Political Confusion in Zimbabwe: How 37 Years Ended in 6 Days
November 21, 2017 | In the wee hours of Wednesday, November 15, the Zimbabwean Army detained President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace Mugabe, leaving many in the international community wondering if it was a coup d'etat. The army’s decision came a week after President Mugabe, 93, removed Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, alleging disloyalty on behalf of the vice president. Many think this removal of Mnangagwa, a military veteran, prompted the army to take action.
The army was vague in their reasoning for the action citing the need to stop “criminals … causing social and economic suffering.” The army’s statement also says that when they have completed their mission, they expect the country to return to normal. They also urge the government, press, opposition, and citizens to stay calm and resume their normal activities.
Some see the removal of Vice President Mnangagwa last week as the proverbial last straw for the military and, it appears, for the ruling party Zanu-PF. Mnangagwa was seen as the most likely successor to President Mugabe, who has been in power for 37 years since Zimbabwe gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1980. The move was seen as further paving the way for First Lady Grace Mugabe, 52, to take over leadership after Mugabe’s death or retirement. In 2014, she was unexpectedly appointed as leader of the Zanu-PF Women’s League and has proven politically ambitious.
The Mugabe family has been criticized for living “extravagant” lifestyles, and Grace Mugabe is a particularly polarizing and accordingly important figure. Forty-one years junior to her husband, she is not a war veteran, unlike much of the senior leadership in Zimbabwe. Not unlike Netflix’s House of Cards, many view Grace to be a power-hungry individual vying for political control through her husband, as opposed to her own merit. Unfortunately for the Zimbabwean people, the demographic they favor to lead them—war veterans—is rapidly aging. They will have to contend with this change, regardless of Grace Mugabe’s lack of qualifications or nepotistic rise to power.
Additionally, President Mugabe and other Zanu-PF elites have also been facing criticism for corruption and embezzlement. For a country struggling with hyperinflation, a collapsing education and health care system, and skyrocketing unemployment, this criticism is unsurprising. However, the mounting criticism against the First Family, coupled with Mugabe’s elusivity in naming a successor, has undoubtedly frustrated the ruling party, Zanu-PF. In the face of Mnangagwa’s firing, the Zimbabwean people and the military alike were concerned that President Mugabe might have named his wife as his successor. This explains the military’s suddenly decisive action now, despite the fact that rhetoric critical of the First Family has been prevalent for years.
In February, Mugabe was quoted in the state-run Sunday Mail as saying, "A successor is groomed by the people. The majority of the people feel that there is no replacement; a successor who to them is acceptable, as acceptable as I am." There has been a general worry that if Mugabe died in office without naming a successor, in-fighting within the ruling party would be inevitable. As Political commentator Pedzisai Ruhanya of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute has said, “the faction in [Zanu-PF] that has the control of the military [would] take over the affairs of the state” if this happened. By reinstating Mnangagwa to power, Zanu-PF appears to be trying to avoid the political confusion and upheaval that would result if Mugabe died in office with no clear successor. Mnangagwa—nicknamed “The Crocodile” for his cunning and ruthlessness—is allegedly in self-exile in South Africa or China, but his location is ultimately uncomfirmed.
Since the President’s detainment there were vocal and rising calls for him to step down or face impeachment. After this weekend, where he made several public appearances without giving any hint of stepping down, it was clear that it would take more than asking nicely to end his reign. On Monday, November 20, the Parliament started impeachment proceedings through constitutional channels. The following day, November 21, Mugabe formally resigned, possibly clearing a path for Mnangagwa—favored by the military—to take power. This also has the convenient outcome of restricting Grace Mugabe’s path to power.
There are many details that are still unfolding and remain unclear such as the military’s long-term plans and Zanu-PF’s objectives. One thing that is clear is that this is a pivotal time for Zimbabwe. The country has been under one ruler and ruling party since it gained independence and has suffered through economic collapse under its control. In the words of Botswana’s President Ian Khama, Mr. Mugabe has "subjected [Zimbabwe’s people] to untold suffering." The leadership of Mnangagwa “The Crocodile” might be no different.
Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who shared power with President Mugabe from 2008 to 2013, has called for more free and fair elections and a truly democratic government for Zimbabwe. It remains unseen how “free and fair” elections will be, though they will undoubtedly take place.
Michaela K. Koke is a graduate student at Vermont Law School and an alumna of Lewis & Clark College's undergraduate international affairs program.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.