Mugabe's fall from grace unlikely to end Zimbabwe's political infighting and economic decay

The outlook in the breadbasket of southern Africa looks far from rosy with a leadership new in name alone

FILE - In this April 7,  2016 file photo Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends a meeting with the country's war veterans in Harare.  Mugabe seemed almost untouchable for much of his nearly four-decade rule. Shrewd and ruthless, he managed to stay in power despite advancing age, growing opposition, international sanctions and the dissolving economy of a once-prosperous African nation. Now, the apparent abrupt end of the Mugabe era is launching Zimbabwe into the unknown. It's a humbling close to the career of a man who crushed dissent or sidelined opponents after leading Zimbabwe since 1980. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)
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The seizure of power by generals in Zimbabwe might restore some much-needed stability in the short term to a political system battered by the refusal of its 93-year-old president Robert Mugabe to step down or name a successor. Indeed, many Zimbabweans have welcomed the intervention, if only as a relief from the toxic bickering of political factions that has dominated recent politics, much less the prospect of a Zimbabwe with Mr Mugabe's wife Grace in charge. But in the medium term, the outlook is less rosy. For as much as many Zimbabweans are delighted to have the stalemate ended and Mr Mugabe on the way out, the new leadership is new only in name. Emmerson Mnangagwa, announced on Twitter as "the interim president of the republic of Zimbabwe" from tomorrow, has held senior portfolios in all of Mr Mugabe's governments since 1980 and is unlikely to herald any change of political direction or economic policy.

The military's incursion into Zimbabwe's high-stakes politics also sets a worrying precedent. The possibility of armed forces intervention – previously unthinkable – will make the stakes higher and the costs of losing far more devastating in all future political conflicts. This sort of zero-sum politics will not benefit the Zimbabwean people, who already suffer from political polarisation and economic decay.


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To those who continue to claim that "this is not a coup", we can only say that until civilian rule is restored, it is hard to call it anything else. Even though the military has long been a force to reckon with in Zimbabwean politics, few observers expected the generals to move against Mr Mugabe, the ageing and autocratic president, and his wife Grace. Zimbabwe likes to think of itself as peaceful and, if not democratic, at least driven by periodic elections. But for many, military intervention seems to have been preferable to the prospect of rule by Mrs Mugabe, seen as uncultured and uneducated (her nickname Dr Amai refers to her hastily arranged doctorate, bestowed upon her by the state university), and unfit to govern.

This is not a fight for the nation but a competition for control of the party which has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 and its ability to marshal voters, orchestrate elections and do deals with diamond brokers and other economically useful figures. The Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) is a flabby and bloated political organisation, run along personalised lines, but it remains the only game in town, unless you are willing to ally yourself with the trade union and civil society-aligned opposition. The deeply divided ruling party is held together only by its determination to hold on to power. Zanu-PF’s domination of political space, and its fightback from political losses in the 2000 and 2008 elections, means that forming an alternative "political formation" was not an attractive option for political heavyweights. Wresting control of Zanu-PF remains the only game in town.

But removing the president is no guarantee of the sort of political reforms that Zimbabweans have been demanding since at least 2000. The focus on the removal of one individual – albeit a supremely powerful and long-lived president – is shortsighted. Zimbabwe’s political system is deeply entrenched and by no means driven solely by the nonagenarian president.

This is first and foremost a recirculation of old faces. It would be foolishly optimistic to anticipate any real political change. There are few new faces to be seen in the winning faction, dominated by Mr Mnangagwa, the former vice-president and long-time crony of Mr Mugabe’s, who was sacked last week, presumably to clear the path for Mrs Mugabe. Many outside observers are said to see him as someone they could do business with. But Mr Mnangagwa should not be mistaken for a safe pair of hands. He has been responsible for some of the most brutal episodes in Zimbabwe's history and is known for his ruthlessness.

There are hints that other factions of Zanu-PF, including those previously ejected from the party, alongside other opposition figures, might be invited to join a coalition government. This would probably be welcomed by Western governments and donors, as well as some within Zimbabwe’s civil society. Yet Zimbabwe's past attempts at coalition governments have not gone well at all for the junior partners who have either been absorbed or spat out, badly mauled.

The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is still deeply weakened by years of unhappy power-sharing between 2009 and 2013. Although it is now widely accepted that the MDC actually won the 2008 election, despite Mr Mugabe clinging onto power, its leader Morgan Tsvangirai is unwell, and the party is not well-positioned to take advantage of the current uncertainty, nor to position itself as an alternative political force.

But even though the military has long played an important role in Zimbabwe’s politics, especially since the period of political crisis in the 2000s, an actual coup remained unexpected, if only because it would be difficult to claim the mantle of Zanu-PF while appearing to trash the legacy of Mr Mugabe.

If the powers behind the military manage to successfully seize power, but also retain their position as the heirs of Mr Mugabe’s liberation struggle tradition, they will have played a very clever game. No one thought he would retire or hand over power willingly, but his lingering collapse into old age risked creating a power vacuum, or, perhaps worse, allowing his wife to construct her own power base. She had made good progress on this project in recent months as she ploughed ahead, targeting the vice-presidency of the party. But Mrs Mugabe’s allies over-reached themselves in trying to remove Mr Mnangagwa, or the wily crocodile, as he is known. Not only was the military willing to stand up and defend its ally, but it seems to have done so in a way that allows it the benefits of both "change" and "continuity". Claiming the mantle of the liberation struggle allows them to position themselves as the "protectors" of Mr Mugabe and his legacy. This is very clever politics, protecting themselves domestically against those who will want to see the president respected, and externally, against those loathe to see a coup disturb the generally peaceful landscape of southern Africa.

Dr Sara Rich Dorman is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and the author of Understanding Zimbabwe: From Liberation to Authoritarianism