A coup d’état — or something — puts Robert Mugabe in a rest home.
According to various news sources, including the Voice of America, Army spokesman General Sibusiso Moyo stated categorically that the deposition of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was “not a coup.” Thus thanks to one pithy line by one of the country’s top soldiers regarding the country’s top pol, Zimbabwe will have stayed true to its vocation as a textbook case of what not to do after you gain independence in Africa.
Technically, what appears to have happened (so far) is that President Mugabe earlier this month fired his long-time ally and one-time vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The two old comrades-in-arm had a falling out, reportedly, over what should happen when the Old Man finally retires — he is 93 — to wit, democracy? Rule by Grace (Mrs. Mugabe, nominally still the First Lady)? Army junta? Tribal war?
All of these are possible outcomes; perhaps having soldiers occupy the key buildings of Harare (ex-Salisbury) in the past 72 hours contributed to preventing all of them. Armed forces Commander General Constantine Chiwenga tersely stated that purging old comrades was a no-no, suggesting which side the Army favors.
Southern Rhodesia was carved out of territory between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, the first big political entity on the way from Cape to Cairo, as its founder, Cecil Rhodes, would have put it. Founder may be an exaggeration left over from the empire-building Victorian era; the region had been organized and ruled by African tribal nations since long before the arrival of the British. Among these, the most dominant in the 19th and 20th century was the Shona, to which Robert Mugabe and much of the ruling class of Zimbabwe belong.
The Shona and other important tribal groups in what became Southern Rhodesia felt dispossessed by the white settlers, largely but not exclusively British in origin, who developed the region’s agricultural and mineral wealth. By the time Britain prepared to grant the country independence, in the late 1950s, there was a substantial Shona-led political movement whose goals, in addition to universal suffrage, included land redistribution and a vaguely defined socialism as the organizing principle of government.
In a country whose white settlers were in some ways comparable to the Americans who settled Texas in the decades before the Civil War, this represented an impossibility. They were individualistic, entrepreneurial, hardy, adventurous, free-wheeling, and often racist, in the sense that they had as little desire to get along with the Shona as migrants from Georgia or Kentucky had for mixing with Comanches. The feeling was, of course, reciprocated.
Between 1965 and 1980, Rhodesia was the scene of a colonial war in which a white minority declared independence from Britain but found itself fighting an African national movement that also sought independence, but from radically different premises. The Rhodesian Front party, led by native-born Ian Smith, favored gradual political evolution based on the principle that eventually there should be no distinctions among people other than personal character and merit; but because it adamantly opposed a precipitous transition to majority rule, it was branded racist and received little international support. By contrast, the two rival African national movements, which eventually would go war against each other on tribal criteria (Ndebele vs. Shona) were led by Marxist-Leninist cadres, were supported by the Soviet Union and Red China, and accepted as freedom fighters in the Free World. Although Smith tried to present the Bush War, as the fight against Ndebele and Shona terror was called, as a front in the East-West conflict, he was largely unsuccessful on the diplomatic front.
In the end, the British foreign office — at the time led by Lord Carrington — brokered an arrangement that was supposed to ensure democratic rule while protecting minorities and private property. This, the so-called Lancaster House Agreement, received the blessing of the Carter administration in the United States and its chief spokesman for anti-colonialism, Andrew Young, who never saw a national liberation movement to which he did not give his blessing except, curiously, the most successful one (some would argue the only successful one), Israel.
Smith refused to sign the Lancaster House Agreement (defying Margaret Thatcher who had reached the conclusion it was the best possible). Nevertheless, he briefly threw his support to Mugabe when the latter formed his first government of Zimbabwe and assured him of his desire to keep the “white tribes” in the country. He soon went into permanent opposition to Mugabe, as the new regime’s authoritarian political and economic policies were rolled out.
The white minority regime that had fought 15 years against African nationalism while defying the “international community’s” condemnations, boycotts, embargos, and so forth, was left relatively alone in the first years of majority rule and internationally sanctioned statehood. This was because the African nationalists had a few scores to settle among themselves. There was, first, the question of which among the leading tribes would take the place of the Brits and associated white tribes, which also meant which would lose out when the spoils of the “national liberation” war were distributed. Second, there was the question of who within the ruling circles would really rule.
In other words, there was a kind of neo-colonialism of the (renamed) Zimbabwe by the Shona against tribes they distrusted, most importantly the Ndebele in the west. And there were faction fights within the Shona leadership, because the free competition that, in a functional liberal democracy, allows disagreements to be aired and graft and other forms of state stealing to be negotiated, was closed off.
This is the background of this week’s drama in Harare and environs. The Ndebele were destroyed as a political force in a brutal 1980s war that killed and displaced far more people than the 15 years of “anti-colonial” struggle. The “socialist” promises of said struggle took a little longer to put into effect, but by the turn of the century they were going strong, with a “land reform” program that consisted of confiscating large farms (killing their owners when these tried to resist) and turning them over not to the landless peasants to whom they had been promised but to old comrades of the president and the big wheels in his political organization, the ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union, Patriotic Front). One of whom happened to be Grace Mugabe, whom Robert Mugabe married in the 1990s following the death of his first wife. She was not a landless peasant, but she knew a going concern when she saw one.
The Mugabe system rewarded its loyalists not only by redistributing local private wealth, but also by intervening in nearby wars in Congo to seize exportable products. Management has not been its forte, however, and the overall economy in Zimbabwe and neighboring regions controlled by its military and civilian rulers has, broadly speaking, collapsed. There is no money. Though the country is still a pioneer’s dream and there could be much to do, there are few jobs, because there is no way to pay workers, unless you have foreign currency and they (your employees) are able to use it. Which they may not due to currency controls and other old economic gimmicks of failing states.
Thieves and single-party comrades tend to fall out among themselves sooner or later, and this has been going on since the Lancaster House Agreement. The past few days could be a mere shuffling of the chairs to see who will get what, as among the factions that have been waiting for the Old Man to move on to Comrade Heaven. The foreign media are seizing upon an alleged quarrel between the First Lady’s loyalists and the high-ups in the military who are partial to the now-disgraced former vice-president. He suspects Grace of trying to poison him, she suspects him of using sorcery to undo her husband.
Other high ups, including Morgan Tsvangirai, once Mugabe’s prime minister and presently the most visible leader of the opposition, stand ready to arrange new power-sharing agreements or even a whole new regime that might even open up the political system and free the economy. Or these headline events are all superficial — the country failed, so it will be broken up into Mashonaland, Matabeleland, etc., as it was (sort of) when Cecil Rhodes arrived. This would displease Zimbabwe’s neighbors because of the example it would set, and is probably why South Africa’s president was quick to declare his support for Mugabe. Africa’s regional economic and political organizations, as well as the continent-wide African Union, include clauses in their charters pledging their rejection of any regime that comes to power by overthrowing a democratically elected one, so every time something happens, the instigators insist they are not engaging in a coup.
So this was not a coup. But it happened. And something may happen next. Or, as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, there will be a replacement of personnel.
Robert Mugabe in 2011 (Al Jazeera English/Creative Commons)