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Vol 58 No 23

Published 17th November 2017


The crocodile snaps back

Along with the early morning mist, a mood of quiet elation enveloped Harare as news spread that President Mugabe was under house arrest

During the night of 14-15 November Zimbabwe Defence Forces soldiers were posted to strategic points in the capital, such as the police headquarters, the Central Intelligence Organisation, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and The Herald newspaper. The lead authors of the military action – sacked Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and General Constantino Chiwenga – had prepared the ground for the operation and troops encountered little resistance at the barracks of the Presidential Guard and its commander Brigadier-General Anselem Sanyatwe. Neutralising them was the first part of the military action, we understand.

Although the action was triggered by the sacking of Mnangagwa on 6 November (see chronology, Zimbabwe's week of upheaval), it had been planned several weeks earlier, with senior officers consulting South African and Chinese officials. Within Zimbabwe, security was tighter still amid concerns that the CIO had been monitoring the movements of Chiwenga and other top officers.

In South Africa, Mnangagwa, Chiwenga and Chris Mutsvangwa, the 'war veterans' leader and former ambassador to China, talked to local security officials about the implications of their military action in Harare. We understand they were given assurances of non-intervention by South Africa so long as the action didn't spill over the borders and remained 'broadly constitutional'. Chiwenga and Mnangagwa promised to find a way to avoid the action being stigmatised as a military coup by the African Union or the Southern African Development Community.

For that reason, Zimbabwe's top officers kept emphasising that it was 'not a military takeover' and that it was not aimed at President Robert Mugabe, 'only targeting criminals around him', despite all the evidence to the contrary, including reports of arrangements for Mugabe to leave the country. 

As Chiwenga and Mnangagwa try to consolidate power, they may seek to use the forthcoming congress of the ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front next month to win an imprimatur for the transition, and Mnangagwa's role as leader. The action could hardly have come at a worse time for the opposition, which is fractious and on the back foot.

There are signs that veteran Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been offered a role in a transitional government along with Joice Mujuru, who was sacked as Vice-President three years ago. Such a move could buy the new order some time and perhaps trigger an inflow of new money into the sinking economy.

Most Zimbabweans were treating the military action as an internal ZANU-PF affair. Opposition activists were struggling to produce a coherent response to the military takeover: alternately glad to see the demise of the Mugabe regime, but with grave concerns about the chances of a democratic transition. 

Military movements in the capital were disciplined and professional, as if the soldiers were acting according to a rehearsed plan.


Zimbabwe's week of upheaval

• Sunday, 5 November: Zimbabwe Defence Forces Commander General Constantino Chiwenga leaves for a meeting with China's Defence Minister Chang Wanquan in Beijing. The meeting was discreetly and hastily arranged by Chiwenga to win Beijing's support for a 'smart takeover of power', we hear. Chiwenga's message was that a planned purge of the armed forces by the G40 faction of the ruling party, which has supported Grace Mugabe, would destabilise the country and threaten China's interests. At a rally in Bulawayo, President Robert Mugabe, apparently unaware of the purpose of Chiwenga's mission, rebukes Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa for stirring division in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

Grace Mugabe calls Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa a 'coup plotter' and a 'coward'.

• Monday, 6 November: President Mugabe sends Mnangagwa a letter dismissing him as Vice-President. Information Minister Simon Khaya Moyo then announces that Mnangagwa had shown 'traits of disloyalty, disrespect and unreliability'.

• Tuesday, 7 November: Mugabe widens the purge and sacks three ministers and Mnangagwa allies: Cyber-Security Minister Patrick Chinamasa, Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri and Minister of State in the President's Office, Chris Mushohwe.

Mnangagwa, helped by his son David, crosses the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border, with South Africa his eventual destination.

• Wednesday, 8 November: Mnangagwa releases a strongly-worded critique of the clique around Mugabe, blaming it for economic deterioration and accusing Mugabe's family of treating ZANU-PF as their personal property.  

• Thursday, 9 November: Harare International Airport is renamed Robert Mugabe International Airport and is earmarked for a US$153 million upgrade financed by the Export-Import Bank of China.

Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo announces that Zimbabwe's budget deficit is to hit US$1.82 billion or 11.2% of gross domestic product this year. 

• Sunday, 12 November: General Chiwenga returns to Zimbabwe via South Africa from his trip to Beijing. Having heard that Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri had orders to arrest him, he arranges to be met by a large group of soldiers. Over the past week he had been resisting pressure from Mugabe to resign as ZDF Commander.

• Monday, 13 November: Calling a press conference in Harare, Chiwenga, filmed and distributed on YouTube and social media, reads a statement blaming the failing economy on factionalism in ZANU-PF over the past five years, and arguing that the ruling party's problems were caused by 'elements who did not struggle with us in the War of Liberation' (i.e. the G40 faction). He also demanded that ZANU-PF stop purging liberation heroes. 

On the dais with Chiwenga are 90 top military chiefs, but not Chihuri. Chiwenga's message is published on the website of the state newspaper, The Herald, but immediately taken down. It is not given any coverage on the state news broadcasts that night, nor is it printed in The Herald the following morning. 

• Tuesday, 14 November: Chairman of the ZANU-PF Youth League, Kudzanai Chipanga, releases a statement blaming the military for the 'missing 15 billion' (a trope used by activists to call the Mugabe government to account over missing diamond revenue), declaring that the youth will defend the revolution. Chipanga's statement is broadcast on the state media and broadcasting services. 

ZANU-PF Secretary for Information Simon Khaya Moyo, said the government wants to reaffirm 'the primacy of politics over the gun'. At 10.00, our correspondent sees soldiers driving into Harare to meet others already in the centre of the city. Other reports emerge of armoured cars and tanks heading towards the base of the Presidential Guard in Tynwald, some 15 kilometres out of Harare.

Reports of troop movements into Harare begin to filter across different social media platforms, illustrated by video footage, some of questionable vintage. There are also claims that Mugabe's residence has been surrounded by tanks. In fact, there were no tanks outside Mugabe's house and there were few disruptions to traffic across Harare.

After the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation's 20.00 bulletin, where journalists refuse to broadcast Chiwenga's statement from the previous day, a group of military officers break into the compound. Staff and journalists are assaulted and a military guard is put on the gate. The 23.00 news bulletin is not broadcast. 

• Wednesday, 15 November: At around 02.00, people in Harare report sounds of explosions and gunfire in the capital, but they may have been mistaken as an exceptionally heavy thunderstorm was breaking at the time. Some appear to have thought the thunderclaps were signs of military clashes in the city.

04.00: General Sibusiso Moyo reads a statement on ZBC, reporting that President Mugabe and his family are safe: 'We are only targeting criminals around him [Mugabe] who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country… we urge you to remain calm and limit unnecessary movement.' He promises to protect civil servants from purges that the government was apparently planning and emphasises that this is 'not a military take-over'. He adds, 'What the Zimbabwe Defence Forces is actually doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country, which if not addressed may result in a violent conflict.'

Pointedly, the statement warned 'the other security forces', which is taken to mean elements in the Central Intelligence Organisation and recalcitrant police officers, 'We urge you to cooperate for the good of our country. Let it be clear that we intend to address the human security threats in our country. Therefore, any provocation will be met with an appropriate response.'

For much of the morning, ZBC replayed a loop of Chiwenga's statement, followed by Gen. Moyo's statement and then old clips of Liberation Struggle songs. 

By 05.30 roads into the Central Business District of the city are blocked by tanks and soldiers in full combat uniform. The rain has stopped, but a thick mist descends on the capital. Military forces set up roadblocks outside the airport and on all the main roads into town, where they check IDs and vehicles. Buses, taxis and private vehicles are driving across Harare without much interference.

Initially, the military's focus of the action was on the anti-Mnangagwa or G40 faction. ZANU-PF Youth League leader Chipanga was arrested by the military during the night. 

Finance Minister Chombo's house was raided early in the day. Images on social media showed his gate battered down and there were unconfirmed reports of a gunfight in which one of his bodyguards may have been killed. G40 lynchpins such as Higher Education Minister Jonathan Moyo and Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere were said to be under arrest late on
15 November but they both appear on a wanted list issued by the military.






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