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23 February 2018 06:37 (South Africa)

Something is happening in Zimbabwe, with rumours flying around

  • Conway Waddington
    Conway Waddington

    Conway Waddington is a doctoral student at the University of Johannesburg, and a senior correspondent at African Defence Review, focusing primarily on west and east African conflict.

  • Africa
Zimbabwean army APCs reportedly seen en route to Harare.

This afternoon, Twitter erupted with rumours (and more than a few victorious declarations) that a coup to oust President Robert Mugabe was underway in Zimbabwe. The rumours originated from a collection of photographs and video clips showing armoured vehicles on a road, purportedly headed towards the capital, Harare. AFRICAN DEFENCE REVIEW is watching developments closely, but this is what we can tell from the material available publicly so far.

Online comments almost without fail are mistakenly calling these vehicles 'tanks'. In the above video, the narrator claims to have been passed by at least "ten tanks", headed to Harare from Chinhoyi, and speculates that the unsmiling passengers on the military vehicles "have orders".

Still image from the above video - seen here, a tracked APC, not a tank.

Specifically, the vehicles appear to be either Norinco-made Type 63 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) or - more likely - the more modern Type 85/89s seen in Zimbabwean service as the ZSD-89-II.

 Norinco type 63 APC - these were the smaller predecessors of the PLA's type 85, and 89 export models (image source)

At least one of the (at most four) vehicles seen in any one image appears to be either a mortar, ambulance, or command vehicle variant.

One of the images circulating on social media showing three of the APCs (the hatches more clearly visible in these images would make these Type 89s)

A PLA Type-89-ACV-2S command variant - note the radio antennae (Image source: Air Power Australia)

The imagery available of the convoy so far shows, at most, four tracked Armoured Personnel Carriers. These are not tanks. The difference is more than just semantics.

A convoy of four APCs moving from one location to another is quite different to driving a convoy of tanks toward a capital city. APCs carry personnel for any number of reasons and their presence on a road could far more easily be explained away as a simple redeployment, albeit a terribly timed one. Tanks are solely fighting vehicles - the reasons for moving them around are more limited. Moreover, moving them is a significant logistical undertaking, one that would not be done without a very specific purpose in mind. When local and international media casually refers to a convoy of 'tanks' heading toward Harare, it connotes a far more serious situation than might actually be the case.

Indeed, video showing these APCs stopped on the road has been narrated by witnesses as setting up roadblocks - where they might just as easily be pausing, or as has been speculated by calmer heads, attending to a breakdown.


Various images circulating on social media and local press showing the same types of APCs as seen in the original video(s). In the third image, one vehicle appears to be towing another.

Another video, in which the narrator describes military police and two "tanks" having blocked off Kirkman Road, on the outskirts of Harare. Interestingly, the narrator specifically notes that the blocked off roads leads to the "2nd Presidential Guard Barracks just outside Harare". 2nd Battalion of the Presidential Guard has a barracks in Dzivarasekwa, roughly in the same area. (video source unclear)

Vehicle identification and circumstances aside - local and international media have since seized on the story - reporting witnesses' claims of tanks heading to, or even in Harare.  From there, the story has snowballed.

Contextually, the time is ripe for a coup - or at least, narratively speaking, it makes sense that a coup might occur. Yesterday, General Constantino Chiwenga, the Army Chief of Staff, warned that the Zimbabwe National Army could step in, if infighting in the ruling ZANU-PF continued. This was interpreted, in its most extreme form, to suggest the ZNA could overthrow the Mugabe-led ZANU-PF, or at least, the pro-Mugabe ZANU-PF faction, which has been positioning itself for Grace Mugabe to take over from Robert, seen most dramatically in the recent abrupt firing of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Another important facet of the day's event to consider is that police, or possibly military personnel were reportedly engaged in raids on an NGO in Harare today. This could plausibly account for at least some of the presence of military personnel in the city.


It is also worth noting that military personnel are regularly deployed in and around the city, at various secure points, or transiting between several barracks located in and around the city.

An image circulating on social media showing military personnel in Harare. The image is purportedly from today, but it is unclear which unit those men are from, or what their purpose is.

For the time being, African Defence Review strongly advises restraint against drawing dramatic conclusions about an ongoing or imminent coup. The specific unit identity of the military personnel shown in the imagery is unknown. Their intentions are unknown and undeclared. The circumstances of the convoy of APCs on the road and their apparent stop is also unknown. Yes, given the past two weeks' political events, it is tempting to speculate that there is a connection between the deployment of military personnel and the comments of the Army Chief of Staff on an 'intervention' - but there are very real dangers of violence breaking out as a result of rampant and unfounded speculation.

As has been noted elsewhere, there are currently no other signs of an organised coup - no further military deployments, or announcements. A lack of activity among foreign diplomatic personnel in Harare is also a fairly good indicator that things are not nearly as dramatic as the initial social media response to the APC imagery would suggest.

That is not to say that some lesser form of posturing might be taking place. The movement of forces might be coordinated as part of a deliberate act of intimidation, or even an uncoordinated act by a small unit. There is plenty of room for speculation, although again, restraint is probably a good idea.

In the meantime, some blatantly false imagery has already appeared on social media. One such example to look out for is this video clip, purportedly showing a military convoy headed toward Harare (except that it is a video from another location and another time, as evidenced by the beautiful clear weather despite the cloudy, raining conditions in Harare today).

A video of Zimbabwe National Army troop movements dating back to September, being portrayed as taking place currently: source

This article is republished with permission from the African Defence Review.

  • Conway Waddington
    Conway Waddington

    Conway Waddington is a doctoral student at the University of Johannesburg, and a senior correspondent at African Defence Review, focusing primarily on west and east African conflict.

  • Africa

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