The first signs that something unusual was afoot in Zimbabwe stirred in the countryside.
Small numbers of tanks, manned by silent troops, were seen driving along the Chinhoyi road leading into the country's capital, Harare. Soon after, soldiers took up positions across the capital as anxious commuters looked on. Following hours of claim and counterclaim, rumour finally gave way to reality with the appearance of a uniformed general on state television. An apparent coup was underway.
The dramatic military takeover--which at time of writing appears likely to bring an end to President Robert Mugabe's 37 years in power --represents the most significant political upheaval in the Southern African nation since independence in 1980, and the culmination of a prolonged and bitter split in the ruling party that Mugabe once dominated and shaped in his own image. Even if Mugabe survives the coup--the military forces holding him insist that they are merely targeting "criminals" around the president--he is likely to emerge a much-diminished figure wielding a fraction of his previous authority.
Just days before the intervention, Mugabe took the fatal decision of sacking powerful vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa in an uncharacteristically decisive attempt to smooth the succession for Grace Mugabe, his 52-year-old wife and patron of the G40 faction of the ruling party. Within days, army chief General Constantino Chiwenga warned of severe consequences. As the tanks rolled in, it became clear that the frail Mugabe--who for decades bolstered his authority by artfully playing off rivals and delaying succession plans had badly overplayed his hand.
The fall of the house of Mugabe?
The consequences of that miscalculation are still becoming clear. While the military may appoint Mugabe to a figurehead role in a bid to retain the illusion of continuity, his days of calling the shots have almost certainly been brought to an end.
The military's move also appears likely to terminate the colourful career of Grace Mugabe, the volatile and wildly unpopular first lady known for a lavish lifestyle and propensity for violent outbursts. While desperate to portray herself as the embodiment of her husband's radical legacy, the undiplomatic Grace appears to have alienated the powerful forces that he proved so adept at squaring. Reports suggest that some of her allies--including controversial minister Saviour Kasukuwere--have been pulled into the army's dragnet. It is hard to see...