Daily Maverick

Zimbabwe: When is a coup not a coup?

J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the extraordinary developments in Zimbabwe and remembers how a putative revolt, half a world away and half a century ago, gives rise to questions that will need to be answered.

At the time of this writing, the great Zimbabwean non-coup-coup and the ultimate fates of both Robert and Grace Mugabe still remain remarkably unsettled – even though the pair have been bounced out of the Zanu-PF ruling party, and he has been given until noon on Monday to leave the presidency – or else. But the question is: or else, what?

So, will the old fox somehow hold on to some shreds and tatters of authority into his final days on Earth, or will he and his wife finally be forced into permanent house arrest – or exile in another African state or yet further afield? His anxiously-awaited Sunday evening speech seemed to indicate that Mugabe thought he had one last roll of the dice before he conclusively became history.

Presumably it will need to be somewhere close to a Gucci franchise and it must have sufficient internet access to be able to connect with money they have stored away for that inevitable rainy day. But that will be another story when the auditors and accountants have their moments.

Beyond the power(less) couple’s final destination, of course, the question of how all of this came to be still remains something of a mystery. Who made the actual decision to move those tanks and armoured personnel carriers into place in the first instance? How did they give the orders without Mugabe’s informants tipping the old guy off – and how did they convince all those lower down the military ranks to carry out these orders without fear of retribution from the Mugabes and their crew? Were there any consultations or blandishments from further afield internationally in order to nurse this plot along? And who actually planned the subsequent events, once the decision to “go” had been made?

Or, was this something where there actually was no thoroughgoing planning? Was it merely the hope that “something would turn up” once the tanks began to roll, to ensure that the plotters’ efforts would succeed without much bloodshed?

The problem, of course, is that this particular drama may have only just begun – and that there are still many more acts still to follow. It may all, ultimately, work out for the betterment of the people of Zimbabwe, or it may be that there will be tragic consequences for the country and the region as a whole, if fighting breaks out and the inevitable economic and demographic dislocations ensue.

Setting the scene for what may come in the coming days, this week’s Economist wrote,

It was the dismissal and flight abroad of Robert Mugabe’s oldest and trustiest lieutenant that finally led to his downfall. Grace Mugabe, the 93-year-old president’s avaricious wife, was thought to be behind the sacking. Younger than her husband by 41 years, she plainly sought to inherit the throne. Yet she overplayed her hand. Within a week the armed forces’ commander, alongside an array of generals, declared, without naming her, that Mrs Mugabe must be stopped. He demanded, also without naming names, that her nemesis, Emmerson Mnangagwa, must be reinstated as heir apparent. Mrs Mugabe’s allies were denounced as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ who had played no part in the ‘war of liberation’ that 37 years ago had brought Mr Mugabe to power.

A few days later armoured troop carriers rolled into Harare, the capital. Soldiers took control of the state broadcaster and surrounded Mr Mugabe’s residence. In the small hours of the morning another general announced on television that the army was in charge. But the coup was not a coup, he insisted. Various traitors had merely been rounded up and the Mugabe family detained for their own safety. Mr Mnangagwa was set to return from his brief exile. The Mugabe era was at last ingloriously over. As The Economist went to press, events were still unfolding pell-mell. But the latest signals suggest that the fate of Zimbabwe, at least for now, is in the hands of the 75-year-old Mr Mnangagwa.”

But was what happened last week a popular revolution up from the streets or was it more like a transfer of power from one part of the country’s authoritarian elite to another part? The revolts of the Arab Spring were classic movements from below. In retrospect it is easy to see why those outbursts rocked the Arab world from the Western Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf over a half decade ago. Massive youth unemployment, the lack of real avenues to participate in national politics, and the concentration of economic power with a small coterie of politically connected individuals and families all were tinder for the fires.

Still, no one, no foreign intelligence agencies, certainly no dozing domestic authoritarians in those various nations affected by the uprisings, were prepared for the coming storm when it actually hit. Yes, nation-by-nation, some governments successfully managed their responses to these outbreaks of deep discontent. But others, such as those in Tunisia or Egypt, could not. Ultimately, some longstanding authoritarians were swept away and were replaced by very different governments. But in others, they hung on grimly and eventually regained their equilibrium and control. But none of those uprisings were driven, at least initially, by any of that formulaic “circulation of elites” within the ruling circle – the kind of behaviour so famously described by Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto.

Contrast the Arab Spring with the more usual run of coups so familiar to Africans. In such circumstances, it has been rare for social, political and economic systems to tremble and fall as a result of all those substitutions of those big men in their presidential palaces – once the tanks began to roll.

But events in Zimbabwe remain confusing and unresolved. Efforts by Robert Mugabe to install his wife Grace as his favoured successor, rather than Vice President Emmerson Mnangwaga, may have precipitated the generals’ decision to make their move – but were other things at play as well? Reportedly, the head of Zimbabwe’s military was on a visit to China just the week before the coup. Given China’s growing interests in Zimbabwe on both economic and geopolitical and strategic grounds, did General Constantino Chiwenga get a subtle – or not so subtle – “go ahead” for the military’s move? There are rumours South Africa had a heads-up on things as well.

In addition to reporting that a senior Zimbabwean diplomat ‘sensitised’ regional governments ‘to the idea and necessity of the coup’ and ‘received assurances that there would be no military intervention’ ”, News24 added:

The coup, sources told City Press yesterday, was given the tacit approval of China, Zimbabwe’s largest development partner. China was asked to provide the assurance that it would not stop its “economic and technical assistance” to Zimbabwe if Mugabe was deposed. It did so on condition that its strategic interests in the country were not compromised.

“ ‘The Chinese were keen on knowing who would take over. When [the diplomat] informed them that it was Mnangagwa, they were thrilled as he is an old friend of China. He did his military training there,’ a source said. ‘I can confirm that at this stage, the United States was informed, but played no role in the plan.’ Last week, Chiwenga travelled to China and other countries in southern Africa to ‘consolidate the assurances’, having told Mugabe that ‘he was going for medical follow-ups … but he was really coming for consultations’ ”.

The new apparent leader (now head of the ruling party and presumptively the country’s head as well) Mnangagwa is hardly a stalwart democrat. He has carried out a long-time role as Mugabe’s right hand and has been reported to have had a hand in the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland in 1983 designed to crush any possibility of opposition to the largely Shona leadership in the newly independent Zimbabwe.

In trying to find historical analogues for what is transpiring several hundred kilometres to the north of Johannesburg, I have been drawn to Indonesia in 1965. Indonesia? Yes, it is barely on the perceptual threshold of most South Africans, and for almost every reader, 1965 is already almost ancient history – but hear me out.

Indonesia is one of the world’s most populous nations with a vast store of natural resources. And it happens to be astride the sea lanes between East Asia and the Near East, Africa and Europe where around 40% of world trade passes through, just for starters. Indonesia also has a complex ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic mix spread across its many islands.

By 1965, South-east Asia had already become a contested zone as the US was beginning to ramp up its military commitments of men and material in South Vietnam, even as both the Soviet Union and China were beginning to increase their aid to their ally in North Vietnam as well. Internationally, Indonesia was increasingly allying itself with China and was in a sometimes violent stand-off with Malaysia over the latter’s territories on the island of Borneo. In Indonesia itself, the government of independence struggle hero President Sukarno (many Indonesians only have a single name) was trying to stay in power in a complex balancing act between the growing power of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and its allies in the navy and air force versus the Indonesian army – and two of those power centres against the potent forces of both ethnic nationalism and Islamic nationalism as well.

The usual narrative has been that the PKI encouraged elements in the military to seize control of the country on their behalf, assassinating several key commanders, taking charge of the national broadcasting centre, and then, crucially, declaring it had done all this in defence of the revered incumbent president. In a very close-run thing, the plotters managed to forget to arrest or kill Suharto (also the bearer of a single name), the general in charge of the military reserve. Suharto succeeded in rallying loyal troops to put down the revolt and then led a more comprehensive effort to root out PKI sympathisers and their foreign supporters.

Once blame for the coup attempt had been firmly affixed to the PKI and its leader, DN Aidit, horrific violence ensued against supporters of the PKI, Indonesian Chinese permanent residents and citizens, and sometimes just people who opposed those carrying out violence who were sorting out old scores over land. Most estimates now figure that somewhere in the neighbourhood of a half million people may have perished by the end of the violence. The Chinese diaspora in Indonesia was seen as a stalking horse for Beijing’s support for the PKI – especially as there were reported secret shipboard deliveries of Chinese weapons bound for Indonesia. But the Chinese were also an easy target for nationalists, Islamic populists and the army by virtue of their relative prosperity and difference.

There is, of course, an alternative narrative about what happened. An influential group of international scholars have argued that the PKI and the coup plotters were actually levered into their move by the army – in order to smoke them out and deal with them once and for all in the ongoing power struggles. And that, more ominously, a number of western nations had a bit of a heads-up in all this and that they may well have actively encouraged the military to be ready to strike at the PKI and its supporters. Movie fans will recall these events from The Year of Living Dangerously, a vivid, albeit less than fully accurate depiction of those events – although the film did feature both Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson in breakout cinematic roles.

Even now, 52 years later, it is not entirely clear who did what and how they did it: Did the PKI make its pre-emptive effort to take over the country, or did the generals cajole and sucker them into such a move in order to smoke them out and then do away with them?

Yes, Zimbabwe is a very different society and has had a very different history. But at present, the evolution of events there on the ground that have brought the country to its current circumstances remain murky and unclear. Will Mugabe loyalists – and there must be some, even if they no longer see that old man as their leader – carry out an effort to overturn the current changes before things are nailed down? Will old scores beg for being settled, and will the ethnic divisions between the two dominant ethnicities become a tension that helps feed growing discontent?

And all of this should be of supreme importance to South African policy-makers who, so far, have been lethargic and slumberingly reactive to developments, rather than making any effort to articulate what they hope to see as Zimbabwe’s way, going forward. And there has been no public recognition of the obvious importance a stable, economically growing Zimbabwe has for South Africa and the rest of the southern African region.

Oh, and one more thing, at a minimum, Zimbabwean developments may have put paid to the idea that presidential authority can easily be passed along to a spouse (or former spouse) or child without some serious sturm und drang. Hereditary political leadership is now seemingly limited to Equatorial Guinea, Cuba and North Korea. And that may have some very interesting repercussions elsewhere. DM

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (L) and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (R) embrace as they arrive for an extra-ordinary meeting of the SA Development Community (SADC) heads of state and government at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 June 2009. EPA/UNATI NGAMNTWINI

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