Zimbabwe’s military seized power in an overnight takeover of the government late Tuesday, detaining 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe over the leader’s plan to install his wife as his successor.
The swift, coordinated action bore the hallmarks of a coup, with tanks rolling through the streets of capital city Harare while troops took over the state-owned TV broadcaster and shut off parliament and the central bank. In a statement read early Wednesday, the military claimed it was not attempting to depose Mugabe.
“We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” said Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo, according to the Washington Post. “We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country.”
One of the longest serving leaders in the world, Mugabe is the only president Zimbabwe has known since the end of white minority rule in 1980. Under his brutal regime, the once relatively prosperous African nation has deteriorated into an economic basket case, where an estimated 95 percent of the workforce is unemployed and 3 million Zimbabweans have gone into exile, according to Bloomberg.
Mugabe’s detention, which was orchestrated by army Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, caps a power struggle between the president and other factions within Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party. Earlier this month, Mugabe fired his long-time ally Emmerson Mnangagwa as vice president to give his wife Grace Mugabe, also a vice president, a path to effective control of the party. Mugabe announced he had fired Mnangagwa for disloyalty and using witchcraft to take power.
In the wake of the military takeover, Mugabe told South African President Jacob Zuma by phone that he and his wife were being confined in their home and were unharmed. Despite denials by the military that a coup had taken place, Chiwenga and other military leaders appear to be firmly in control of the government.
The takeover now opens the door for Mnangagwa, who had fled to neighboring South Africa, to return to to Zimbabwe and assume leadership of the ZANU-PF. Mnangagwa assisted Mugabe’s rise after independence, and is widely seen by the military leaders as a legitimate successor, in contrast to the younger Grace Mugabe.
John Campbell, an Africa policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the military could move to strip the Mugabes of power while keeping Robert Mugabe as a figurehead.
“The army will not tolerate the political leadership of those who did not participate in the ‘liberation struggle’ that led to Zimbabwe ending white minority rule in 1980,” he wrote in an blog post on Wednesday. “Grace Mugabe, born in 1965, was a school girl at the time and did not participate in this ‘struggle.'”
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