Tanks on streets but Zimbabwe army says not a coup, Mugabe is safe: What we know

Updated on Nov 15, 2017 02:41 PM IST
Zimbabwe’s military said it had seized power in a targeted assault on “criminals” around President Robert Mugabe, but gave assurances that the 93-year-old leader and his family were “safe and sound”.
Soldiers stand beside military vehicles just outside Harare, Zimbabwe.(Reuters Photo)
Soldiers stand beside military vehicles just outside Harare, Zimbabwe.(Reuters Photo)
Harare | ByAgencies

Military vehicles took to the streets of the Zimbabwe’s capital and prolonged gunfire was heard near the presidential residence early on Wednesday as questions mounted over Robert Mugabe’s grip on power, even as the army denied a coup in a state broadcast.

Zimbabwe’s military confirmed that it had seized power in a targeted assault on “criminals” around the President but gave assurances that the 93-year-old leader and his family were “safe and sound”.

The night’s action triggered speculation of a coup, but the military’s supporters praised it as a “bloodless correction”.

Here’s what we know so far:

What happened?

Overnight, at least three explosions were heard in Harare, and military vehicles were seen in the streets. Armed soldiers in armoured personnel carriers stationed themselves at key points in Harare, while Zimbabweans formed long lines at banks in order to draw the limited cash available, a routine chore in the country’s ongoing financial crisis. People looked at their phones to read about the army takeover and others went to work or to shops.

The military has detained finance minister Ignatius Chombo after seizing power in an attempt to root out “criminals” around President Robert Mugabe who it said were causing social and economic suffering, a government source said.

The army said in a statement after taking over the state broadcaster that it was not a coup, with Major General Sibusiso Moyo denying the army was targeting the 93-year-old leader Robert Mugabe. “It is not a military takeover of government,” Moyo said, adding: “We wish to assure the nation that his excellency the president... and his family are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed.

Army General Constantino Chiwenga Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces addressing a media conference held at the Zimbabwean Army Headquarters in Harare. (AFP File Photo)
Army General Constantino Chiwenga Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces addressing a media conference held at the Zimbabwean Army Headquarters in Harare. (AFP File Photo)

“We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes... As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy,” he added.

He urged other security forces to “cooperate for the good of our country,” warning that “any provocation will be met with an appropriate response”.

Where is Mugabe?

Zimbabwe’s army said it has Robert Mugabe and his wife in custody and is securing government offices and patrolling the capital’s streets following the night of unrest. It was not clear where Mugabe and his wife were on Wednesday.

The world’s oldest head of state reportedly attended a weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Growing opposition to Mugabe

Mugabe last week fired vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa and accused him of plotting to take power, including through witchcraft.

Mnangagwa, who enjoyed the military’s backing and once was seen as a potential president, fled the country and said he had been threatened. Over 100 senior officials allegedly supporting him have been listed for disciplinary measures by a faction associated with Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

Earlier this year the country was gripped by a bizarre spat between Grace and Mnangagwa that included an alleged ice-cream poisoning incident that laid bare the pair’s rivalry.

A street scene along Robert Mugabe road in Harare, Tuesday, November, 14, 2017. The Associated Press saw three armored personnel carriers with several soldiers in a convoy on a road heading toward an army barracks just outside the capital, Harare. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi) (AP)
A street scene along Robert Mugabe road in Harare, Tuesday, November, 14, 2017. The Associated Press saw three armored personnel carriers with several soldiers in a convoy on a road heading toward an army barracks just outside the capital, Harare. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi) (AP)

The first lady appeared to be positioned to replace Mnangagwa as one of the country’s two vice presidents at a special conference of the ruling party in December, leading many in Zimbabwe to suspect that she could succeed her husband. Grace Mugabe is unpopular with some Zimbabweans because of lavish spending as many struggle, and four people accused of booing her at a recent rally were arrested.

Military-govt rift

For the first time, this southern African nation is seeing an open rift between the military and Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state who has ruled since independence from white minority rule in 1980. The military has been a key pillar of his power.

The military’s actions have been seen as a major challenge to the increasingly frail leader. Days before, army commander Constantino Chiwenga had issued an unprecedented statement saying purges against senior ruling ZANU-PF party officials, many of whom like Mnangagwa fought for liberation, should end “forthwith”.

“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” the army commander said. The state-run broadcaster did not report on his statement.

The ruling party accused the commander of “treasonable conduct.”

Economic-political instability

Frustration has been growing in once-prosperous Zimbabwe as the economy collapsed under Mugabe. The country was shaken last year by the biggest anti-government protests in a decade, and a once-loyal war veterans association turned on the president, calling him “dictatorial” and blaming him for the economic crisis.

“Mnangagwa was held out by many as the best hope within ZANU-PF for piloting an economic recovery,” analyst Piers Pigou with the International Crisis Group wrote on Tuesday.

Now, “Mugabe will have to employ all his guile if he intends to ensure continued accommodation with the armed forces.”

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