Anatomy of a non-coup: What next for Zimbabwe?

Posted in: Global politics, International development, Security and defence

Dr Simon Milligan is a consultant who has been visiting Zimbabwe since 2008. He is a Visiting Fellow of the University of Bath and holds a PhD from the University of Sussex. Dr Gareth Horsfield, born and raised in Zimbabwe, is a livelihoods, gender and resilience expert at the Embassy of Sweden in Harare. He holds an MSc and PhD in International and Rural Development from the University of Reading.

All views are the authors’ own, unless otherwise indicated.


Much has been written in recent weeks about last month’s events in Zimbabwe. Here, Simon Milligan, a Visiting Fellow of the University of Bath who happened to arrive in Harare on the evening of the “not coup” on Tuesday 14 November 2017 and left the day Emmerson Mnangagwa was inaugurated as the new President, and Gareth Horsfield, a friend and Zimbabwean national who works for the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) in Harare, share their personal experiences, reflections and their sense of where Zimbabwe goes from here.

An extraordinary week

It is difficult to understate the significance and turbulence of the days leading up to Robert Mugabe’s resignation on 21 November. Zimbabweans, friends of Zimbabwe and the international community were gripped by the theatre, the sense of expectation and hope, and inevitably for some, a sense of fear and uncertainty. As time passes and as the news agenda moves on, the memories and emotions of the roller-coaster ride gradually fade. Therefore, before we reflect on the drivers and implications of the change, let us first seek to recapture and recount the week’s events.

Monday 13 November: eight days to Robert Mugabe’s resignation. Army General and Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Constantino Chiwenga, flanked by 90 senior members of the armed forces, calls for an end to the “current treacherous shenanigans” in the ruling ZANU PF and denounces the “purging” of party members “with a liberation background”. One such member was the Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was sacked on 6 November 2017 for “traits of disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability”. Chiwenga states that the military will not hesitate to “step in” to calm political tensions. The unprecedented statement is widely seen as a warning to Mnangagwa’s rivals, specifically the younger Generation 40 (“G40”) that is aligned with Grace Mugabe – Mnangagwa’s main rival for control of the party and therefore for the presidency of the country. A well-respected commentator wonders if Mugabe has lost the military but concludes that “this is no coup”.

Tuesday 14 November: seven days to go. ZANU PF’s Youth League, which is commonly regarded as being a G40 ally, warns the Army General to “stay in the barracks”. Nonetheless, a handful of army vehicles are seen on roads on the outskirts of Harare. While traffic and people continue to move freely in Harare, speculation is rife.

Wednesday 15 November: six days to go. People awake in the morning to a rather different country: Mugabe is under house arrest. Zimbabwean Defence Forces have seized control of the state broadcaster, ZBC. Their spokesman, Major General SB Moyo, declares that they are “targeting criminals” around Mugabe, while noting that “this is not a military takeover of government”. Reports emerge that the Minister of Finance Ignatius Chombo, a leading member of G40, has been detained after a 3am raid of his home in the affluent northern suburbs. People speculate about the whereabouts of Grace Mugabe. Wasn’t she in Singapore or Malaysia? Did she flee to Namibia? What is certain is that the army is in control and over the course of the day, the skilful execution of the military operation becomes apparent as tanks and armoured personnel carriers are stationed outside Parliament, Mugabe’s office and his ‘Blue Roof’ Mansion. The ZANU PF Youth Wing Leader Kudzai Chipanga makes a televised apology to General Chiwenga wearing a purple patterned jersey, which has since become known as the ‘apolojersey’.

People try to interpret the “not coup”. The Head of the Africa Union, Guinea’s President, states that it “seems like a coup”. Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, speaks to Mugabe, calls for a peaceful resolution, and sends two special envoys. Zimbabweans voice their strong opposition to any mediation by South Africa and the Southern Africa Development Community, pointing to their role (and that of the Zimbabwean military) in extending Mugabe’s role after the 2008 elections when the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, was commonly regarded as having won the popular vote. People ask where SADC and the African Union were during years of political violence, intimidation and human rights abuses.

Thursday 16 November: five days to go. Mugabe refuses to go. The military, SADC envoys and Mugabe’s loyal mediator and Catholic priest, Father Fidelis Mukonori, hold talks with the President. Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of MDC, urges Mugabe to go “in the interests of the people”. The state media publishes photographs of a smiling Mugabe shaking hands with Chiwenga at State House. Nervousness and uncertainty build. Speculation about the terms of Mugabe’s departure and the reinstatement of Mnangagwa mount. As the well-regarded newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube asks: “How do you ask your Head of State and Commander-in-Chief that you recognise and salute to step down? You find answer to this puzzle then you are good to go”.

Friday 17 November: four days to go. Confusion and uncertainty abound. The army continues to refer to Mugabe as the President. Mugabe is permitted to attend and preside over the graduation ceremony at the Zimbabwe Open University. Will this leave him feeling emboldened? What can be read into the smaller-than-usual cavalcade that accompanied Mugabe to the University? Negotiations are said to be continuing. Christopher Mutsvangwa, the Chairman of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, tells Mugabe “the game is up”. The view is shared by Ian Khama, President of neighbouring Botswana and long-time critic of Mugabe, who warns of the dangers of dynastic rule. Eight of the ten regional branches of ZANU PF call for Mugabe to resign and vote to recall key members of the G40, including Grace Mugabe and her allies Jonathan Moyo (Minister of Higher Education) and Saviour Kasukuwere (Minister of Local Government). With police clearance, Zimbabweans prepare to take to the streets the following day to make their voices heard. The squeeze is on.

Saturday 18 November: three days to go. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, protest in Harare, Bulawayo and elsewhere. Zimbabweans of every race, political affiliation and socio-economic background unite under one flag, with one purpose – to see Robert Mugabe stand down. Zimbabweans in the diaspora hold protests outside embassies and consulates. The police are nowhere to be seen. The rallies are peaceful, joyful and expectant. The march towards State House has the atmosphere of a carnival as people sing, laugh and dance, finally free to express themselves after decades of oppression. The army controls the crowds, soldiers occasionally waving, giving fist bumps and pulling peace signs. Expectations build. What will Mugabe make of the footage? Ncube reports that there is a “Mugabe deal and military deal”. The former wants Mugabe to step down as head of ZANU PF at the party congress in December and then the presidency in early 2018. By contrast, the military “want Mugabe out yesterday” and are mindful that they face treason charges should they fail.

Sunday 19 November: two days to go. The calls for Mugabe to go grow louder. The Youth League Leader and the Head of the Zimbabwe War Veteran’s Association urge action. The ZANU PF Central Committee nullifies the earlier expulsion of Mnangagwa from the party, recalls and replaces Mugabe as the head of ZANU PF, and expels Grace Mugabe and key allies from the party. the Central Committee announces that Mugabe should resign by midday the following day. Failing that, Parliament will start the impeachment process. For the first time in years, international broadcasters, including the BBC, gain entry to Zimbabwe. By contrast, the news crew of South Africa’s national broadcaster, SABC, is deported after landing in Zimbabwe.

News spreads that there will be a major announcement at State House. The excitement builds. People congregate. Social media is abuzz. The time for Mugabe’s address to the nation comes… and passes. It is reported that the military want to review the speech before it is delivered. The time comes. Mugabe is seen, speech in hand, flanked by senior army officials. Excitement builds again. The opening to the speech builds to the expected crescendo: that this is not a coup and that he has opted to resign. But wait. The resignation never comes. He vows to stay on and to precede over the ZANU PF congress in December. What happened? There’s a flurry of commentary about why military figures were seen rearranging papers. Did Mugabe overlook or avoid the key passages? Is the military buckling? What just happened?

Monday 20 November: one day to go. ZANU PF’s Central Committee announces that it will commence impeachment proceedings. The military says Mugabe and Mnangagwa have made contact and that Mnangagwa will return to Zimbabwe “shortly”. Chiwenga urges calm and patience. But how long will impeachment take? Noon comes and passes, with no resignation from Mugabe.

Tuesday 21 November: resignation day. Mnangagwa returns to Zimbabwe and issues a statement calling for Mugabe to resign. Parliamentary and Senate politicians convene at the Harare International Conference Centre to commence the impeachment process. Proceedings get underway. As the motion is being debated by the Senate and National Assembly, the debate is interrupted by the Speaker, Jacob Mudenda, who has received a letter from Mugabe. After reading the letter, he announces that Robert Mugabe has tendered his resignation. It has been speculated that the embarrassment of the impeachment proceedings, along with an agreement on his exit package, have sparked his resignation. Wild celebrations break out outside the parliament building and ripple across the country. People pour out onto the streets to celebrate the end of the Mugabe era. Advocate Fadzayi Mahere describes the mood as if people have suddenly been freed from prison and are seeing the sunlight for the first time after decades in dark isolation. Harare city centre comes to a standstill as people celebrate. Zimbabwe flags are waved, hung off cars and military vehicles. Military officers are bought beers, pose for photographs and are invited to eat with diners.

Looking back: putting the events into context

As Ian Scoones has noted, this was no people’s revolution. Neither were the events of mid-November without deep-seated roots – the “not coup” was merely the culmination of a series of events dating back a number of months and years.

Succession battles and the rise of Grace Mugabe: Cracks began to appear in ZANU PF as early as 2013 when Joice Mujuru, one of the two Vice-Presidents, was fired; Oppah Muchinguru was removed as head of the ZANU PF Women’s League; and Grace Mugabe was installed as its leader. At the time, speculation mounted that Grace Mugabe’s entrance into the politics of the ruling party was a means of securing protection once Robert Mugabe passed away. Following the firing of Joice Mujuru, ZANU PF formed two distinct factions – the G40 faction that supported Grace Mugabe, and the Lacoste faction that supported Emmerson Mnangagwa. However, the firing of Emmerson Mnangagwa on 6 November 2017 was a clear signal that Grace Mugabe was in the ascendency and speculation grew that she would be named Vice President at the ZANU PF congress in December 2018. Grace Mugabe had never been popular with Zimbabweans. Many saw a correlation between her rise to the First Ladyship and the decline in Zimbabwe’s prosperity. People grew weary of her lavish spending habits, apparent lust for power and her alleged hot-headedness and abuse of her position. This was compounded by her lack of liberation credentials, perhaps the mere fact that she was a woman in a highly patriarchal society, and her chastisement of senior party officials. Just a couple of months before the firing of Mnangagwa, she publicly berated him at a rally. Allegations and counter-allegations were made in public about a supposed attempt to poison Mnangagwa in the weeks before the “not coup”. For many, the circumstances of Mnangagwa’s appointment are uncomfortable, yet the alternative scenario – that of a Grace Mugabe presidency – was simply unacceptable.

Robert Mugabe’s failure to reverse economic decline: The brief period of economic stability and growth during the Government of National Unity of 2009-13 was reversed once again after the 2013 elections and the return of ZANU PF to government. The Government’s economic policy, ZIMASSET, and its indigenisation policy, failed to reinvigorate the economy or foster investor confidence. Economic growth stalled, unemployment and inflation rose, and cash dried up. It may not be insignificant that the government also struggled to pay soldiers and civil servants.

The loss of support of the war veterans: The loss of support was probably one of the first signs that Robert Mugabe’s days were numbered. Central to the land invasions and the intimidation of the opposition during elections, the shifting allegiances illustrated that the old guard had finally lost confidence in Robert Mugabe.

The role of China: During the “not coup”, speculation was rife that the Chinese played an (unspecified) role after becoming disenchanted with Robert Mugabe’s posturing and unpredictability. To what extent this is true is anyone’s guess but it is interesting to note that a week after Mnangagwa’s inauguration a “mega deal” was signed between the new Zimbabwean government and the Chinese.

Looking ahead: seven pressing issues in Mnangagwa’s in-tray

So, if this is a new dawn for Zimbabwe, what must Mnangagwa and his government do to turn the fortunes of the country? We believe there are at least seven pressing issues in the new President’s in-tray.

1. Revitalising the economy: Zimbabwe is gripped by illiquidity and severe cash shortages. Export revenues have diminished and the amount of money in circulation in the economy is only a fraction of what the economy requires. Companies are frequently unable to pay foreign suppliers or to pay employees in cash. Cash withdrawals are capped, leading to large queues at ATMs in urban areas. Across the country people have shifted to mobile money or barter exchange. Businesses utilise a multi-tier pricing system, ie. one price for USD transactions, another for the bond notes that were introduced in November 2016 (but which are drying up), and yet another set of price points for “swiping” (ie. RTGS transactions, card swipes, and mobile money transfers using Eco-Cash, One-Money and Tele-Cash platforms). The 2018 National Budget statement made by the new – in fact, reappointed – Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa, on 7 December 2017 indicated that the government would usher in a new era of fiscal discipline, outlining a number of areas where savings might be made (eg. civil service numbers, transport allowances). This is to be welcomed. Elsewhere, however, the President’s commitment to create “jobs, jobs and more jobs” and to attract investors will require both detail and a translation of rhetoric to practice. Critically, the capability and potential of Zimbabwe’s citizens, including the several million ‘economic exiles’ residing in South Africa, Botswana and further afield, must be harnessed.

2. Improving investor confidence: By mentioning past “policy inconsistencies”, Zimbabwe’s “uncertain and uncompetitive business environment”, and signalling the government’s intent to respect Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (BIPPAs) and move away from the “hard indigenisation” agenda of the Mugabe era, Chinamasa’s National Budget statement sought to reassure current and potential investors. The more business- and investor-friendly rhetoric is important, yet any improvement to the investment climate requires consistent application of policy statements, coupled with the emergence of a more favourable financial environment that comprises more sympathetic commercial lending terms and conditions, and a fair and transparent tax regime that fosters growth, investment and innovation.

3. Improving relations with the international community: China is and China will probably remain Zimbabwe’s most significant economic partner for the foreseeable future. However, Zimbabwe-China relations extend beyond business interests, with both Chiwenga and Mnangagwa having personal ties to China. The resultant speculation that Beijing welcomed the “not coup” may be well-founded. Yet for Zimbabwe to prosper, it must also reengage with the West. On the surface, interests are aligned – the West will presumably wish to assist and be seen to be assisting the new Zimbabwe. That said, the enthusiasm of and degree of anticipated support from some donors or partner governments may have been tempered by the absence of the government of national unity that many expected (but which ZANU PF never publicly entertained). Mnangagwa’s announcement at his inauguration that “isolation has never been splendid or viable” and his pledge to service external debt obligations will be well received. Yet, thorny issues remain and will require careful navigation, even for an apparent pragmatist such as Mnangagwa. For example, while not contesting the basis for land reform, Mnangagwa has committed to paying compensation to commercial farmers who lost their land in the violent and chaotic land reform of the early 2000s. Key details are missing, such as whether farmers will be compensated for the land itself and/or improvements made to it and, critically, who should pay – currently stipulated in the constitution as the former colonial power, i.e. the UK. Since taking office, Mnangagwa has returned a farm to its white owners who were recently evicted in the eastern province of Manicaland.

4. Restoring democracy, freedoms and the rule of law: Mnangagwa has committed to holding democratic elections in 2018 and provisions have been made in the recently released National Budget. The elections must be free and fair and be seen to be such, not least given the nature and alleged origins of the violent crackdown in the 2008 presidential election and the apparent role of the military in encouraging Mugabe to carry on. More broadly, Mnangagwa must ensure that key democratic and governance principles are upheld. That means detangling the interests of ZANU PF and the army from the functioning of the state, enabling the return of a trusted police service, and carefully examining the implications associated with the government’s proposal to amend the constitution in such a way that would run contrary to the principles of devolution. Further to this, it is vital that basic human rights be upheld, such as the right to protest and to criticise those in office. The opposition, civil society and political commentators are watching this space carefully.

5. Tackling corruption: The need to stop corruption was a key theme to both the President’s inaugural speech and the subsequent 2018 National Budget statement. The rhetoric of “swift justice” and an aspiration “to be a clean nation” will be welcomed by many, including international organisations such as the World Bank and IMF. Nonetheless, the rhetoric must be matched by action; observers will be watching what happens once the (positive step) of a three-month amnesty on the return of illegally externalised funds and assets expires. They will also keep a keen eye on the extent to which the arm of the law is exercised without bias and favour.

6. Rehabilitating social services and infrastructure: After decades of neglect there is a need to invest in social services such as health care and education. At present, both sectors are drastically underfunded, underequipped and understaffed, with much of the support coming through the Health Development Fund that is managed by UNICEF. Whilst education improved under the Government of National Unity, performance has tailed away since 2013. Zimbabwe’s education system was once its pride, with Zimbabwe having one of the highest literacy rates on the continent. The 2018 National Budget offers hope, with a 45% increase in funding to health services and almost a billion dollars budgeted for the education sector – the highest funding to a single Ministry. Roads, railways, electricity and water and sanitation systems also desperately need rehabilitation, following decades of neglect and graft.

7. Demonstrating that change processes are real: Expectations are high; perhaps too high. The actions of November saw a convergence or alignment in the interests of a range of quite diverse actors, from the opposition, to factions of the ruling party, the military and the citizens. However, the drivers and the ultimate interests of each group differ. Over time the consequences of this reality will become apparent. The speed or nature of change may frustrate the citizens, not least those who protested so vocally in mid-November and who have been promised jobs, jobs and more jobs. The belief, excitement and groundswell of support for the change makers in the second half of November was palpable. Yet, the opportunity for an inclusive national government of unity was missed (though Mnangagwa did respond to sharp criticism by lightly reshuffling his initial cabinet within 48 hours). It may have been unrealistic to expect another GNU because ZANU PF consistently described the transition as an internal party matter. But what should citizens and the international community expect of the new government? Is it one of change or of continuity? The past of Mnangagwa and his colleagues cannot escape the scrutiny of Zimbabweans. After all, the man ushered in by the military was one of only two men to have been a member of Mugabe’s cabinet since 1980, and someone who was Minister of State for Security at the time of the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s. Should Mnangagwa wish to oversee and champion a new Zimbabwe, he must find a way of (inevitably) rewarding those who facilitated his succession, while reconciling the past and implementing a genuinely progressive and unifying agenda.

Posted in: Global politics, International development, Security and defence


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  • A useful summary and synopsis of what happened and SEVEN good areas to focus on. I am a development professional - former resident of Zimbabwe - only left in 2002 and not some bitter an ex-Rhodie whining about his farm. What is urgently needed is a strong debate on the actual economic situation (based on available data) and a series of articles that debates options. Many of the news agencies talk about the need for the country to re-integrate with the International community - without a mention of the Lima Accords and the fact that the process of trying to clear international debt started some time ago. The current currency shortage is because the Government cleared out everyone (individual and companies) USD accounts to make a large payment earlier in 2017. This needs to be better reported - the role of RBZ and it's brave Governor and his efforts explained. This has enormous consequences for the first step - easing liquidity. I can just see donors falling over themselves to supply the USD 600 million "lifted from the accounts". These early moves at debt clearance have already unlocked donor support - I don't monitor everything but even before Mugabe departed there was substantial donor re-engagement. USAID has tendered and awarded the Zimbabwe Governance and Growth Project - I'm told this project is already operational. The EU has just tendered, evaluated and awarded the Zimbabwe Agricultural Growth Programme - this is a big euro 48 million grant project to revitalize the livestock industry (beef cattle, dairy and poultry). DFID was about to launch a major new program (ZERF - Economic Recovery Facility - all doc'ed up and ready to go) but put it on hold (again before the "not a coup") possible because of concerns as to how much cash DFID was going to have at its disposal with the undetermined cost of Brexit. They have however extended an on-going program in Agriculture - Livelihood and Food Security (Market development) Program - and its main implementation project managed by the FAO in Matebeleland. All this needs to be talked about. If you want change it is projects like these that can lead the way and help Zimbabwe get out of the rut it is in. Doing more of the 'same same' is not going to help. I'm amazed at how "amateur" some of the coverage of the new Presidential Inauguration was - I watched it - did no-one else notice that there was a firm commitment to the use of "a Command Economy" in Agriculture. There has been some great observations by folk at IDS on China's latest contribution to Zimbabwe's "agro-economic recovery" - the country produced a bumper maize crop that cost the equivalent of 62% more than if they had imported maize CIF from Zambia. Plus talk on the street (well actually in well stocked bars and private clubs) that all that fertiliser the cronies got was for the 2016/17 season is "free" because Mugabe has now gone. And what about the massive transfer of funds forced o RBZ so the young Mugabe could secure all the imported fertilizer for the "Command performance" 2017/18. We need to get the facts out so people (especially the expectant Zimbabweans waiting for meaningful change) can start smelling the coffee and mobilising for an electio before they lose out again.