After 30 years of ‘Uncle Bob’, the population of Zimbabwe deserves a break. Is this it?
Robert Mugabe’s attachment to power has put Zimbabwe on its knees economically, socially and politically. So the appearance of General Constantino Chiwenga insisting the Zimbabwean Defence Forces are dealing with a “criminal gang” and would restore the constitution and the rule of law is perhaps enough to suggest there’s a way out, a new route to recovery via more democratic rule. It’s not a coup they say - because they need to, the idea of a coup is too disturbing to donor nations - such as the UK, which provides around £40 million each year in aid - and regional bodies like the African Union. Military forces are there to protect the security of borders and civilians, not to get involved with politics.
The reality is that Zimbabwe is at a fork in the road. With the intervention of regional advisers and deal-makers from the African Union and SADC, the African regional security organisation, there is a route to stability and the kind of genuinely democratic elections and leadership that the country’s people have longed for. In the meantime this is a situation criss-crossed with dangerous fault-lines that could, instead, break and collapse into chaos and violence.
This in many ways is the typical African coup d’etat. There’s the usual clashes between the Army and the police - demonstrated by yesterday’s scenes of soldiers chasing and beating policeman in Harare. General Chiwenga was being mooted as a successor to the aged President back in 2014. During the three years since then, he and the rest of the world have watched the steady accretion of power to the First Lady Grace Mugabe and her so-called “Generation 40” supporters (those involved with the struggles for independence in the late 1970s) in her wing of the all-dominant ZANU-PF, his chances of the top job were beginning to look slimmer. Chiwenga may have seen an opportunity in a deterioration in Robert Mugabe’s health, or been spurred by the removal of the more constitutionally inclined Vice-President of Zimbabwe, Emerson Mnangagwa on 6 November.
Those who recall the heady days of the newly liberated and re-named Zimbabwe in 1980 will know that there were two rival liberation movements, ZANU and ZAPU together with their victorious armed wings, ZANLA and ZIPRA. Not all the whites had gone either and they, much weakened and subsequently damaged by Mugabe’s land reforms, continued to provide crucial expertise, especially in the business sector. Mugabe, using fair means and foul in equal measure, sealed these latent fault-lines. His ZANU-PF party and the Shona dominance ensured relative stability.
Many in the Ndebele ethnic grouping will remember the murderous forays of the largely ex-ZANLA dreaded 5th Brigade into their heartlands in the 1980s. Some have organised across the border in Botswana. Others are close to Jacob Zuma’s Zulu groups in South Africa. After all, in days gone by, Zulus and Matebele, as the colonists called them, were often blood brothers in Southern Africa’s inter-tribal conflicts or fighting the inroads of the white man onto their territories. Renewed inter-ethnic conflict is not beyond the bounds of possibility. If it happened – a worst case scenario – it might make ethnic conflict, bad enough in benighted places such as South Sudan, look like a petty squabble.
What’s most important for the country is not just who wins the initial squabbles over power in Harare in the next few weeks, but the long-term direction. And critically that will depend on the statesmanship of regional and ethnic group leaders - and in particular Jacob Zuma. He may not be trusted by everyone in the West, but such a powerful figure on the continent, and chair of SADC, is the man to watch.