The era of coups in Africa is supposed to be over. Nevertheless, one may be underway in Zimbabwe against the regime of nonagenarian Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace. Army Chief General Constantino Chiwenga, along with ninety senior military officers, gave a news conference on Monday in which he said that the army will step in unless the “purging” of the country’s ruling ZANU-PF stops. Though the general did not mention Mugabe by name, the intervention was clearly a response to the president’s firing of his deputy, Emerson Mnangagwa. The move is widely seen as an effort to ensure that Mugabe’s successor will be his wife Grace. On Tuesday, armored vehicles were seen moving toward Harare, the capital, from the military barracks at Inkomo. At the same time, a statement from the ZANU-PF accused General Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct.”
The army will not tolerate the political leadership of those who did not participate in the “liberation struggle” that led to Zimbabwe ending white minority rule in 1980. Grace Mugabe, born in 1965, was a school girl at the time and did not participate in this “struggle.” Once in the State House typing pool, she became Mugabe’s mistress and then his second wife four years after the death of his first wife, Sallie, a Ghanian who was widely popular. (Mugabe claims that on her death bed, Sallie gave her blessing to the union with Grace; Zimbabweans love the ongoing soap opera.) They have three children together. Apparently, she is rapacious for personal wealth and is often called ‘Gucci Grace.’
The power balance between Mugabe and those around him and the military is opaque and always in flux. Many senior military officers have done very well out of the wholesale looting of Zimbabwe. Emmerson Mnangagwa was a leader in the independence movement and spent time in exile during the liberation struggle. Since liberation, he served in numerous high positions in Mugabe’s government, becoming vice president in 2014. Called the “Crocodile” for his cunning, he is widely regarded as Zimbabwe’s richest man.
Are there issues beyond a Mafiosi-like fight over the swag from a looted state? There are. The army leaders, veterans of the “struggle,” represent an older generation. Grace, improbable though it may seem, represents a younger generation associated with reform. All over the country, the ZANU-PF dominates patronage/clientage networks. In general, Mugabe (and presumably Grace) remains very popular in rural areas, where he is credited with expelling the white farmers and redistributing their land to those that work it, but he is deeply unpopular in urban areas.
Mugabe is one of the last remaining African liberation icons and is therefore above criticism by other African leaders. For their part, these other leaders tend to appreciate his outspokenness. For example, in his speech at the UN General Assembly, he characterized President Donald Trump as a “gold Goliath” because of his “attacks” on North Korea, presumably the “David” in this tableau. Many Africans share Mugabe’s view about American arrogance overseas, but are reluctant to express it. Hence, if the military does make a move, it would likely strip Mugabe of power but could still keep him as its figurehead.