- - Wednesday, November 15, 2017

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabweans woke up in a state of shock on Wednesday morning as an apparent “soft coup” against longtime authoritarian President Robert Mugabe continued to unfold.

“He should have left power a long time ago when Zimbabweans were still in love with him,” said Agency Gumbo, 33, a Harare resident. “The army is merely representing the aspirations of the people.”

In a move unprecedented since this southern African country achieved independence nearly four decades ago, the military assumed control of the country early Wednesday morning and placed the 93-year-old Mr. Mugabe and his wife, Grace, under house arrest. But Major Gen. Sibusiso Moyo was quick to disavow talk of a coup, portraying the move as protective and claiming officers were seeking to apprehend “criminals” surrounding the nation’s first family.

“As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy,” said Gen. Moyo in a televised address Wednesday morning, ensuring the public that Mr. Mugabe’s family was “safe and sound and their security is guaranteed.”

The president’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front, known as ZANU-PF, party also dismissed claims of a coup Wednesday morning on Twitter, instead calling the developments over the past days a “bloodless peaceful transition.”

From now on, the party will “present the views of ZANU-PF and Comrade Mnangagwa,” referring to Zimbabwe’s ousted vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has returned to the country from South Africa on Wednesday afternoon to assume control of the country, according to Zimbabwean media reports.

But confusion reigned here over exactly what the new military leadership had planned, or how long the political “transition” might last. The distinction between a coup and a peaceful transition was hard to discern in Harare Wednesday morning as tanks rolled through the capital.

Soldiers began seizing government offices and patrolling the streets. Citizens queued in front of banks to withdraw the little cash they have in anticipation of an escalating military disruption. Explosions and gunfire were heard on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

But even many Zimbabweans welcomed what looked to be an end to Mr. Mugabe’s long and corrupt rule.

He has been the dominant political figure in the country since helping lead the struggle for independence. But the country has been devastated by a mismanaged economy and rising poverty. Human rights groups have long charged him of employing fraud, intimidation and violence to retain his grip on power.

“I’m happy this is happening to Mugabe,” said Harare resident Gerald Mutsambiwa, 37. “All dictators should go the same way. That’s the price of rigging elections.”

The U.S. Embassy shuttered its doors to the public Wednesday, told staffers to stay home and encouraged citizens to take shelter. The British Embassy also issued a warning to its citizens, citing “reports of unusual military activity.”

But the extra-constitutional way Mr. Mugabe has been sidelined has left many here uneasy. Mr. Mnangagwa has long been a key figure in the existing power structure, and enjoyed close ties to the military and to influential veterans’ groups before Mr. Mugabe tried to summarily dismiss him earlier this month.

The youth wing of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, called on the military to call for elections and not remain in power permanently.

“We want democracy to prevail at the end of the day,” said MDC youth chairman Happymore Chidziva. “Whatever is happening regarding the military must translate into elections where Zimbabweans would be afforded an opportunity to elect their preferred leaders”

Up until now, the military has been a bastion of Mr. Mugabe’s power base. But a fissure within the president’s ruling ZANU-PF over who would succeed the increasingly frail president has led to political purges and interparty turmoil.

Last week, Mr. Mugabe fired Mr. Mnangagwa and accused him of plotting to overthrow the government, forcing him to promptly flee the country. Many saw Mr. Mugabe’s recent moves as clearing the way for his 52-year-old wife, a polarizing figure here, to succeed him.

More than 100 senior officials and supporters of Mr. Mnangagwa were also listed for disciplinary measures at the behest of the ZANU-PF faction headed by Mrs. Mugabe, who had positioned herself to replace Mr. Mnangagwa as vice president at the party’s December conference — a move which would have all but assured her ascension to the presidency.

Grace Mugabe, however, remains incredibly unpopular amid revelations of lavish spending of government funds in a country whose economy has tanked in recent years and whose people struggle to make ends meet.

“The critical point is that the situation is in flux,” said Teddy Brett, a professor of international development at the London School of Economics. “People are forced to exchange their currency, food is scarce, and we have a situation in which everyone can see that things are going down the tubes.”

With Mr. Mugabe and his wife detained, Mr. Brett said it was likely that the military and ZANU-PF would reinstate Mr. Mnangagwa as vice president, positioning him to assume the presidency. Mr. Mugabe and his wife would remain isolated and may be kept on to serve as figureheads.

But the analyst said it’s not clear that Mr. Mnangagwa, who like Mr. Mugabe was a key part of the independence movement dating back to the 1970s, would be an improvement in terms of human rights, civil liberties or the economy, which has nearly collapsed under Mr. Mugabe as foreign investment has fled.

“Whether that will solve anything, nobody knows,” Mr. Brett said. “Mnangagwa is intimately associated with the whole corrupt process of expropriating funds and taking over expatriates’ businesses. It’s a crony capitalist situation and it’s clearly not going to stop here.”

Austin Davis contributed reporting from Berlin.


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