Tue | Oct 16, 2018

John Rapley | How the mighty Robert Mugabe fell

Published:Sunday | November 19, 2017 | 12:00 AM

In the end, what was so surprising was how seamless the transition was. It may be that the old man was just too tired to put up much of a fight any more. And while the younger woman would have had the energy and motivation for a good brawl, in the end, she proved to be as friendless as everyone said she was.

Grace Mugabe's ride as first lady of Zimbabwe was always going to be a bumpy one, given that she was following the much-loved Sally, who died in the 1990s. But she made things worse for herself by abusing the power that marriage to President Robert Mugabe gave her. Her successful moves to gradually remove her foes in the government and ruling party, and replace them with loyalists, may have persuaded her she was building her own power base. But nobody really believed that she had any power beyond what her marriage brought her.

The final straw came with the dismissal of Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa. With that move, Mrs Mugabe was heading into very deep water, and the risk was high that she would get swallowed by the tide. At first, though, her bold manoeuvre seemed to work. Mr Mnangagwa went into exile, Mrs Mugabe's supporters lined up behind her, and life in Harare went on as usual - which is to say, it was a daily struggle for most people that left them little time to give much thought to the shenanigans of their rulers.

But Mrs Mugabe turned out to have made one enemy too many. Once Zimbabwe's association of war veterans came out against her, the conflict moved on to a whole new level. The war veterans have long been a key pillar of Mr Mugabe's support, and even he cannot rule if he antagonises them. When they indicated their repudiation of this move, why, even Bob himself couldn't save Grace from her fate. And given that Mnangagwa declared on the very same day as the war veterans' statement that he would be returning shortly to Zimbabwe to right the situation, it was clear that preparations were well under way, and carefully coordinated.

That gave the military the go-ahead to make the move they did. Ordinary Zimbabweans were surprised on Wednesday morning to discover that their country owned all the military hardware that turned up on Harare's streets. At that point, things moved quickly and efficiently.




When South African President Jacob Zuma, speaking on behalf of regional governments, chose not to condemn the coup, it was clear neither Bob nor Grace was going to rally support outside the country (given her recent behaviour in South Africa, it would hardly surprise anyone if Pretoria were happy to see the back of her). Equally, the Chinese, who have become increasingly central to Zimbabwe's economic fortunes, skirted around the issue, leaving the Mugabes to their own fate.

So within hours, things were largely stitched up. With almost everyone falling into line behind the military, and no signs of resistance in the capital's streets, a fightback was obviously not going to occur. All that remained were the formalities of officially transferring power.

The military wanted to preserve some veneer of constitutionality, insisting this was not a coup but a sweep against criminals around the president (read: Grace and her cronies). If Robert plays along, this will have turned out to be one of the most thoughtfully planned and well executed coups in memory. But if he decides to stand his ground in any way, the transition could get messy.

Assuming everything goes well, though, the bad news is that this really doesn't change anything. For longsuffering Zimbabweans who have seen their lifestyles demolished by desperate shortages and chronic inflation, all that has happened is a palace coup: a change of a few names on the office doors, but everything else will be business as usual.




The good news, though, is also that this really doesn't change anything. The very fact that the transition has notionally occurred within the framework of the constitution augurs well for Zimbabwe's future. One can only hope that when push comes to shove, Mr Mugabe decides the institutions of the state he created matter more than his family's business interests.

The fact that Mrs Mugabe won't get dragged through the streets to her death, as many Zimbabweans would no doubt have liked to have seen, testifies to the attachment to order the country's institutions have shown.

For despite decades of spectacular economic mismanagement and grotesque corruption, many of those institutions - its civil society, its courts, its military, its press, its educational system, its civil service - have shown some resilience. Zimbabwe will not need to start from scratch. So even while there's probably a very long way to go before ordinary Zimbabweans will see a real improvement to their lives, the way this coup was carried out at least did not lengthen that journey.

- Professor John Rapley is an economist lecturing in Germany. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rapley.john@gmail.com.