When semantics determined how a coup was not a coup

This article is more than 12 months old

Military intervention in ousting of Zimbabwean president 'unusual'

The sight of a civilian populace wildly cheering soldiers clinging to a tank is the standard fare of coups d'état.

In Africa, which has had a troubling tradition of the military overthrowing civilian administrations, it is a jubilation that historically has rarely lasted for long, with the new rulers soon proving to be at least as venal and oppressive as those they have replaced.

The Zimbabwe military's slow-motion, week-long, eviction of the man who has ruled that landlocked southern African state for its entire 37 years of existence as an independent nation, came to an abrupt and almost banal end on Tuesday night.

After a week of determined resistance, President Robert Mugabe suddenly resigned with immediate effect, by means of a letter read out in the nation's Parliament.

On a continent that often has been wracked by violent coups d'état, this had been a most unusual military intervention. For different reasons, everyone, on all sides, took pains to avoid any suggestion that this was a coup.

When the tanks last week swept into the capital city of Harare and soldiers took control of key installations, the nature of what had happened seemed simple: a forced change of power, accomplished in this case at the cost of the death of a single ministerial bodyguard, and with the 93-year-old Mugabe and his 52-year-old wife, Grace, placed under house arrest.

That's a textbook coup.

The military's actions followed within days of Mr Mugabe firing Deputy President Emmerson Mnangagwa, seemingly to clear the way for the widely despised Grace to succeed him when he eventually relinquished control.

Mr Mnangagwa, who bears the nickname of Crocodile for his canny ruthlessness, and who was Mr Mugabe's lifelong friend and ally, fled to South Africa.

"We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover," were among the first words of Major General SB Moyo in the post-takeover statement read on television. Rather, the military was targeting "criminals" around President Mugabe "who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country".

The sensitivity to semantics on the part of the Zimbabwean generals stems from the 55-nation African Union, the continent's intergovernmental body, taking an increasingly hard line against illegal changes of government.

Mr Alpha Conde, chair of the AU and president of Guinea, was initially forthright on what had happened: the action was "clearly soldiers trying to take power by force" and he warned that the AU would "never accept a coup d'état in Zimbabwe".

The reaction from the populace was at first muted. By the weekend, suspicion had turned to unbridled optimism.

More than 100,000 Zimbabweans of all races assembled for peaceful demonstrations throughout the country to celebrate the ousting of Mr Mugabe. Opposition groupings expressed guarded approval of the military's actions, with the caveat that there should be a cross-party process of democratisation, free elections and an end to the flouting of human rights.

On Sunday, Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party fired Mr Mugabe as its leader and recalled him from the presidency. They also issued an ultimatum that were he not to resign by noon on Monday, impeachment procedures would be started immediately.

The strangest defender of the legality of these actions by the military turned out to be Mr Mugabe himself. When on Sunday he appeared on state television, ostensibly to resign, he said that the "military operation" was motivated by "a deep patriotic concern for the stability of the nation" and did "not amount to a threat to our well-cherished constitutional order".

Mr Mugabe has resigned "voluntarily… to ensure the smooth transfer of power" and opposition co-operation - which would have come at the cost of Zanu-PF agreeing to a democratisation timetable - is no longer needed.

Mr Mnangagwa will succeed him "within 48 hours," says Zanu-PF.

The coup that was not a coup took a week. It will take longer for Zimbabweans to find out whether their jubilation at the unexpected transformation of their one-time oppressors into uniformed liberators will be vindicated or dashed.- REUTERS

The writer is a South African writer and author of the nationally-syndicated Jaundiced Eye column.