On Tuesday night, Robert Mugabe was placed under house arrest by Zimbabwe’s military. While speculation has mounted over the potential end to the rule of one of the world’s longest-surviving dictators, observers warn any intervention is likely to maintain much of the status quo.
The military have been keen to emphasize that placing Mugabe under house arrest was not a coup. A military spokesman, Major General SB Moyo said on state television that army generals were dealing with “criminal elements” surrounding President Mugabe. But in the media blackout that ensued, speculation has mounted regarding the future implications of the military’s actions, both for Zimbabwe and the wider region.
Securing internal continuity
Zimbabwe’s current crisis began on November 8 when Mugabe, who has ruled since independence in 1980, removed long-term ally Emmerson Mnangagwa from his post as vice-president and presumptive heir.
The sacking of Mnangagwa immediately drew a rebuke from the country’s army chief who said the army was prepared to act to end purges within Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. At a news conference on November 13, army chief General Constantino Chiwenga said the in-fighting in Zanu-PF was aimed at “purging” politicians who fought for the country’s independence.
“When it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” he said. Mnangagwa is a veteran of the 1970s war which freed Zimbabwe from colonial rule. He is alleged to have committed human rights abuses both during that armed struggle and while in government.
Mugabe is reported to be under house arrest and is in negotiation with the military, and it has been speculated that he will step down in to pave the way for Mnangagwa, who will lead a transitional government. Observers such as conflict prevention NGO Crisis Group have suggested Mugabe could invite Mnangagwa back as Vice President and later step aside for him ahead of elections in December.
Henning Melber, a professor in political science at the University of Pretoria, says that the military’s main aim is to maintain the status quo. “Mnangagwa is one of them and will most likely be the new strong man as from now,” he told WikiTribune. “The military is keen not to damage Mugabe more than necessary and also to withdraw visibly from politics.”
Under Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe’s economy has stagnated, while his autocratic rule has made international donors reluctant to offer assistance.
In an article for market research group IHS Markit, analyst Theophilus Acheampong wrote that a post-Mugabe government is likely to become more pro-business in an endeavour to seek international support.
As president, Mnangagwa would be expected to reinstate his ally Patrick Chinamasa, who was removed from his post as finance minister on October 9. Before his removal, Chinamasa had argued for economic reforms and austerity measures designed to promote economic recovery and a rapprochement with international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The African Union and Southern African Development Community, two intergovernmental groups in which Zimbabwe has an important voice, will both meet on November 16 to discuss the situation.
Piers Pigou, a Southern Africa consultant at Crisis Group, also wrote that among these bodies “there have been growing frustrations with how Mugabe has been mishandling internal factional dynamics, the economy and the unresolved issues of his own succession.”
A smooth transition of power could ease the concerns of regional allies and, combined with economic reforms, could provide the groundwork to help rebuild Zimbabwe’s international standing.
Melber suggested that while institutional reforms could be achieved in the long-run, wholesale changed seemed unlikely. “The new power centre will have substantial elements of the power circles which have already been established for decades,” he said. “Continuity rather than change will be the guiding principle.”