By Farai Chirimumimba and Byron Mutingwende
Zimbabwe’s history as a state is ensconced in the armed struggle against white minority colonial rule. Tracing this back to the 1890s, there were the popular Shona/Ndebele uprisings against the imperialist British settlers. For this reason, the armies of the Shonas and Ndebeles (ethnic groups) provided resistance to oppression. While the tribes offered the military resistance as divided armies, the objective was to thwart oppressive leadership. This phenomenon cascaded into the Smith regime right down to the present-day independent Zimbabwe.
In the 1960s, Ian Douglas Smith, then Rhodesian Prime Minister sought to entrench a perpetual white hegemonic rule dramatized by the popular “Not in a thousand years” phrase which meant that there wouldn’t by any means be any chance for a black majority rule in the Southern African nation. The early nationalists like Ndabaningi Sithole, Joshua Nkomo, Herbert Chitepo, Leopold Takawira and Alfred Nikita Mangena, just to mention a few, realised that only an armed struggle against the oppressive white regime could bring independence.
The nationalists initially formed resistant political movements like the City League, the National Democratic Party and the African National Congress. The likes of Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Enos Nkala and Leopold Takawira formed the Zimbabwe African People’s Union in 1961. These movements were often thwarted by the then regimes.
The military interventions have often been seen as the only message that the oppressive regimes understand since dialogue often fell on deaf ears on the part of the rulers. Frederic S. Pearson, Scott Walker, and Stephanie Stern contend that military interventions in jurisdictions such as the United States of America meant to promote free and fair elections have frequently resulted in remarkably resilient new democracies.
According to political analyst Terry Mutsvanga, the military intervention in Zimbabwe was justifiable and can be preferably called “Africa’s smartest coup”. If we compare what happened in Zimbabwe to what happened in other countries like the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo there has not been any loss of blood following the military intervention.
In Ivory Coast, the military intervention that resulted in former strongman Laurent Gbagbo ceding power to Alassane Ouattara caused the death of over 3,000 people. In the Central African Republic, members of the Seleka rebel coalition that ousted President François Bozizé of the Central African Republic were accused of grave violations against civilians, including pillage, summary executions, rape, and torture by Human Rights Watch.
On the contrary, a “tyrant” Robert Mugabe had ruled Zimbabwe for the past 37 years with an iron fist. There has been a spiraling economic decline since the year 2000 when the land reform started. In subsequent elections since 2000, Zanu (PF) led by former President Robert Mugabe was accused of gross human rights violations backed by veterans of the war for independence and the military. In 2008, when President Mugabe lost the first round of elections to leader of the main opposition party, Morgan Tsvangirai, the army propped Mugabe in a bloody run-off election that ensued before Tsvangirai withdrew from the election. What followed was one of the highest hyperinflation in modern history.
Basic commodities were wiped off the supermarkets. Industrial capacity utilization was below 30 percent. Unemployment picked to levels above 80 percent and most jobs became informal. In 2009, a government of national unity was put in place and order was restored after the government ditched the valueless Zimbabwean dollar and adopted the multiple currency system. In the unity government, President Mugabe retained power and ruled the country in consultation with service chiefs in what was called the Joint Operation Command (JOC). While the military is supposed to defend the territorial integrity of the country, Mugabe allowed it to chart the political waters and the service chiefs declared they would not allow anyone without liberation war credentials to ascend to the position of President of the Republic of Zimbabwe.
In the 2013 disputed elections, Robert Mugabe emerged the winner again and has a two-thirds majority in Parliament. His main rival Morgan Tsvangirai said Mugabe had rigged the elections but it was hard to rig the economy. The economy took a downturn again and the United States dollar, the main currency in circulation, disappeared. A liquidity crunch that followed led to regular postponement of the payment of salaries of government workers while private sector workers go for more than six months without salaries. In 2014, there were purges within Zanu (PF) that led to the dismissal of former Vice President Joice Mujuru was replaced by former defence minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa who has a close relationship with the military.
During 2017, Mnangagwa’s popularity as Vice President rose and Mugabe felt that his position as President was under threat. Two factions arose within the ruling party with one led by Mnangagwa that is referred to as Lacoste while the one led by Mugabe’s wife Grace, was known by the moniker G40. Afraid of Mnangagwa’s rising popularity, Mugabe fired the former as Vice President in early November 2016. This led to dramatic events of 13-24 November 2017 that saw Mugabe resigning and Mnangagwa sworn-in as the second executive president of Zimbabwe.
Soft Coup in Zimbabwe
Using literature in political economy (Acemoglu et al. (2010) and Besley and Robinson (2010)) analyses the link between the civil undemocratic government and the military as an agency problem: the civilian government needs the army support to avoid internal violence, but a larger army reduces the probability for the military to run a coup d’état and seize power. These papers found three main causes of military coups namely income inequality, ethnic fractionalization, and external threat.
On 15 November Zimbabwean woke up to a televised military announcement to the effect that they had taken over briefly to deal with rogue elements that surround President Robert Mugabe, 93 who has been in power since independence in 1980.
Was it caused by any of the mentioned three causes of military coups? During the takeover Major-General Sibusiso Moyo said, “We wish to assure the nation that His Excellency, the President Robert Gabriel Mugabe and his family are safe and sound and 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. As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.” This makes income inequality as one of the militaries motive for the coup in Zimbabwe.
However, there was more to that as explained by General Chiwenga on 13 November 2017 that the succession battles in ZANU-PF were becoming a threat to national security. Zanu (PF) had two warring factions namely Generation 40 or simply G40 opposed to former Vice-President and now President Emmerson Mnangagwa replacing former President Robert Mugabe whilst Team Lactoste fought on the side of Mnangagwa.
This supports the view that clash between these polarized and fragmented groups determines winners and losers, which violently fight to gain the control of the State (Hammond and Axelrod, 2006; Montalvo and Reynal Querol, 2007; Alesina et al., 2003 and Fearon, 2004). Therefore, a social situation with different groups fighting for power raises the opportunity for civil war and coup d’état as was witnessed when Mnangagwa was sacked by Mugabe early November.
Ironically the soft coup took shape during the late hours of Tuesday 14 November 2017 to early Wednesday morning; a day referred to as “Black Friday”, in reference to 14 November 1997, which was a Friday when the Zimbabwe dollar lost 71,5 percent of its value against the United States dollar. The stock market subsequently crashed, wiping away 46 percent from the value of shares as investors scrambled out of the Zimbabwe dollar. Debates are inconclusive on the real cause of Black Friday. The failed International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) structural adjustment programs and the printing of an unbudgeted Z$4 Billion expenditure on war veterans who each got Z$50 000 in gratuities are cited more often as the major cause of Black Friday( Mambondiani 2007).
The 20th Anniversary of Black Friday will probably be remembered more for the coup. Although the military down played it as not being a coup because then they still recognized President Mugabe as the leader of the country and Commander–in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces. The truth is that it was a coup, there has never been evidence in the world where a military person goes live on national television and radio and announce a temporary take over which is not a coup.
What has been unique and fascinating about the coup is that it has been labeled a “soft coup” because strategic institutions like the national airports never stopped operating as is the case with coups around the world. The state broadcaster briefly changed programming and by afternoon it was back to normal programming. President Mugabe on 16 November 2016 come out of conferment of his home in Borrowdale the leafy northern suburb of Harare to attend a meeting with the Generals and South Africa envoys at State House. The following day he appeared in public for the first time since the coup when he attended a graduation ceremony at Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU) where he was the Chancellor.
Maybe the soft coup could be considered as a democratic transition that policymakers often times view the military consolidation of central authority during state failure as good‛ coups (Kandeh 2004, Miller 2011).
- Acemoglu D., Ticchi D., and Vindigni A. (2010). A Theory of Military Dictatorships, American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, 2: 1-42.
- Chukwudi, C.G. 2013. Military Coups in West Africa: the African “Phenomenon” That is Self-Inflicted. International Affairs and Global Strategy, 15: 59-64
- Hammond, R. A., and Axelrod R. (2006). The Evolution of Ethnocentrism, Journal of Conflict Resolution 50: 926- 936.
- Mambondiani, L. 2007. A minute of silence for ‘Black Friday’. The Zimbabwe Independent, 2 November.
- Mille, A. 2011. Debunking the Myth of the “Good” Coup d’État in Africa. African Studies Quarterly , 12( 2) :45-70
- Montalvo, G. J., and Reynal-Querol M. 2010. Ethnic Polarization and the Duration of Civil War, Economics of Governance 11: 123-143.