Soldiers stand beside military vehicles just outside Harare, Zimbabwe, November 14, 2017. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
Soldiers stand beside military vehicles just outside Harare, Zimbabwe, November 14, 2017. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

An ambassador to SA from the official opposition political party in Zimbabwe says all indications are that Zimbabwe is heading to military rule.

While the Zimbabwean Defence Forces was at pains to reassure the world that the country was not in the midst of a coup, political experts and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change disagree.

“There are mixed reports‚ we are not really sure what is happening‚” said Austin Moyo‚ the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) shadow ambassador.

Soldiers deployed across Harare and seized the state broadcaster on Wednesday, after 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu (PF) party accused the head of the military of treason.

There was frenzied speculation of a coup but Maj-Gen Sibusiso Moyo said in a televised address in Harare that the Zimbabwe Defence Forces would guarantee the safety of Mugabe and his family, and was only “targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice”.

Denying that the action was a military takeover, Moyo said “as soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect the situation to return to normalcy.”

He urged the other security services to co-operate and warned that “any provocation will be met with an appropriate response”.

The leader of the country's influential liberation war veterans, Chris Mutsvangwa, urged SA, Southern African and the West to engage with the country, saying the military administration would usher in a “better business environment”.

Moyo said on Wednesday morning: “What surprises us is one of the [Zimbabwe Defence Force] generals going on TV at four o’clock in the morning and now there are reports that there are some ministers‚ including Mugabe and his family‚ that have been placed under house arrest.

“All indications are that we are going towards a military rule. Those are the indications at this stage.”

The world awoke on Wednesday to reports of military vehicles driving through the capital as well as gunshots and explosions.

Reportedly‚ military vehicles have surrounded the presidential offices in Harare. The army meanwhile said on state television that it was not a coup.

'Past loyalties'

Moyo said it was common knowledge that axed former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa and the chief of the ZDF‚ Gen Constantine Chiwenga‚ were close, and it was possible the army was divided between Mnangagwa and Mugabe.

Mnangagwa indicated in a statement last week that he “would be returning home soon”.

He was forced to flee Zimbabwe after his axing amid multiple reports of assassination attempts.

“But now‚ this caging that is happening‚ could maybe sway the army generals to say that Mugabe never went on the ground‚ into the bush with a gun fighting‚ but Mnangagwa was on the ground. We will protect our own‚” Moyo explained.

“It will be about past loyalties‚ and who was with who in the bush.”

Moyo said his colleagues within the MDC in Zimbabwe would issue a statement soon but expressed concerns over the voting process under way.

“The voter registration process that is going on will be disturbed‚ that is number one. Number two‚ the election will maybe not take place next year. It sets us back‚ to start afresh at the drawing board‚” he said.

“We have the original MDC from 1999. If the elections are withheld‚ it actually delays us from taking the government.”

Earlier, Reuters reported that the MDC had called in a statement for a peaceful return to constitutional democracy on Wednesday and said it hoped the military intervention would lead to the “establishment of a stable, democratic and progressive nation state".

A coup by any other name

A law lecturer who acted as political advisor to former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai says all evidence points to a “coup” under way in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean academic Alex Magaisa‚ who is now a lecturer in the UK‚ said on Wednesday: “This looks like the end of an era. This is an historic moment for Zimbabwe.”

Speaking on radio 702, Magaisa said: “It’s a coup in all but name. You can describe a frog by many terms but it remains a frog. This is a coup.

“The military has taken over and they are only doing so in order to be able to sell the current political arrangement to the various sectors within the region.

“They know that a coup will not be accepted in the region. They know that it is very difficult to sell‚ so they are trying to dress this in a manner that looks decent‚ but it is a coup.”

Mugabe‚ he said, had never been in this type of situation. “It shows that‚ from now on‚ things will definitely never be the same again‚” he said.

Political analyst Prof Susan Booysen said Mugabe’s days as head of state could soon be over.

She said the action by the country’s soldiers was an interim measure to bring some form of “political reality”.

“We don’t know how it will play out but it seems as if Robert Mugabe’s political days are over‚” Booysen said.

She said it was possible that the military would give him an opportunity to announce that he was stepping down.

“It seems as if it’s a coup by any other name. It’s clear the military has stepped in and assumed power. It’s a question of the military taking over by using the force they have.”

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga shared Booysen’s sentiments.

“It’s already confirmed Mugabe is under house arrest. There is uncertainty as to where Zimbabwe will be going from now because the military are part of the old estate…. Will they allow free elections‚ and by when? Mugabe has been removed but prospects for democracy are not clear‚” Mathekga said.

Capital locked down 

Just 24 hours after military chief Gen Constantino Chiwenga threatened to intervene to end a purge of his allies in Mugabe's Zanu (PF), a Reuters reporter saw armoured personnel carriers on main roads around the capital.

Aggressive soldiers told passing cars to keep moving through the darkness. "Don't try anything funny. Just go," one barked at Reuters on Harare Drive.

Two hours later, soldiers overran the headquarters of the ZBC, Zimbabwe's state broadcaster and a principal Mugabe mouthpiece, and ordered staff to leave. Several ZBC workers were manhandled, two members of staff and a human rights activist said.

Shortly afterwards, three explosions rocked the centre of the southern African nation's capital, Reuters witnesses said.

Despised in the West

In contrast to his elevated status on the continent, Mugabe is reviled in the West as a despot whose disastrous handling of the economy and willingness to resort to violence to maintain power destroyed one of Africa's most promising states.

In the only official word from the government, Isaac Moyo, Zimbabwe's ambassador to SA, earlier dismissed talk of a coup, saying the government was "intact" and blaming social media for spreading false information.

"There's nothing really happening. They are just social media claims," Moyo told Reuters.

The US and Britain advised their citizens in Harare to stay indoors because of "political uncertainty".

"US citizens in Zimbabwe are encouraged to shelter in place until further notice," the US statement said.

The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office statement told "nationals currently in Harare to remain safely at home or in their accommodation until the situation becomes clearer".

Zimbabwe has been on edge since Monday when Chiwenga, commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, said he was prepared to "step in" to end a purge of supporters of sacked vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Only a few months ago, Mnangagwa, a former security chief nicknamed "The Crocodile", was favourite to succeed his life-long political patron but was ousted a week ago to pave the way for Mugabe's 52-year-old wife Grace to succeed him.

'Politics over the gun'

Chiwenga's unprecedented statement represented a major escalation of the struggle to succeed Mugabe, the only leader Zimbabwe has known since it gained independence from Britain in 1980.

Mugabe chaired a weekly cabinet meeting in the capital on Tuesday, officials said, and afterwards ZANU-PF said it stood by the "primacy of politics over the gun" and accused Chiwenga of "treasonable conduct ... meant to incite insurrection." The previous day, Chiwenga had made clear the army's refusal to accept the removal of Mnangagwa - like the generals a veteran of Zimbabwe's anti-colonial liberation war - and the presumed accession of Grace, once a secretary in the government typing pool.

Local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere, a leading figure in her relatively youthful 'G40' faction, refused to answer Reuters questions about the situation in Harare. "I'm in a meeting," he said, before hanging up shortly before midnight.

Army, police and government spokesmen refused to answer numerous phone calls asking for comment.

'Defending our revolution'

Neither Mugabe nor Grace have responded in public to Chiwenga's remarks and state media did not publish his statement. The Herald newspaper posted some of the comments on its Twitter page but deleted them.

The head of ZANU-PF's youth wing, which openly backs Grace, accused the army chief of subverting the constitution.

"Defending the revolution and our leader and president is an ideal we live for and if need be it is a principle we are prepared to die for," Youth League leader Kudzai Chipanga said at the party's headquarters in Harare.

Grace Mugabe's rise has brought her into conflict with the independence-era war veterans, who enjoyed privileged status in Zimbabwe until the last two years when they spearheaded criticism of Mugabe's handling of the economy.

In the last year, a chronic absence of dollars has led to long queues outside banks and an economic and financial collapse that many fear will rival the meltdown of 2007-2008, when inflation topped out at 500 billion percent.

Imported goods are running out and economists say that, by some measures, inflation is now at 50 percent a month.

According to a trove of intelligence documents reviewed by Reuters this year, Mnangagwa has been planning to revitalise the economy by bringing back thousands of white farmers kicked off their land nearly two decades ago and patching up relations with the likes of the World Bank and IMF.

Whatever the outcome, analysts said the military would want to present their move as something other than a full-blown coup to avoid criticism from an Africa keen to leave behind the Cold War continental stereotype of generals being the final arbiters of political power.

"A military coup is the nuclear option," said Alex Magaisa, a UK-based Zimbabwean academic. "A coup would be a very hard sell at home and in the international community. They will want to avoid that." 

With Reuters and Bloomberg

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