According to army spokesman Major General Sibusiso Moyo, the Zimbabwean army took over the state broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) early yesterday morning to read out a statement denying there had been a military coup. In classic military coup double-speak, what had happened was there had been a “bloodless peaceful transition” of power.

Moyo said that the military crack-down underway was targeting “criminals” around Mugabe. Moya added that “as soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy”. This, presumably, means that Mugabe will ‘resign’ as President and allow the army-friendly former Vice-President Mnangagwa to assume the presidency.

The coup was triggered by army commander General Constantine Chiwenga threatening on Monday to “step in” to calm political tensions over Mugabe last week sacking Mnangagwa. The ZANU-PF responded by accusing Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct”, which precipitated the coup.

If it is possible to set aside the irony, what has happened is that Zimbabwe’s army, which has increasingly directly controlled the country’s politics over the past couple of decades, has decided that its geriatric 93-year-old President is no longer fit for office. This view was strengthened when Mugabe sacked his heir apparent, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, apparently in favour of his wife, Grace Mugabe.

Mnangagwa appears to have been instrumental in the coup. In a tweet under his name, the Vice-President said:

“Zimbabweans stay calm &remain tuned to national news.

“I’m back in the Country &will be quite busy over the next few days. My communication​ with you will now be via formal broadcasting channels so I’m unlikely to use the twitter handle. Thank you all for the support & solidarity”

Given the army now controls the “formal broadcasting channels”, it would appear that the Vice-President has the direct support of the army — if he’s not, in fact, its puppet.

In recent years, it has become apparent that Mugabe has not been the power that he once was. It has also been clear that he has been kept in his position by a clique of senior army officers, who have largely directed his actions.

As a personal observation, I was fortunate enough to see Robert Mugabe speak to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1983, just three short years after Zimbabwe achieved independence. Mugabe was then at the peak of his powers: charismatic, almost mesmerising, still exuding the idealism that led to the end of colonial rule. If I was to become disillusioned, that was naught compared with the subsequent experiences of Zimbabwe’s citizens.

Ethno-political fighting broke out in 1982 between Mugabe’s nationalist Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), aligned with the Shona tribe, and Joshua Nkomo’s then more Soviet-leaning Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), aligned with the Ndebele tribe. 

Multi-ethnic post-colonial states have a strong tendency to build political loyalty around ethnicity rather than values, and to bestow favor through patron-client patronage. In simple terms, this leads to conflict between the ethnic “haves” and the ethnic “have nots”.  

After considerable blood-letting, described by the CIA at the time as a Shona ZANU attempt to “wipe out” the Ndebele ZAPU, the two leaders agreed to join together as the ZANU-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Mugabe would remain as President and Nkomo would be Vice-President in what was agreed would be a one party state. By this stage, whatever idealism that had been associated with Zimbabwe’s bid for independence was effectively gone.

Mugabe turned out to be just another African dictator, if perhaps starting from a higher rhetorical plane and thus having that much further to fall. When Nkomo died (of natural causes) in 1999, the Mugabe group’s power was complete.  

The overthrow of Robert Mugabe is far from his powerful, idealistic speech to the UN in 1983. But the only thing that has really changed is that the last semblance of a link between Zimbabwe’s aspirations for “liberation” at independence and the events of this week have finally dispelled the mythological chimera they had long since become.

*Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics. He is currently writing a book for Routledge on politics in developing countries.