he carries plenty of baggage. Until recently Mnangagwa was a key ally of Mugabe and is tainted by many of his predecessor's policies. Most significantly, he was national security minister when thousands of ethnic Ndebeles were killed in the Gukurahundi campaign in the 1980s. He has always denied involvement in the massacres, but the association will be difficult to shake off, particularly for survivors and those directly affected. He was also linked to the government-sponsored violence which targeted supporters of Morgan Tsvangirai after elections in 2008. Tsvangirai won the first round of voting but withdrew after hundreds of people were killed. A leopard doesn’t change its spots, but can a crocodile shed its skin? Zimbabweans live in hope, at least for now.