Violence remains a possibility in a country heaving with hope
Zimbabwe and the rest of the world awoke this morning to an apparent military coup that has so far remained bloodless. After President Robert Mugabe dismissed his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, last week on charges of plotting a takeover, members of the military loyal to Mnangagwa decided the time was ripe to tear open a longstanding rift in the ruling party and publicly challenge the nonagenarian dictator. Change was clearly on the horizon yesterday as tanks neared the capital city: the Twittersphere burst with buoyant visions of how #MyNewZimbabwe would look in a post-Mugabe world.
Much of the international community had hoped that Mnangagwa, who is seen as a stabilizing force despite his dismal record on human rights, would succeed the aging dictator. Indeed, the South African Development Community (SADC), the United States, and the United Kingdom, among others, have remained notably aloof as forces loyal to Mnangagwa have seized power, calling chiefly for nonviolence and a democratic process.
While the situation appears peaceable at the moment, the international community should remain attuned to threats of possible political violence in the coming days and beyond.
The most urgent threat of violence stems from a possible outbreak of fighting between party factions loyal to Mnangagwa and Mugabe’s wife Grace, respectively. Grace Mugabe, whose path to power seemed all but certain less than a week ago, has reportedly fled the country, leaving open the option that she may soon draw on her Youth League supporters to stage a comeback. Her backers, eager for power after years of service, have become quiescent in recent hours, as they apparently decide whether to seek an alliance with Mnangagwa’s “old guard” or rally their own faction to challenge their party rivals. Just before the coup, key Grace supporter Kudzai Chipanga affirmed that “Defending the revolution and our leader and president is an ideal we live for and if need be it is a principle we are prepared to die for,” suggesting the lengths to which they are prepared to go. But Chipanga appears to have been arrested, calling into question whether a subordinate will act in his place. Grace, for her part, currently faces a decision between living in exile from her homeland or pursuing the power and prestige of her husband’s position. It is not at all clear that she will choose the former.
If Grace perceives a political opening, evidence suggests that she and her supporters would not hesitate to employ violence. Some observers believe Grace, who is 41 years Mugabe’s junior, helped enable her husband’s horrific attacks on white landowners and state-led political violence surrounding elections that began in earnest a few years after they married in 1996. In recent years, she has become increasingly willing to leverage state power for personal gain. When she met resistance in seeking to procure more land near her farm, she had police burn houses and forcibly evict and arrest residents. “I might have a small fist,” she said, “but when it comes to fighting I will put stones inside to enlarge it, or even put on gloves to make it bigger. Do not doubt my capabilities.” Grace’s assaults on strangers abroad were once the stuff of juicy tabloids, until they became indicators of how the next president might behave. Her use of crude rhetoric against perceived critics—once saying of a former VP that “dogs and fleas would not disturb her carcass,” for example—isn’t a causal predictor of mass violence, but also isn’t exactly reassuring. Fiery braggadocio is not unknown in Zimbabwean politics, but Grace’s invectives reach a new and graphic level.
A second threat of violence stems from choices made by the interim leader that emerges. If he (or she) does not quickly establish a unity government or schedule elections, Zimbabweans themselves would likely stage protests—events that Mugabe (and Mnangagwa under him) have previously met with force. As I wrote last month, citizens have already become so exasperated that many freely denounce Mugabe in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The only hope that remains for those suffering through prolonged economic catastrophe is life in a post-Mugabe world, as the Economist recently reported. Zimbabweans won’t easily abandon that hope. Watching another negligent dictator take the reins is an intolerable prospect for many. But Mugabe’s decades-long history of state-led violence against civilians suggests that his successor would similarly seek to maintain power by aggressively suppressing dissent.
Almost overnight, many Zimbabweans, desperate for change, have found themselves in perhaps the most hopeful position in memory. Violent scenarios are certainly not inevitable at the moment, but neither are they unfathomable. The coup has shocked many veteran Zimbabwe watchers, suggesting that more unexpected turns—or even a violent crackdown to maintain the status quo—may lie in store. Life-or-death factional wrangling for party support or brutal suppression of political opposition are not unthinkable in the current high-stakes environment. Zimbabwe watchers have been ruminating for decades about the contours of the country after its longstanding dictator abandons his office, and it appears the dramatic moment has finally arrived. May the world not cheer or turn its back too soon.