(BBG) Zimbabwe’s military seized power and detained 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe in a struggle over the succession of the only leader the African nation has ever known.
Mugabe was confined at his home, while Zimbabwe Defense Forces spokesman Major-General Sibusiso Moyo said in a televised address that the military action was “targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes.” Ministers in Mugabe’s administration have been accused of corruption.
Troops took control of the state-owned broadcaster and sealed off parliament and the central bank’s offices, while armored vehicles were stationed in the center of the capital, Harare.
The military intervention followed a week-long political crisis sparked by Mugabe’s decision to fire his long-time ally Emmerson Mnangagwa as vice president in a move that paved the way for his wife Grace, 52, and her supporters to gain effective control over the ruling party. Nicknamed “Gucci Grace” in Zimbabwe for her extravagant lifestyle, she said on Nov. 5 that she would be prepared to succeed her husband.
The takeover comes at a delicate moment for Zimbabwe, where an estimated 95 percent of the workforce is jobless and as many as 3 million Zimbabweans have gone into exile. With an economy that has halved in size since 2000 and relies mainly on the dollar because it has no currency of its own, a severe cash shortage is choking businesses and forces some people to sleep in the streets near banks to ensure they can make withdrawals, which are confined to as little as $20 a day.
President Jacob Zuma of neighboring South Africa called for calm and urged the military to maintain the peace. Western governments urged their citizens in Zimbabwe to remain indoors.
While declining to call the military’s move a coup, the U.S. State Department said in a statement Wednesday that “it is vital that Zimbabwean leaders exercise restraint and respect the rule of law. We do not condone military intervention in political processes.”
Zimbabwe stocks fell the most in two months and bitcoin climbed as much as 10 percent to $13,499 on the country’s Golix exchange. The currency of neighboring South Africa barely moved, with the rand less than 0.1 percent weaker against the dollar by 3:30 p.m. in Johannesburg. Zimbabwe buys manufactured goods and other products from South Africa.
The action came a day after armed forces commander Constantine Chiwenga announced that the military would stop “those bent on hijacking the revolution.”
As several armored vehicles appeared in the capital on Tuesday, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front described Chiwenga’s statements as “treasonable” and intended to incite insurrection. Later in the day, several explosions were heard in the city.
People involved in the “purge” of liberation war veterans from the government will be arrested and charged, according to a senior official involved in the army action, who asked not to be named as the information isn’t public.
While the armed forces denied that their action represented a coup, the country is now under military rule, said Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean law lecturer who is based in the U.K. and helped design Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution.
Man In Uniform
“When you see a man in uniform reading news on national television, you know it’s done,” he said in a text message. “There are no more questions. Authority is now in the hands of the military.”
Mnangagwa, who said he fled Zimbabwe because of threats against him and his family, had been a pillar of a military and security apparatus that helped Mugabe emerge as the nation’s leader after independence from the U.K. in 1980. He was Zimbabwe’s first national security minister.
Johannesburg-based IOL reported Mnangagwa had returned to the Zimbabwean capital on Wednesday. Ex-Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, a Mugabe rival, also returned to Zimbabwe amid the military intervention, Sky News reported.
Mnangagwa’s dismissal signaled Mugabe’s break with most of his allies who fought in the liberation war against the white-minority regime of Rhodesia, leaving his wife’s so-called Generation-40 faction of younger members of the ruling party in the ascendancy.
While Zanu-PF named Mugabe as its presidential candidate in elections next year against a possible seven-party opposition coalition, he’s appeared frail in public, sparking concern among his supporters that he wouldn’t be able to complete another five-year term.
The Southern African Development Community will closely monitor the situation in Zimbabwe and remains ready to assist where necessary to resolve the political impasse, Zuma, who’s currently head of the organization, said in a statement. Coups are uncommon in southern Africa and previous ones in smaller countries such as Lesotho have been overturned after regional intervention.
Moyo, in his statement, told members of parliament that the military’s “desire is that a dispensation is created that allows you to serve your respective constituencies according to democratic tenets.”
Elections probably won’t be held as scheduled, Rashweat Mukundu, an analyst with the Harare-based Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, said by phone.
“The military is going to determine the shape of Zimbabwean politics, although they’ve tried to say this is not a coup,” he said. “This may result in the creation of a new unity government which will involve the opposition.”