- - Tuesday, November 14, 2017

HARARE, Zimbabwe — The reign of one of Africa’s — and the world’s — longest-ruling autocrats hung in the balance Wednesday as tanks and soldiers rolled into the center of Harare and at least three explosions rocked the tense capital amid the escalating conflict between longtime President Robert Mugabe and the army.

The military took control of the state Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp., and an army spokesman read a statement on the air early Wednesday insisting that Mr. Mugabe was safe and “this is not a military takeover.”

The unidentified spokesman said the military was targeting the “criminals around him” and “as soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”

The unprecedented clash of forces escalated a crisis sparked last week when the increasingly frail 93-year-old Mr. Mugabe fired one of his two vice presidents, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a popular figure within the rank and file of the ruling ZANU-PF party with deep ties to the military, who was widely seen as a successor to Mr. Mugabe.

Political analysts say the purge was motivated by Mr. Mugabe’s hopes of handing off power after nearly four decades to his polarizing 52-year-old wife, Grace Mugabe.

“There was a huge number of soldiers in army uniform patrolling the streets,” said Phineas Gore, 39, a carpenter who lives in downtown Harare. “This was unusual. Normally uniformed soldiers would stay in their barracks unless it would be at the end of the month, when they would be collecting their salaries from banks.”

Wire service reports first tracked the dispatch of at least six armored personnel carriers from a barracks northwest of Harare. Four vehicles in the convoy broke off to head toward the Presidential Guard compound in a suburb on the outskirts of the capital.

The Associated Press reported early Wednesday that at least three explosions were heard in the capital near the University of Zimbabwe campus. Soldiers could be seen manhandling crowds on the street, the AP reported.

The U.S. and British embassies said they would be closed to the public Wednesday and warned their respective citizens to shelter in place because of, in the words of the American statement, “the ongoing political uncertainty through the night.”

Army officials did not respond to inquiries about the mobilization, but a Mugabe spokesman insisted the army was violating the law.

“The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) — reaffirms the primacy of politics over the gun,” Mugabe spokesman and party information secretary Simon Khaya-Moyo said in a statement.

Still, there have been signs that Mr. Mugabe’s iron grip on power has been slipping in recent days. On Monday, Zimbabwe Defense Forces Commander Constantine Chiwenga held an extraordinary press conference in which he openly criticized the president’s move against Mr. Mnangagwa.

“The current purging and cleansing process in ZANU-PF, which so far is targeting mostly members associated with our liberation history, is a serious cause for concern for us in the defense forces,” said Gen. Chiwenga. “We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in.”

Mugabe supporters pledged to stand up to the army if necessary to keep their leader in power.

“It is our country and future at stake, and we will not let any individual military man interfere with the leader of the party and the legitimately voted president of this country,” said Kudzanai Chipanga, leader of the youth wing of Mr. Mugabe’s party. “We also wish to remind them that conniving and conspiring to overthrow a constitutionally elected government is a crime.”

Mr. Mugabe’s supporters in the ruling party issued a statement Tuesday evening accusing Gen. Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct.” They said his comments were “meant to incite insurrection.”

The state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. read out part of the ruling party statement late in the nightly news, which was led by a report on regional tourism, The Associated Press reported.

The developments could spell the end of Mr. Mugabe’s 37 years in power. During that period, he transformed from a hero of the liberation struggle that ended colonial British rule to a strongman who has been accused of undermining human rights, intimidating potential rivals and running the private economy into the ground in a bid to hold on to power.

Special congress

ZANU-PF officials have already designated Mr. Mugabe as their presidential candidate for next year, but his advancing age and party infighting led him to call a special congress next month to reorganize the party in what appears to be a transparent bid to remain in control.

“Factionalism is rearing its ugly head in the party,” Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, a Mugabe backer, said in an interview a few days before the tanks and soldiers appeared. “We have people who indicate left but turn right — forgetting that we have one center of power built around His Excellency President Robert Gabriel Mugabe.”

Mr. Mnangagwa, a lawyer by training who was also a leading figure in the liberation struggle of the 1970s and 1980s, has been angling for years to take over from Mr. Mugabe. But he is facing off with Mrs. Mugabe, who has gradually stepped up her campaign to succeed her husband.

Mr. Mnangagwa’s supporters said he is their only hope to move the country and its moribund economy forward.

“We are pledging our support to Mnangagwa. We cannot allow the country to be captured by the Mugabes, who want to create a dynasty using people with links to the Central Intelligence Agency,” said Tonderai Chidawa, who heads a pro-Mnangagwa youth lobby group called Zimbabwe Youth Action Platform.

The power struggle has become intensely personal at times.

Mrs. Mugabe has responded to the criticisms by noting that Mr. Mnangagwa’s wife assumed his seat in parliament when he became vice president.

The tensions came into focus last week when, just before his expulsion from government, Mr. Mnangagwa released a report to ZANU-PF leaders accusing Higher Education Minister Jonathan Moyo, a Mugabe supporter, of being a CIA agent plotting to destroy the party from within.

Weeks earlier, Mr. Moyo, an ally of Mrs. Mugabe, accused Mr. Mnangagwa of plotting to oust him through unconstitutional means.

Mr. Mnangagwa’s dismissal paved the way for Mr. Mugabe to make his wife vice president. In 2014, ZANU-PF lawmakers amended the constitution to let the president appoint his Cabinet without oversight.

Mugabe can use his powers in terms of his party’s constitution to appoint any person of his choice at any time,” said Earnest Mudzengi, a Mugabe critic. “If he wants Grace to be his vice president, that could easily be an act of positioning as his successor.”

Mr. Mugabe similarly fired Vice President Joice Mujuru in 2014 on charges of plotting to assassinate the veteran leader. Ms. Mujuru denied the charges and has since formed the opposition National People’s Party.

Despite the show of force on Harare’s streets Tuesday, it is not clear whether Mr. Mnangagwa has sufficient support to take over the ZANU-PF.

The ousted vice president still “controls nine out of 10 of the party’s provincial structures countrywide,” said Temba Mliswa, an independent lawmaker who was expelled from ZANU-PF a few years ago after leaders questioned her loyalty to the president. “Those structures could even elect him to lead the ruling party and the country if they chose him at the congress in December.”

But Barnabas Thondhlana, editor of the independent Observer newspaper, was skeptical that the ex-vice president could control the party’s apparatus in that manner — which may be why the military has intervened.

Mugabe’s word will carry the day at the congress because they all fear Mugabe,” said Mr. Thondhlana.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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