Photo: AlJazeeraEnglish/
16 Nov 2017

Mugabe's demise: What's next?

After 37 years in power, it seems that history has finally caught up with Robert Mugabe.

On Wednesday the 15th of November, armored vehicles from the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) descended on Harare, occupying key government buildings and releasing a short statement on national television. They apprehended Robert Mugabe, but claimed that their target was not Mugabe personally, but rather the “criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice.” The soldiers were adamant that this was not a military takeover, but rather an attempt to pacify a dangerous political situation. By afternoon, the military were in control of most state institutions, and it was obvious that they were targeting individuals linked to the ‘G-40’ faction of the regime headed by Mugabe’s wife, Grace. At the same time, former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa returned to Zimbabwe after only days in exile following his dismissal by Mugabe on November 6th. Mnangagwa, who has led the ‘Lacoste’ faction within the ZANU-PF, has strong links to the military and is by many expected to take over. By most definitions, what transpired in Harare on Wednesday was a coup as de facto power seems to have shifted from Mugabe. The questions are how did it come to this, and how this will affect the future path of Zimbabwe.

Factions and forces
Though recent events must bee seen in the context of a worsening economic crises in Zimbabwe, they must primarily be seen as a culmination of a series of long running battles within different factions within the ZANU-PF. The question of personal succession is one of the key challenges of authoritarian regimes. In Zimbabwe, much of the political game over the past fifteen years has been centered on the questions of when, who and how Robert Mugabe will be replaced. While Mugabe’s stay in power has been remarkable in terms of his ability to stay in power despite his age and rapidly declining health, plans to oust him have emerged both from outside and inside the regime. Since the failed government of unity from 2008-2013, change was most likely to come from within the ruling elite.

After the fall of former Vice President Joice Mujuru in 2014, the two main factions within the ruling party have been the previously mentioned ‘G-40’ faction lead by Mugabe’s wife, Grace, and the ‘Lacoste’ faction lead by “the Crocodile”, Vice President Mnangagwa. As Clionadh Raleigh has recently shown, these factions have different power bases. The ‘G-40’ faction led by Grace has been based on younger party-members that mostly did not belong to the ‘freedom fighter’ generation. They have tried to build their network through co-opting party networks such as the Women’s league and the Youth League. The main strength of this faction has been it’s relative access to Mugabe himself (and the power and finances this brings), as well as its relatively ‘civilian’ outlook.

The main strength of the ‘Lacoste’ faction is its dense links to elites both within government and the security forces. These links have been cultivated over time, as most of the members participated in the liberation war in the 1970s. Thus, despite the recent sacking of Mnangagwa indicating that Mugabe favors the G-40 faction, the Crocodile was still able to rely on other parts of the state apparatus. When Army Chief Constantine Chiwenga on Monday this week warned Mugabe and others that they would not tolerate the “current purging which is clearly targeting members of the party with liberation backgrounds”, it set the scene for Wednesday’s actions. In many ways then, the recent events must be seen as the older liberation war generation of ZANU-PF clamping down on younger upstarts, sending a message that they are not prepared for a generational shift just yet. Their careful handling of Mugabe himself can also be seen as a consequence of this. After all, he is of the liberation war generation as themselves.

Transition to what?
Given this relationship, it can therefore not be excluded that Mugabe will still be allowed to play a minor role in the days ahead. The military has little to gain from humiliating or hurting him. However, it is clear that there at the very least will be a factional realignment within the regime, as the ‘G-40’ faction has taken a potentially devastating hit. With Mnangagwa’s return, any solution will likely be tilted towards the ‘Lacoste’ faction. On social media, outcomes are speculated about left and right. Will Mugabe be allowed to sit as a marionette until the military can Mnangagwa’s victory in next years elections? Will the elections be postponed, and a new transitional government called? Will this government be civilian or military, and will opposition figures such as Mujuru and Morgan Tsvangirai be included? When will elections be held? What will happen to Grace and her allies? And what will Mugabe’s former allies in South Africa, SADC and the AU do?

For some time still, the answers to these questions will be tinged with uncertainty. However, if the army and Mnangagwa want to boost their legitimacy and popular appeal, attempts to at least co-opt other factions within the ZANU-PF and the opposition are likely to be attempted. Mnangagwa has not been a very popular figure – he lost two elections for Member of Parliament in the 2000s, and has usually been saved by his close relationship with Mugabe. Negotiations with both regime insiders and outsiders are likely to be tough. While loyalty might have been a commodity in short supply in the G-40 faction, it is not certain that those who make it through the coup would trust and be trusted by the ‘Lacoste’. Former VP Mujuru has no warm for feelings for the man who replaced her, and the MDC and wider opposition are still feeling the negative effects of participating in the 2008-2013 unity government. A more entrenched and repressive army/ZANU-PF regime based on the ‘Lacoste’ faction thus remains a genuine option.

One should be careful about using general trends to predict the future in Zimbabwe. After all, the situation already defies trends; if Mugabe loses power he will be the longest serving head of government to lose power through a coup. And Zimbabwe was not considered to be among the 30 most likely countries to experience a coup in 2017. However, some general lessons from studying breakdown in autocratic regimes might be worth remembering. First of all, coups rarely lead to democracy. Even in the post Cold-War era, over 50% of coups globally have lead to the establishment of new authoritarian regimes. Second, autocratic regimes that are coerced into giving up power are typically followed by dictatorships. Seen in tandem with the complicated situation facing the ‘Lacoste’ faction, these findings should temper expectations with regards to at least the short-term effects of the recent events. However, even if a more narrow and repressive authoritarian military regime is established, there is still some long-term consolation. After all, military regimes typically last shorter and are more often followed by democracies than other forms of authoritarian regimes. Even though things in Zimbabwe might not turn for the better immediatel.  The fact that there is change after 30 years of Mugabe, is in itself an encouraging sign.  

By Svein-Erik Bøthun Helle, researcher at CMI