What’s Happening In Zimbabwe?

If you’ve been even marginally plugged into the international news over the past week or so, you’ll no doubt have seen a lot of headlines about Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. You’ll probably be aware that he’s being forced from the leadership in a coup, or something that looks a whole lot like a coup.

But there’s not a whole lot of context going around for what is actually happening. Zimbabwe (and indeed most of Africa) doesn’t get a whole lot of detailed coverage in Western media, so it can be hard to work out exactly what is going on. It’s also hard to extricate the situation in the country from the widespread and simplified media perception that it’s just a corrupt, destitute African country.

Let’s try to pick through some of the basic things at play here.

Who is Robert Mugabe?

(Photo: Getty Images / Deaan Vivier)

Mugabe is the 93-year-old President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, having served in that role since 1987. Prior to that, he was the Prime Minister from 1980, before he consolidated the two roles with a constitutional amendment.

He was once one of the leading lights in the anti-colonial movement across Africa. Throughout much of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century, Africa was colonised by various European powers, who looted the country of its resources and did their best to deprive the black populations of basic rights and political representation.

Zimbabwe was previously the unrecognised state of Rhodesia, a former British colony under the yoke of white minority rule. Black rights and representation were severely curtailed. In 1980, Mugabe’s black nationalist organisation ZANU won a brutal guerilla war (alongside rivals and later partners ZAPU) against the Rhodesian military, ending white majority rule. This is a simplified version of what happened, but all you need to know is that Rhodesia as a white-ruled state was over.

Since then, Mugabe has consolidated his power considerably. Many in and outside the country have alleged they have suffered repression under his government as he attempts to fend off threats to his rule. The country’s economy has been incredibly unstable and plagued with allegations of corruption at the highest levels, for which the people have suffered.

Much of the debate around Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s leadership centres around land – specifically farmland. When Mugabe took power in 1980, around 75,000 hectares of productive land were owned by white farmers, who only made up a tiny percentage of the population. These farmers progressively had their land removed from them through various mechanisms and redistributed to black Zimbabweans.

Most Zimbabweans agree with land distribution to some extent, and that majority white ownership of land just ain’t sustainable in a decolonised country. Where they tend to disagree is just how Mugabe’s government has gone about doing it and dealing with the (substantial) economic aftershocks.

Basically, Mugabe often gets painted by all sides as a representation of the failures of African decolonisation: he successfully kicked out the colonisers, but ended up replicating many of the same oppressive structures they had established.

OK, so what happened over the past week? Has he been booted?

He has not been booted, no. In fact the army – who are leading this alleged ‘coup’ – are taking great pains to still refer to him as the president. This wasn’t a ‘toss him out of a helicopter into the sea’ kind of job.

If this is a coup, it’s one of the most remarkably bloodless ones you could imagine. Tanks rolled into the capital, Harare on Tuesday, but there was little conflict to speak of, and they quickly took over the state broadcaster and other organs of power.

Despite expectations that he would resign, Mugabe made an address in which he refused to step down:

In his address, he said that the military hadn’t done anything wrong by seizing power and putting him under house arrest, while refusing to actually relinquish power. It’s a pretty delicate balancing act there.

The armed forces have said from the outset that Mugabe is safe, and that they were “only targeting criminals around [Mugabe] who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country.” 

The chief of Zimbabwe’s armed forces said the military had held “further consultations with the president to agree on a road map,” with the implication being that he might remain in the top job once this boils over.

Why did the armed forces step in now?

Mugabe fired his vice president, Emerson Mnangagwa, last week for “disloyalty”. According to numerous reports, Mnangagwa really bloody wants the presidency, and has a growing coalition behind him including many veterans of the war – who make up a very powerful constituency. The armed forces signalled before they rolled into Harare that they wanted to see an end to the factional infighting that has plagued ruling party ZANU-PF.

Mnangagwa has denounced Mugabe’s government several times since his ouster. You may be shocked to learn that he is not happy about it.

Mugabe is pretty damn old. Who does he want to replace him as president?

This is one of the sticking points that transcends factional fighting – which you see in a lot of governments – into something that the Zimbabwean people are quite pissed off about. Basically, firing Mnangagwa opened the door to Mugabe’s wife Grace slipping into the leadership succession. To put it lightly, nobody particularly likes Grace Mugabe. The Zimbabwean people don’t, ZANU-PF doesn’t, and the armed forces definitely don’t.

Grace Mugabe. (Photo: Getty Images)

It seems this was the straw that broke the camel’s back within his own party, who have generally supported him for his long rule. Of course, there are many, many more power struggles going on, but this looks like it was the catalyst.

What happens next?

ZANU-PF is moving towards impeachment proceedings – which, if successful, would remove Mugabe from power. That would be particularly good outcome for the armed forces, who can then say it was all legitimate, constitutional and definitely not a coup.

Speaking to the press, senior party member Paul Mangwana outlined pretty clearly the party’s position going into these impeachment proceedings:

The main charge is that he has allowed his wife to usurp constitutional power when she has no right to run government. But she is insulting civil servants, the vice president, at public rallies. They are denigrating the army – those are the charges. He has refused to implement the constitution of Zimbabwe – particularly we had elections for the provincial councils, but up to now they have not been put into office.

He is of advanced age, that he no longer has the physical capacity to run government. He is a stubborn man, he can hear the voices of the people, but is refusing to listen.

So the army is taking one route, and the politicians are taking another route. But ultimately they want the same thing: Mugabe gone. He has been booted as the leader of ZANU-PF in favour of fired vice prez Emmerson Mnangagwa, who stands pretty likely to become leader.

They were all quite happy about his removal as leader:

It’s important to remember though while many Zimbabweans are happy about the potential ouster of Mugabe, that this hasn’t really been driven by people power. It’s about power struggles within the ruling party itself – which doesn’t necessarily mean instantly positive outcomes for the citizens themselves. Mnangagwa was formerly head of the secret police, and has been accused of participating in the active repression of opposition parties between 2000 to 2008.

So, apart from the intervention of the armed forces and the arrest of allegedly corrupt officials… probably on the whole marginally less insane than Australia’s current constitutional crisis, really.

Is that all?

Absolutely not, no.

As we’ve tried to make clear, there are a lot of factors at play here, few of which have much to do with the actual Zimbabwean people and their political demands. But that should give you a bit of an idea of what’s been going on – and what might be coming next.

We’ll know more once ZANU-PF has gone through their impeachment proceedings, which could take some time.