Zimbabwe’s “Military-assisted Transition” and Prospects for Recovery


What’s the issue? After Zimbabwe’s military intervened to bring an end to 37 years of rule by former President Robert Mugabe, their continued presence as key political players may complicate the new president’s already difficult task of reinstituting effective governance, curbing corruption and setting the stage for credible elections in 2018.

  • Why does it matter? President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his ruling ZANU-PF party must deliver free and fair elections, and speed up economic, electoral and political reforms, in order to establish their legitimacy and win much-needed donor support and debt relief.

  • What should be done? International actors must press the new president toward reforms, professional and transparent policing, leveling the playing field ahead of the 2018 vote and promoting national reconciliation after past government abuses.

I.Overview

After 37 years in power, Robert Mugabe is no longer Zimbabwe’s president. Over the course of eighteen days in November, conflict among factions within the ruling party over then-Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s bid to succeed the president finally came to a head. The military, intent on preserving interests it felt were threatened by detractors within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) forced Mugabe to resign; Mnangagwa, who had fled the country fearing assassination, was inaugurated on 24 November. He quickly consolidated power, appointing a cabinet filled with supporters, including military officers and war veterans. For its part, ZANU-PF dutifully silenced and sidelined his rivals, expelling his fiercest critics. For Mnangagwa, now comes the hard part: he must rescue a failing economy, reinstitute effective governance and set the stage for credible elections in 2018.

Both then-Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander, General Constantino Chiwenga and Mnangagwa claimed the military intervention was necessary to preserve the revolution and stabilise the country. Observers described it as a “military-assisted transition”, a fudge widely accepted both inside and outside Zimbabwe to avoid labelling it a coup, which would have triggered continental and international sanctions. It was spearheaded by elements of the security sector fearful of the rising influence within ZANU-PF of individuals threatening their political and economic interests. The overall acquiescence in their actions is understandable: it reflects fatigue with Mugabe and hope among Zimbabweans as well as external parties that the new rulers can reverse the country’s calamitous economic decline. Still, the military’s involvement sets a worrying precedent, raising questions about the role of opaque power-brokers.

Those concerns have been exacerbated by Mnangagwa’s cabinet appointments. ZANU-PF appears intent on buying time to consolidate its position ahead of elections that must be held before September 2018 and that it is determined and well placed to win. There is precedent: after it blatantly rigged the 2008 elections and faced both violence and strong regional and international pressure, the party agreed to share power with the opposition but used the next four years to bolster its hold on power and engineer a huge, albeit highly controversial victory in the 2013 elections. Although Mnangagwa has promised “free and fair” elections, he takes over as an unelected president with a limited timeframe and with a long list of overdue electoral reforms to ensure their credibility. He and his government will need to act fast lest the vote be flawed and fail to deliver the required legitimacy for donors to re-engage and for Zimbabweans to work together on the country’s recovery.

The military’s actions in Zimbabwe – ousting a president to prevent an outcome inimical to its interests – were far from unique, the most recent example being the Egyptian armed forces’ 2011 ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak. The lesson learned from those precedents is that how President Mnangagwa acts now, and how the international community reacts, matter. In several respects, President Mnangagwa’s inaugural speech set a new tone. He focused on economic stimulus, rule of law and responsible governance. What he failed to mention was electoral and security sector reform, national healing, devolution of power and reconciliation. And what he failed to do was reach out to the opposition or ensure the executive was staffed with competent technocrats. The test will be what he does next and how vigilant international actors are in pressing him to head in the right direction, notably by making their support contingent on the holding of credible elections.

The new president has asked for patience. He says he needs time to address the country’s multiple challenges. This is a reasonable request. However, to achieve his goals, and cement a legacy as the leader who turned Zimbabwe around, he will have to lay the foundation for institutionalising rule of law, respect for the constitution and – of crucial importance in the run-up to the 2018 vote – implementing procedures that can ensure free and fair elections. The military’s return to the barracks and the resumption of normal duties by the Zimbabwe Republic Police after five weeks is an important step. In this spirit, initial actions should include:

  • Develop and implement a plan to professionalise policing with sufficient and transparent civilian oversight.

  • Fund the requested extension of the comprehensive biometric voter registration process and improved transparency.

  • Commit to a national dialogue on the economic reform strategy to be led by an independent committee that would include representatives from the opposition, civil society, the churches and important commercial sectors.

  • Promote national reconciliation, notably by addressing past government abuses.

II.An Ignoble End to Africa’s Oldest Revolutionary

The back story of Mugabe’s dramatic fall is beginning to emerge; more details will seep out in coming weeks and months. What is clear is that Mnangagwa’s dismissal and subsequent expulsion from ZANU-PF on 6 November, coupled with moves to change the military command, was the catalyst for military intervention. Efforts by Generation 40 (G40) faction members of ZANU-PF to consolidate their position and Grace Mugabe’s elevation to vice president also threatened the positions and interests of key members of the security sector. Indeed, tensions between Mugabe and elements in the security sector had been growing for some time, especially in relation to their – and Mnangagwa’s – declining influence in party structures. Since December 2015, Mugabe had twice publicly admonished the military for interfering in internal ZANU-PF politics; Grace Mugabe’s public insults and divisiveness poured fuel on the fire. The G40 faction of younger politicians and Mnangagwa detractors presented another challenge, threatening the status quo and related economic interests, said to include control over the Marange diamond fields.

Warned his life was in danger, Mnangagwa fled to Mozambique. From there he reportedly headed to China, where General Chiwenga was on a prearranged visit. Although he claimed on 8 November that he would be back in a matter of weeks, many believed Mnangagwa had acted too late to mount a comeback. ZANU-PF leaders had purged some of his key supporters; provincial party structures, keen to ingratiate themselves with the Mugabes and the G40 leaders, were calling for more expulsions. The chairman of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, Ambassador Chris Mutsvangwa, retreated to South Africa, where he gave media interviews vigorously attacking the Mugabes and the G40 for hijacking the party.

Before leaving for China on 5 November, Chiwenga was aware of plans to purge him and other senior military officers. His allies then foiled an attempt to arrest him on his return on 12 November. The following day, Chiwenga, flanked by some 90 senior officers, issued a five-page statement from the army’s King George VI (since renamed Josiah Tongogara) barracks, warning that ZANU-PF had been infiltrated by counter-revolutionaries intent on destroying the party. It was an unprecedented threat, amounting to a pre-emptive final warning and clear message that they were going to act. The state media was prevented from covering the statement. Forty hours later the officers made their move, announcing on national television that they had been forced to intervene for security reasons.

Over the last seventeen years, key commanders have publicly stated they will not allow someone without liberation movement credentials to take control of the country. This was initially directed at the opposition and had never before been publicly directed at the G40. An unknown number of G40 leaders and their allies in the security sector, reportedly including Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, were detained, and Mugabe and his wife were confined to their home, purportedly “for security reasons”.

The military were at pains to ensure a legal and constitutional veneer for their intervention given that a coup remains a red line for both the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU), and would have resulted in sanctions, as well as sinking prospects for donor support. The military and its co-conspirators therefore needed Mugabe’s acquiescence, which was his final bargaining chip. He refused to step down and a standoff ensued as he attempted to cling to power as well as obtain guarantees for his family and key G40 members.

However, Mugabe’s position was made increasingly untenable by unprecedented mass demonstrations on 18 November calling for him to step down. On 19 November, ZANU-PF’s Central Committee dismissed Mugabe as party leader, and replaced him with the reinstated Mnangagwa. It also expelled Grace Mugabe and senior G40 leaders from the party, and reinstated membership for all those subjected to disciplinary measures since 2014. The president was given until midday on 20 November to resign or face impeachment.

Mugabe addressed the nation on the night of 19 November. Flanked by security chiefs, he began by acknowledging the gravity of the situation, affirmed the army’s intervention was well intentioned and not illegal. Then, to widespread disbelief and anger, he failed to resign.

On the morning of 20 November, the war veterans’ leadership and street demonstrators demanded the president’s impeachment. Chiwenga called for patience, pointing out that Mugabe was in communication with Mnangagwa, who would be returning to Zimbabwe shortly. There was no mention of resignation. It was a tangible step-back that reflected the military’s desire for a political conclusion to the crisis.

That afternoon, preparations for the impeachment process got underway and Mnangagwa released his first statement in ten days, calling for Mugabe to step aside. He affirmed the military’s intervention, “Operation Restore Legacy”, was intended to preserve “the ethos of our struggle against British colonialism”, that the impeachment process must now take its course and that he would return when “the right conditions for security and stability prevail”.

On the morning of 21 November, Mugabe tried to call his remaining cabinet members together but only a handful turned up. Impeachment proceedings moved ahead, co-sponsored by both ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T). The charge sheet was an embarrassing litany of failures attributed to Mugabe. Conscious that the game was up, the president tendered his resignation letter, which had reportedly been written several days earlier. Zimbabweans spilled out into the streets in droves to celebrate his departure. The scene was set for Mnangagwa’s triumphant return.

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