Myanmar’s military appears to be testing out a range of vicious tactics in the hope something will stem the protest movements that have embroiled the country since the coup in early February.
The military crossed a grim threshold last Wednesday when security forces fired live rounds at protesters across the country, resulting in what the UN said were at least 30 deaths and hundreds of critical injuries.
Then, on Saturday, security forces beat and took away Khin Maung Latt, a Muslim ward chairman for the former ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The next morning, the family recovered his tortured and mutilated body from the hospital.
That night, the father of MP Sithu Maung, who is one of only two Muslim politicians elected to represent the NLD last year, was beaten and dragged away by security forces. He has not been heard from since.
And this week, another NLD official, Zaw Myatt Linn, died in custody less than a day after being arrested.
These brutal attacks appear designed not only to terrorise the NLD, protesters and others taking part in the civil disobedience campaign, but the Muslim community, in particular.
Myanmar’s Muslim minorities have a history of persecution by the military and other nationalist groups. Brutalising Muslims now may be an attempt to bolster support within the few remaining parts of society that still back the military.
A history of self-delusion and miscalculations
There have now been more than 60 protesters killed and almost 2,000 arrested, but nothing has stopped the popular rage against the coup makers and their ill-considered plans.
Any grudging respect the military may have retained for its role in guiding the political transition over the past decade has now well and truly evaporated.
The military has a reputation for self-delusion, and it certainly miscalculated the public mood prior to launching the coup that ousted the NLD from power just weeks after it won an overwhelming majority in national elections.
The military’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, may have convinced himself that Thailand could be a model for how to transition from the coup to semi-democratic elections. If so, he is likely to be severely disappointed.
Thailand’s military seized power in 2014, and five years later, the coup leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, won a compromised election to retain his position as prime minister.
But Thai society is much more divided between liberal and nationalist monarchist movements, giving the military there a sizeable support base. In Myanmar, the military doesn’t enjoy the same popular backing, which was why its proxy party suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2020 election.
A further escalation of violence against unarmed protesters in Myanmar is likely to undermine support from the military’s few international allies, including China. It seems there are no good options left for the military to resolve this entirely self-inflicted crisis.
A fragmented but effective opposition movement
The bruising standoff between the military and opposition is now a war of attrition. No one knows for sure who will last the longest.
The opposition movement is comprised of many interlocking parts, of which the protests are not the only — or even the most important.
The civil disobedience movement, mostly made up of striking or uncooperative workers, is paralysing major parts of the economy. Large numbers of civil servants remain at their desks, but are not doing any work, bringing government activity to a halt.
The country’s largest trade unions launched an indefinite, nationwide strike this week, as well.
The loose, anarchic structure of the opposition movement — with few leaders and highly decentralised modes of organisation, funding and operations — means the military cannot easily decapitate the movement.
The military tried to silence the most symbolic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, by placing her under arrest, but it hasn’t affected the opposition’s ability to organise or tap into public anger against the military.
Sources inside the country suggest the civil disobedience movement has been energised by Myanmar’s UN ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, who defied the military and declared its rule illegitimate. His courage has proved a lightning rod for the millions of angry protesters looking for inspiration and moral clarity.
These protesters now seem committed to the confrontation. The best approach may be to foment division within the military and police in the hopes of undermining Min Aung Hlaing’s authority.
Security forces haven’t rebelled in great numbers in the past, even when ordered to crack down on the Buddhist monks leading the Saffron Revolution in 2007. But after a decade of political and economic liberties, Myanmar has changed profoundly. Some in the military and police have changed along with it and might not be amenable if a major crackdown is ordered against their own citizens.
If so, there are likely to be increased defections of security forces to the opposition.
What can the world do?
This conflict will be resolved one way or the other by the duelling groups within Myanmar. The outside world has few levers left to pull.
The UN Security Council, for one, remains largely deadlocked on the issue, with China and Russia unwilling to deliver strong statements or endorse any serious action against the military.
The US and other Western nations have implemented sanctions on members of the military and military-linked companies, but many of these were already in place in response to the violence against the Rohingya in recent years.
Australia has also suspended its cooperation with the military and directed all aid funds through non-state actors. This is a welcome measure.
If real external pressure is to be applied on the Myanmar generals, it may have to come from the ASEAN countries — specifically Singapore, one of the biggest investors in Myanmar.
Singapore’s political and commercial leaders are now facing pressure to take a stronger stand. Soon after the coup, a prominent Singaporean businessman divested from a Myanmar tobacco company, which is majority-owned by a military conglomerate.
Kirin, a giant Japanese brewer, pulled out of its joint venture with the same conglomerate.
If other companies can similarly suspend their deals with the military, it will certainly help to strangle the key sources of revenue keeping Myanmar’s top brass in power.
The bravery of the protesters on the streets needs to be matched by a clear international message that Myanmar’s coup-makers cannot expect a financial lifeline to maintain their homicidal rule.
Just before the newly elected members of Myanmar’s parliament were due to be sworn in today, the military detained the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi; the president, Win Myint; and other key figures from the elected ruling party, the National League for Democracy.
The military later announced it had taken control of the country for 12 months and declared a state of emergency. This is a coup d’etat, whether the military calls it that or not.
A disputed election and claims of fraud
Humiliated by the result, the USDP alleged the election was subject to widespread fraud. However, international observers, including the Carter Center, the Asian Network for Free Elections and the European Union’s Election Observation Mission, all declared the elections a success. The EU’s preliminary statement noted that 95% of observers had rated the process “good” or “very good”.
the results of the elections were credible and reflected the will of the majority voters.
Yet, taking a page out of former US President Donald Trump’s book, the USDP pressed its claims of fraud despite the absence of any substantial evidence — a move designed to undermine the legitimacy of the elections.
The military did not initially back the USDP’s claims, but it has gradually begun to provide the party with more support, with the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, refusing to rule out a coup last week.
The following day, the country’s election authorities broke weeks of silence and firmly rejected the USDP’s claims of widespread fraud — setting the stage for what Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U called
[Myanmar’s] most acute constitutional crisis since the abolition of the old junta in 2010.
The civilian-military power-sharing arrangement
It is difficult to see how the military will benefit from today’s actions, since the power-sharing arrangement it had struck with the NLD under the 2008 constitution had already allowed it to expand its influence and economic interests in the country.
The military had previously ruled Myanmar for half a century after General Ne Win launched a coup in 1962. A so-called internal “self-coup” in 1988 brought a new batch of military generals to power. That junta, led by Senior General Than Shwe, allowed elections in 1990 that were won in a landslide by Suu Kyi’s party. The military leaders, however, refused to acknowledge the results.
In 2008, a new constitution was drawn up by the junta which reserved 25% of the national parliament seats for the military and allowed it to appoint the ministers of defence, border affairs and home affairs, as well as a vice president. Elections in 2010 were boycotted by the NLD, but the party won a resounding victory in the next elections in 2015.
Since early 2016, Suu Kyi has been de facto leader of Myanmar, even though there is still no civilian oversight of the military. Until this past week, the relationship between civilian and military authorities was tense at times, but overall largely cordial. It was based on a mutual recognition of overlapping interests in key areas of national policy.
Indeed, this power-sharing arrangement has been extremely comfortable for the military, as it has had full autonomy over security matters and maintained lucrative economic interests.
In the wake of that pogrom, Suu Kyi vigorously defended both the country and its military at the International Court of Justice. Myanmar’s global reputation — and Suu Kyi’s once-esteemed personal standing — suffered deeply and never recovered.
Nonetheless, there was one key point of contention between the NLD and military: the constitutional prohibitions that made it impossible for Suu Kyi to officially take the presidency. Some NLD figures have also voiced deep concerns about the permanent role claimed by the armed forces as an arbiter of all legal and constitutional matters in the country.
A backwards step for Myanmar
Regardless of how events unfold this week and beyond, Myanmar’s fragile democracy has been severely undermined by the military’s actions.
The NLD government has certainly had its shortcomings, but a military coup is a significant backwards step for Myanmar — and is bad news for democracy in the region.
It’s difficult to see this action as anything other than a way for General Min Aung Hlaing to retain his prominent position in national politics, given he is mandated to retire this year when he turns 65. With the poor electoral performance of the USDP, there are no other conceivable political routes to power, such as through the presidency.
A coup will be counterproductive for the military in many ways. Governments around the world will likely now apply or extend sanctions on members of the military. Indeed, the US has released a statement saying it would “take action” against those responsible. Foreign investment in the country — except perhaps from China — is also likely to plummet.
As Myanmar’s people have already enjoyed a decade of increased political freedoms, they are also likely to be uncooperative subjects as military rule is re-imposed.
The 2020 general election demonstrated, once again, the distaste in Myanmar for the political role of the armed forces and the enduring popularity of Suu Kyi. Her detention undermines the fragile coalition that was steering Myanmar through a perilous period, and could prove a messy end to the profitable détente between civilian and military forces.
Fiji faces a general election on Wednesday, just as Australia’s main political parties devote more attention to the western Pacific, driven by worries about China’s growing influence in the region.
For most Australians, the nation is a handy holiday destination – closer than Bali or Thailand. Last month, its palm-fringed beaches were in the global spotlight when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex took a trip to the former British colony.
Anyone with a longer memory will perhaps associate Fiji with coups – two in 1987 and one in 2006. There was also a putsch – a civilian overthrow of the government – in 2000.
This week’s general election is only the second since Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, who often goes by the name Frank, appointed himself prime minister after the 2006 coup. He was eventually elected in 2014 and is expected to be re-elected this week.
For Australia, the strategic importance of the western Pacific is coming into sharp focus.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced $3 billion in infrastructural spending in the region. He has committed the Australian Defence Force to military training in Pacific nations.
Australia has an abiding interest in a south-west Pacific that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically.
In a speech to the Lowy Institute last month, Bill Shorten committed a future Labor government to an independent foreign policy with a strong Pacific focus. It would support Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga to develop their military capabilities.
On Fiji, he said:
We want to mend the relationship with the RFMF [Republic of Fiji Military Forces], to ensure that the ADF [Australian Defence Force] is best-placed to develop the Fiji military’s professional capabilities and to ensure Fiji’s security needs.
For Fijian voters, the military is never far from politics.
However, as he disliked the Constitution put to him by an independent review in 2009, Bainimarama decreed his own in 2013. Section 131 (2) of that Constitution gives ultimate political authority to the military:
It shall be the overall responsibility of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to ensure at all times the security, defence and well-being of Fiji and all Fijians.
The military has tended to be the arbiter in national affairs since the first coup in 1987.
As Bainimarama put it before the 2006 coup:
[Prime Minister Laisenia] Qarase is trying to weaken the army by trying to remove me … if he succeeds there will be no one to monitor them, and imagine how corrupt it is going to be.
The coups and the putsch were ostensibly statements of indigenous nationalism – indigenous Fijians asserting their rights over the generally wealthier and better educated descendants of Indian indentured labourers brought to Fiji by British colonial authorities between 1879 and 1916.
However, Fijian politics is vastly more complicated than an indigenous non-indigenous binary. The contentious point, according to Professor Brij V. Lal of the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, “is not really about having a Fijian head of government,” but rather which Fijian leader would be acceptable to a particular group of Fijians at any given time”.
The prime minister’s main rival clears legal hurdle
Bainimarama’s main opponent is an indigenous former prime minister and coup leader, Sitiveni Rabuka. Bainimarama is also an indigenous Fijian.
Rabuka faced electoral fraud charges that could have seen him declared him ineligible to stand at the election. Rabuka’s acquittal in the Magistrate’s Court was appealed by the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption, and dismissed by the High Court only on Monday afternoon. At his campaign launch in 2018, Rabuka ominously remarked:
I am here to do what I can for as long as I ever can for the good of the country.
However, indigenous nationalism and how the right to self-determination might be played out is important. It is interwoven with class, religion and an urban/rural divide to add to the fragility and complexity of Fiji’s conditional democracy.
Just as it did in 2014, Bainimarama’s Fiji First is campaigning on a range of issues including the building of a multiracial society. Practical measures to improve access to education and healthcare are also important to Fiji First.
Land ownership and rental returns are key political issues
Rabuka’s Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) argues for the restoration of distinctive indigenous voice in public life. It seeks the restoration of the Great Council of Chiefs and of chiefly influence over the distribution of rental incomes.
SODELPA will also begin extensive public consultation on the drafting of a new Constitution.
Ultimately, indigenous prosperity depends on the strength of the national economy. This, in turn, depends on political stability. Contemporary Fiji enjoys neither. While there are signs of improving economic growth, the Fijian people face two obstacles in ensuring that the outcome of Wednesday’s election reflects their collective will.
Firstly, registering to vote then casting a valid and informed vote is difficult. Secondly, as Fiji’s history since 1987 shows, and as the 2013 Constitution confirms, the election’s outcome is ultimately subject to military approval. It may not, then, be in Australia’s best interests to support a stronger Fijian military.
Democratic stability serves Australia’s interests. In Fiji, democracy can be strong only when the military is weak.
Despite claims to the contrary by the Zimbabwean military spokesperson Major General Sibusiso Moyo, Zimbabwe is in the throes of its first coup d’état since independence in 1980. Robert Mugabe, the only head of state the country has known in its 37-year existence, is today under house arrest, and the former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has long aspired to succeed Mugabe, has returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa, after having fled on November 6.
It appears that Mugabe’s decision to sack Mnangagwa – possibly at the behest of his wife, Grace Mugabe – may turn out to have been his last major decision as president.
These events have provoked much interest and anticipation around the world, and not least from Zimbabwe’s former colonial master, the UK. The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, stated in the House of Commons on November 15 that:
this House will remember the brutal litany of [Mugabe’s] 37 years in office; the elections he rigged and stole; the murder and torture of his opponents … Authoritarian rule, whether in Zimbabwe or anywhere else, should have no place in Africa.
Johnson also warned against any transition “from one unelected tyrant to the next”.
For the past three years, the British government has displayed an interest in reengaging with Zimbabwe. It is an open secret that Britain’s re-engagement identified Mnangagwa as the candidate they could best work with. When the current British ambassador in Harare, Catriona Laing, took up her post in September 2014, her mission was to “rebuild bridges and ensure that re-engagement succeeds to facilitate Mnangagwa’s rise to power”. In September 2017, it was reported that British diplomats were working to secure a Mnangagwa succession “with a US$2 billion economic bail-out underwriting the project”.
According to diplomats with direct knowledge of succession discussions surrounding the rebuilding of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, Laing has not wavered in her support for Mnangagwa to succeed Mugabe and, since Mnangagwa’s hasty retreat to Pretoria on November 6, it seems the British have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to facilitate Mnangagwa’s unhindered return to Zimbabwe and installation as president of the ZanuPF government. It has been reported that plans to take over the country by force have been in place for some time – and that Mnangagwa was instrumental in those plans
There are unconfirmed reports that a new post-Mugabe deal is under discussion. Under its terms, Mnangagwa would lead a transitional government in Zimbabwe with the support of other political parties leading to full elections in five years’ time. There are suggestions that Mnangagwa has the backing of the Chinese – who recently met with the commander of the coup, General Constantino Chiwenga – while the South African government allowed him to return to Zimbabwe unimpeded on November 15.
So it seems the end of the Mugabe era has come. But one has to ask whether a Mnangagwa presidency would really be a new beginning.
The Crocodile’s credentials
Mnangagwa, known as The Crocodile, has throughout the history of Zimbabwe been complicit in the manipulation of the ZANU-PF election process by promoting violence, intimidation and repression as well as illegal administrative strategies to ensure ZANU-PF election success. He has also long faced allegations of corruption and diamond looting in both Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In 2012, the NGO Global Witness released an investigative report that revealed how ZANU-PF and the military elite used the proceeds from looted diamonds to fund human rights abuses. The report specifically points to the complicit conduct of Mnangagwa and his ally Chiwenga.
Mnangagwa has also been accused of playing a pivotal role in the Matabeleland Massacres of 1982-1987. In January 1983, Mugabe launched a massive security clampdown on the unarmed citizens of the Matabeleland region, violence that was both politically and ethnically motivated. This episode of relentless and persistent state-orchestrated violence, known as Gukurahundi, was perpetrated by an elite army unit known as the Fifth Brigade. It is estimated that 20,000 people were massacred and many hundreds of thousands of others tortured, beaten or raped. Mnangagwa has denied involvement and has blamed the army.
On March 4, 1983, at a rally held not far from Lupane in Matabeleland, Mnangagwa publicly conflated being a citizen of Matabeleland with being a political dissident. According to news reports at the time, he told his audience the government had “an option” of “burning down … all the villages infected with dissidents”, saying “the campaign against dissidents can only succeed if the infrastructure which nurtures them is destroyed”.
He described dissidents as “cockroaches” and the Fifth Brigade as “DDT” brought in to “eradicate” them. In short, he made it clear that the destruction of the civilian population of Matabeleland was part of a deliberate state policy – and the very next day came the country’s worst massacre yet, on the banks of the Ciwale river, when 62 people were killed.
The crimes against humanity perpetrated in Matabeleland left hundreds of thousands traumatised – many still don’t know where their loved ones are buried. The victims of Gukurahundi are deeply divided, stigmatised and discriminated against. Their plight will go unaddressed if the person who succeeds Mugabe is himself responsible for appalling political crimes and harms to which millions of Zimbabweans have been subjected.
If Zimbabwe is to step back from the brink of state failure, it must find a way to address the Mugabe regime’s crimes, including Mnangagwa’s role in Gukurahundi. At the very least, Zimbabwe’s neighbours and the international community alike must stand in the way of those responsible for state-sponsored atrocities and corruption that have been the hallmark of Mugabe’s government for 37 years obtaining or maintaining positions in the post-Mugabe government of Zimbabwe.
In order to promote a stable, secure and reconciled Zimbabwe, the crimes of the regime of Mugabe must be addressed, and this includes Mnangagwa’s crimes and his role in Gukurahundi. The British government seems to have other plans.
The military has taken control of the national broadcaster, troops are in the streets and the president is being held in a secure environment. All military leave is cancelled and a senior general has addressed the nation. Yet the Zimbabwean military continues with the pretence that this is not a coup d’etat.
The obvious response to this is: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then the chances are it’s a duck. And the sole reason the Zimbabwean military is not acknowledging this as a coup d’etat is to avoid triggering the country’s automatic suspension from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Both bodies frown on coups.
A perfect storm formed ahead of these events and made military action predictable. The country had once again entered a steep economic decline (not that its “recovery” had been anything of note). A clear and reckless bid for power was being made by the so-called Generation 40 (G40) faction around Grace Mugabe in direct opposition to the Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the standard bearer for the so-called Lacoste faction.
This culminated in Mnangagwa’s dismissal by President Mugabe: a clear indication that Grace Mugabe was now calling the shots. It also served as a follow up to the 2015 Grace-engineered dismissal of another Vice President and rival, Joice Mujuru.
The coup means that Mugabe’s long and disastrous presidency is finally over. The only questions that remain are the precise details and mechanics of the deal which secures his departure.
Why the coup
Mnangagwa is a long time Zanu-PF stalwart and is clearly closely integrated with the military high command and the intelligence services. Both institutions are concerned that the succession is being arranged for a faction led by people with no liberation credentials but who have been skilled in manipulating Mugabe himself and in making him do their bidding. The G40 now appear to have overreached, perhaps believing that their proximity to the “old man” made them invincible.
This coup’s explicit purpose is twofold. First, it’s trying to definitively kill off Grace Mugabe’s ambitions to become president and to set in place a ruling dynasty akin to the Kims in North Korea. Second, it’s a bid to clear Mnangagwa’s path to power, first in Zanu-PF and then within the state itself (over the last three decades these have been virtually one and the same thing).
What we do not yet know is what counter force, if any, the G40 can bring to bear against the military. The calculation of the military hierarchy appears to be that Grace and company are paper tigers who will have few cards to play against such force majeure and who lack the popular appeal to bring angry and disillusioned masses out onto the streets.
The coup has formally stripped away the façade that Zimbabwe is a constitutional state. This is clearly a militarised party-state where the military is a pivotal actor in the ruling party’s internal politics. It is not simply a neutral state agency subordinate to the civilian leadership. And the idea that this military intervention is an aberration – a departure from the constitutional norm – is misplaced.
Zimbabwe is a de facto military dictatorship. It serves as a guarantor of ZANU-PF rule rather than as a custodian of the constitution. It has helped Zanu-PF rig elections. And it was central to the state terror which was unleashed against the population to reverse Mugabe and Zanu-PF’s electoral defeat in 2008. The military has always been a key political actor. The only difference this time is that its intervention is designed to control events within Zanu-PF rather than to crush opposition to it.
But, a highly politicised military is a major impediment to the re-establishment of a democratic order in Zimbabwe. It has nothing to gain, politically or financially, from democratic rule given the lucrative networks of embezzlement and plunder it’s put in place over decades. Most recently it seized and siphoned off of the country’s diamond wealth for military officers and the party hierarchy.
This intervention is designed to secure the presidency for Mnangagwa. So it is hard to avert our eyes from the elephant –- or in this case the Crocodile –- in the room. Mnangagwa is the Mugabe henchman who helped enable the misrule and tyranny of the last 37 years. He was one of the principal architects of the Gukurahundi -– the genocidal attack on the Ndebele – in the early to mid-1980s which left at least 20 000 people dead.
He has also been instrumental in rigging elections and crushing all opposition to Zanu-PF rule, including the atrocities of 2008.
Expecting such a person to now make a deathbed conversion to the democracy, constitutional government and good governance he has spent an entire career liquidating is dangerous nonsense.
Dilemmas to come
Mnangagwa will soon have to confront a series of dilemmas. How can he put in place an administration which has the appearance of a national unity government, can secure international approval and the financial assistance required to help rebuild a shattered economy – but avoid ceding any meaningful power or control? Can this circle be squared?
The best hope for Zimbabweans is that the international community uses its leverage wisely and sets stringent conditions for such assistance: free elections closely monitored by an array of international organisations, the establishment of a new electoral commission, free access to the state media and the right of parties to campaign freely.
There should also be a role here for South Africa to restore its badly tarnished image as a champion of democracy in Africa. It has followed a malign path over the last two decades, facilitating Zanu-PF authoritarianism in the name of a threadbare and increasingly degenerate “liberation solidarity”.
Such a combination of pressures will severely restrict Mnangagwa’s room for manoeuvre. Anything short of that will deliver an outcome which is essentially Mugabeism without Mugabe.
For decades, Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe in a ruthless, even reckless manner. Over nearly 40 years, he turned the “jewel of Africa” into an economic basket case that’s seen inflation of up to 800 percent.
Then, late in the night of Nov. 14, the country’s security services detained and put Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president under house arrest in what appeared to be a military coup. The whereabouts of his powerful wife, Grace, are unconfirmed.
Much remains unclear at this early stage. Will violence erupt? Is this really the end of the Mugabe era?
I don’t know the answers to those questions yet. I’m not sure even Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who appears to have orchestrated Mugabe’s overthrow, knows how his gambit will turn out.
But with each passing hour, it is increasingly evident that Zimbabwe – a country whose politics I spent uncountable hours grappling with as a State Department official – is poised to see its first real leadership transition since 1980.
Setting the stage for Zimbabwe’s coup
For decades, Mugabe’s grip on Zimbabwe was iron-clad. Even when challenged by an invigorated opposition in 2008, he kept the presidency by entering into a nominal power-sharing agreement. After a decisive electoral victory in 2013, though, he cast the coalition aside.
But as the elderly president grew increasingly frail this year, the power struggle to succeed him became frenzied. Two major camps were vying for power.
Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who as a soldier fighting for Zimbabwe’s liberation earned the nickname “the crocodile,” represented the old guard. The 75-year-old enjoyed strong military backing, particularly from the veterans’ association, a powerful coalition of former combatants from Zimbabwe’s independence struggle which began in 1964 and ended in 1979.
Last year, the group broke with Mugabe in a public letter, declaring that he had “presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin.” Many believed that Vice President Mnangagwa orchestrated the group’s letter as a shot across the bow to warn would-be rivals.
The second camp jockeying to control Zimbabwe before the coup was led by Mugabe’s current wife, Grace Mugabe. At a relatively spry 53, she represented the younger generation, drawing significant support from the ruling party’s loyalist Youth League and from an informal grouping of emerging leaders known as “Generation 40.”
But Grace Mugabe was deeply unpopular among ordinary Zimbabweans, who called her “Gucci Grace” because of her extravagant spending. Plus, she had a reputation for cruelty. Earlier this year, the president’s wife faced accusations of beating a 20-year old South African model with an electric cable.
As recently as early November, it appeared that Grace’s camp had prevailed. President Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa. Mnangagwa, it seems, had a different plan. While in exile, he stayed in touch with his military allies.
On Nov. 14, Mnangagwa’s camp struck back. By the next morning, Mugabe was under house arrest, his wife had reportedly fled to Namibia seeking asylum and Mnangagwa’s cohort appeared to control the country.
Democracy or dictatorship?
At least, that’s the picture right now. Events have moved swiftly in the last 24 hours, and some big questions remain unanswered.
If Mnangagwa officially takes power, the first unknown is whether he will rule by fiat or cobble together a transitional government. It’s unclear whether Mnanangwa and his allies have any real interest in introducing democracy to Zimbabwe. To do so, they would need to hold an election within a reasonable period of time, say six months.
Military coups don’t have a promising track record of ushering in democracy. Recent scholarship finds that while “democratization coups” have become more frequent worldwide, their most common outcome is to replace an incumbent dictatorship with a “different group of autocrats.”
Signals in Zimbabwe are mixed so far. Experts generally describe the latest developments as “an internecine fight” among inner-circle elites and ask two key questions: Which side will prevail, and will violence break out?
In my assessment, the answers hinge on Mnangagwa, a hard-nosed realist and survivor who was critical in securing Mugabe’s four-decade rule. Mnangagwa has an appalling human rights record. Many consider him responsible for overseeing a series of massacres between 1982 and 1986 known as the “Gukurahundi,” in which an estimated 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele ethnic group perished.
More recently, in 2008, civil society groups accused Mnangagwa of orchestrating electoral violence against the political opposition and rigging polls in Mugabe’s favor.
It is also true that Mnangagwa is massively invested in ensuring his continued and unfettered access to power, which has proven highly lucrative for him. The vice president is “reputed” to be one of Zimbabwe’s richest people. All of this suggests he might become yet another dictator.
‘Unity’ for Zimbabwe?
Nonetheless, reports indicate that Mnangagwa is currently talking to several opposition parties about potentially forming a transitional government.
A key stakeholder in any such arrangement would be Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, who served as prime minister to Mugabe as part of the 2009 power-sharing agreement.
That coalition achieved some success on economic matters, but Mugabe’s party never relinquished any real authority. Mnangagwa was among those who clung to power back then, but I believe he might play things differently now. Mnangagwa is no reformer, but he does need to find ways to bolster his legitimacy. Not to mention he will quickly need to confront Zimbabwe’s massive economic woes.
The choices that Zimbabwe’s political leadership makes in the coming weeks will have immense consequences for the future of a country whose development has stagnated under 40 years of authoritarian rule.
Real transitions in Zimbabwe are all too rare. Mugabe led the country to independence in March 1980, assumed the presidency and never left. His demise represents a chance for a political reset.
Nobody is safe from the rages of Zimbabwe’s First Lady, “Dr. Amai” Grace Mugabe. There was the young South African model Grace lashed with extension cords. 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe’s longtime and usually trusted ally Emmerson Mnangagwa, was next in the firing line: he was sacked because his supporters allegedly booed her at a rally.
The consequences of her vengeance may have led to a coup headed by Zimbabwe’s army chief General Constantino Chiwenga, who is commonly perceived to be Mnangagwa’s protégé. But ex-freedom fighter Mnangagwa has his own presidential aspirations.
Mnangagwa has been exiled from the party in which he has served since he was a teenager. But he is not just skulking in the political wilderness. On arrival in South Africa he issued a statement calling those who wanted him out “minnows”. He promised to control his party “very soon” and urged his supporters to register to vote in the national elections next July.
As if to back Mnangagwa, on November 13 General Chiwenga announced that he and his officers could not allow the “counter-revolutionary infiltrators”, implied to be behind Grace Mugabe, to continue their purges.
Factions and purges
Chiwenga declared that the armed forces must ensure all party members attend the extraordinary Zanu-PF congress next month with “equal opportunity to exercise their democratic rights”. He flashed back through Zanu-PF’s history of factionalism, reminding his listeners that although the military “will not hesitate to step in” it has never “usurped power”. Chiwenga promised to defuse all the differences “amicably and in the ruling party’s closet”.
Although this airbrushed more than it revealed about the party’s rough patches when leadership vacuums appeared, the statement appeared more as a cautionary note than a clarion call to arms. It’s not often a coup is announced before it starts; but once in motion direction – and history – can change. Grace Mugabe may have unleashed a perfect storm and her own undoing.
All the “shenanigans” that have inspired the generals to consider a coup have set the stage for an extraordinary Zanu-PF congress this December instead of in the expected 2019: that is, before rather than after the July 2018 national elections.
This suggests some people were in a hurry to settle the succession issues for the president, who is now showing every one of his 93 years. Maybe Robert Mugabe won’t rule until he is 100-years-old. If not, and members of his family or party wanted to keep their dynasties alive, they had to work quickly lest some similarly inclined contenders are in their way.
These contenders include Mnangagwa and a slew of his “Lacoste” faction consisting of war veterans and the odd financial liberal. The best-known of these is Patrick Chinamasa. This former finance minister tried to convince the world’s bankers he could pull Zimbabwe out of the fire. He was demoted to control cyberspace and then fired. Perhaps he may make a comeback in the wake of the semi-coup.
The pro-Grace faction includes the members of Generation 40, or “G-40”. Many are well over 40. But in Robert Mugabe’s shadow they appear young, as does the 52-year-old First Lady. Without a base in the liberation-war cohort, they resorted to working with the Mugabe couple: sometimes their ideology appears radical, espousing indigenous economics and more land to the tillers.
If the history of their best-known member – the current Minister of Higher Education Jonathan Moyo – is indicative, however, they are pragmatic; or less politely put, opportunist.
But with Grace Mugabe sans Robert, they would have to muster inordinate amounts of patience and manipulation to steer the sinking ship to the shores of stable statehood and incorporate yet younger generations who cut their political teeth as Robert Mugabe’s rule faltered.
Yet the possible plan for the upcoming congress – to create a third vice-president – appears not to move far beyond the cold hands of the old. Phelekezela Mphoko would be pushed to third vice-president status. Grace would be the second vice-president.
The current defence minister, Sydney Sekeramayi would be first vice-president and so, next in line for the presidential palace. He is a quiet but no less tarnished member of the Zanu-PF old guard; especially when one remembers the massacre of thousands of Ndebele people during the Gukurahundi.
When performing the calculus necessary to rectify Zimbabwe’s graceless imbalances, remember that Mnangagwa was perhaps the key architect of the nearly genocidal Gukurahundi, now chronicled in archival detail in historian Stuart Doran’s Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu, and the Quest for Supremacy. Among the scores implicated therein are the British, condemned by Hazel Cameron, another meticulous archivist, as exercising “wilful blindness” during what Robert Mugabe has dismissed as a “moment of madness”.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many are suspicious of Mnangagwa’s relationship with the UK. Many suspect he has been swimming with perfidious Albion for a very, very long time.
Those waters, in the shadow of Mugabe’s heritage, will take a few more generations of hard political work to clear. It hardly seems propitious that a coup, and the same generation that has ruled since 1980, starts it off.