HARARE – Robert Mugabe’s four-decade grip on Zimbabwe appeared to be nearing its end last night, at the hands of the same soldiers who hoisted him to power after the war against the white-minority regime of Rhodesia.
The military takeover carried out Wednesday appeared to be a coup in all but name — parliament is closed, soldiers are on the streets and the country’s leader is under house arrest.
Mr Mugabe’s decades-long grip on power appeared to be fading as military vehicles blocked roads outside the parliament in Harare and senior soldiers delivered a late-night television address to the nation.
“The president … and his family are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed,” Maj Gen Sibusiso Moyo said, slowly reading out a statement.
“We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes … As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”
Maj Gen Moyo said: “This is not a military takeover of government”
But the generals’ actions posed a major challenge to the 93-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980.
Mr Mugabe — the world’s oldest head of state at 93 — sealed his fate by firing his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former spy chief who helped him take power in 1980 and keep it.
For armed forces commander Constantino Chiwenga, the president and his 52-year-old wife, Grace — who’s commonly known as “Gucci Grace” for her extravagant lifestyle — had gone too far.
After he announced the military would stop “those bent on hijacking the revolution”, the ruling party called Gen Chiwenga’s comments “treasonable” and the die was cast.
Hours later, armored vehicles appeared on the streets of the capital, Harare.
Indications now are that Mr Mugabe is trying to negotiate a graceful way out, while the military says it’s rounding up the “criminals around him”.
Despite the armed forces denial of a coup, the country is now under military rule, said Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean law lecturer.
“When you see a man in uniform reading news on national television, you know [it’s a coup],” he said.
Neighbouring South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, one of Mr Mugabe’s closest allies, said he had spoken to the veteran leader by telephone.
Mr Mugabe “indicated that he was confined to his home but said that he was fine”, the South African government said in a statement that called for calm and restraint.
Tensions between Mr Mugabe and the military establishment, which has long helped prop up his authoritarian rule, erupted in public over recent weeks.
The ruling Zanu-PF party on Tuesday accused army chief Gen Constantino Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct” after he criticised Mr Mugabe for sacking vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mr Mugabe is the world’s oldest head of state, but his poor health has fuelled a bitter succession battle as potential replacements jockey for position.
In speeches this year, Mr Mugabe has often slurred his words, mumbled and paused for long periods.
His lengthy rule has been marked by brutal repression of dissent, mass emigration, vote-rigging and economic collapse since land reforms in 2000.
Speculation has been rife in Harare that Mr Mugabe had sought to remove Gen Chiwenga, who is seen as a Mnangagwa ally.
Mr Mnangagwa’s dismissal left Mr Mugabe’s wife Grace, 52, in prime position to succeed her husband as the next president — a succession strongly opposed by senior ranks in the military.
As the situation deteriorated overnight, prolonged gunfire was heard near Mr Mugabe’s private residence.
South Africa urged Zimbabwe to resist any “unconstitutional changes” of government, and said it was sending envoys to Harare on behalf of the SADC bloc of southern African nations to help resolve the impasse.
The Associated Press