For us students of Africa, the images of a military junta sitting in full uniform while declaring the incumbent President was no longer in power, evoked the image of Samuel Doe in 1980 and we were terrified for Zimbabwe.
There was, however, a crucial distinction from Zimbabwe's 2017 coup the coup of Liberia that cast Samuel Doe into power. Zimbabwean military leader Maj. Gen. S.B. Moyo, upon seizing control of the State sponsored television channel, was adamant that this was NOT a coup and the military was not in control…however neither was Mugabe. But wasn’t it a coup?
As a French scholar, I’ve studied of the French language and culture for an intense academic period in America referred to as a mandatory high school foreign language class. So, because of the intense education of the French language and culture (plus being Creole on my maternal Grandmother’s side) I can tell you “coup” comes from “coup d’etat” which translates to “cut off the head”-while the translation is correct I hoped y’all caught the intended sarcasm above. Though old world France brought this word in the political lexicon because Kings was literally getting they heads chopped off (American Negro syntax structure added for emphasis), in common parlance it means a top incumbent has been dethroned; usually violently.
Yet, almost unheard of in post-colonial Africa, this coup was not violent. In fact, it was literally bloodless (thank God, Allah, Yahweh, Papa Legba, the Ancestors and everyone else). But, the then President Robert Gabriel Mugabe was in fact dethroned after 37 years of what some called "brutal tyranny". So, for all intents and purposes, yes, this was a coup. But do we care? I mean of course we care, but should we be worried? Coups, especially in Africa tend to have a negative connotation. I actually learned about Zimbabwe’s coup, that was not a coup, in real-time from a brilliant friend of mine who is also Ethiopian and follows the politics of Africa closely; he and I were talking and he told me that trouble had once again befallen our beloved continent and conveyed that he was worried for the Zimbabwean people. I, having just finished reading a slew of books about Liberia, was terrified for our people in Zimbabwe too. However, Moyo successfully and peacefully figuratively beheaded a brutal dictator who was charged with murdering his people, brutally quelling dissent and tanking Zim's economy for his personal gain. That’s a win, no?
I was confused, “...like-”, I thought to myself, “-isn’t Mugabe kind of a hero? Isn’t he the one that took land from colonial settlers of former Rhodesia and redistributed it to Black Africans?” And I wasn’t necessarily incorrect. Mugabe was a key figure in liberating then Rhodesia (named after Cecil Rhodes who was a disgustingly racist white dude who colonized Africa and named the land that would come to be known as Zimbabwe after him). However, after acquiring power Mugabe began undertaking measures to ensure he would never lose it. Securing his power manifested in one of his legacy’s most horrendous blemish: the massacres at Matabeleland.
Matabeleland is an area of Zimbabwe largely domiciled by Zimbabweans of the Ndbele tribe. This also happens to the tribe of someone Mugabe (a member of the Shona tribe) viewed as a threat, Joshua Nkomo, leader of an opposition party. While Mugabe more or less denies he ordered or even knew about these massacres the evidence indicates he explicitly ordered thousands of Matabeleland’s residents to be killed and maimed. In January of 1983, Mugabe’s specially trained Fifth Bigrade allegedly committed atrocities against the people of Matabeleland that, if true, could rival the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone. This act was believed to be retribution for Nkomo trying to amass power and a warning to all Zimbabweans that Mugabe’s power was not to be challenged.
So, for 37 years Mugabe and his party ZANU-PF have gone essentially unchallenged. Until the morning of November 15th, 2017 when the Zimbabwean people and the world were politely informed Mugabe was no longer in power…but neither was the military. Remember? Moyo insisted this was not a coup. So, who was going to run Zimbabwe?
Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, former Vice President that had recently been kicked out of office, allegedly at the urging of Grace Mugabe, President Robert Mugabe’s wife.
Shortly after the coupless coup that Moyo called a “bloodless correction”, Mugabe resigned and Mnangagwa who was hiding in another country, returned to claim his throne. But is he the change Zimbabwe needs? Is this reform or a continuance of the current regime with a new leader? And how was this coup so damn bloodless? I mean kudos to them for that, but HOW?
Mnangagwa was and remains a member of Mugabe’s political party that has maintained power with him at the helm for 37 years. The ministers of Mugabe’s cabinet and military have benefited handsomely under his rule. It actually seems that Mugabe’s land grab from white farmers was actually redistributed mainly (if not solely) to members of his military and cabinet. With Mugabe ageing, seemingly posturing his wife to succeed him and Mnangagwa being a long-time party member, I surmise the coup was successful because it was an inside job. This, I think, is the first thing that made the coup successful as it circumvented the factional warring usually found in the developing world’s civil wars. But it also leaves Zimbabwe ripe for a true civil uprising, especially as it seems Mnangagwa intends to carry out a system of governance akin to the Mugabe’s regime.
Moreover, the entire ZANU-PF party and military were definitely down with kicking out Mugabe and inserting Mnangagwa in his place. But this was because and only because Mnangagwa isn’t a treat to the current political structure that favored the extant ministers and high ranking military officials. In fact, one of Mnangagwa’s first acts was to reappoint Patrick Chinamasa to his Minister of Finance position and appoint Constantino Chiwenga, a military veteran, as one of his Vice Presidents. There are reports of more appointments of military officials who assisted with the coup.
Although it may not bring sweeping change, does any coup? Even America, which is claims revolutionary superiority over the world, essentially had a coup that implemented a system of governance remarkably familiar and remarkably different at the same time: old rich white dudes had power. …wowwww big change.
…but hey Donald Trump has appointed half is family and America is still standing, so I mean, maybe this won’t bar Zimbabwe from creating the necessary reforms to deflate the Zimbabwean currency, re-encourage foreign investment and, most importantly, put food and opportunity in the hands of everyday Zimbabweans.
It appears the key a bloodless coup is to make it an inside job that doesn’t upend the current political structure; but then, for us regular folks, what’s the point of coup if it doesn’t rush in change? But also, what’s the point of a coup if it’s leaves even one innocent dead body in its wake?
With so much negative news about Africa I felt this event should be highlighted in a way I wasn't seeing online. Black Africans strategically dethroned a brutal dictator, without violence and his successor seems to be making reforms to be better. That alone should be an accomplishment anywhere. So, congrats to Zimbabwe for doing the impossible. After tasting freedom, if only for a handful of days, I’m sure Zimbabweans won’t let Mnangagwa become Mugabe.