World

After 37 years, rule of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe appears to be ending

Zimbabwe's military controls the capital and the state broadcaster and is holding President Robert Mugabe, 93, and his wife under house arrest. It appears that the world's oldest head of state has been deposed by a coup.

Army has Mugabe and his wife Grace in custody, but denies this is a military takeover

An armed soldier patrols a street in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Wednesday. The future of the country remains uncertain. (Associated Press)

Zimbabwe's military controls the capital Harare and the state broadcaster and is holding President Robert Mugabe, 93, and his wife under house arrest. It appears that the world's oldest head of state has been deposed by a coup.

The military is at pains, however, to say it didn't stage a military takeover, instead starting a process to restore Zimbabwe's democracy.

After 37 years, the military seems to have brought an end to Mugabe's long reign in what the army's supporters praised as a "bloodless correction." South Africa and other neighbouring countries have sent leaders to negotiate with Mugabe and the generals to encourage the transition.

Citizens in Zimbabwe's tidy capital, Harare, contributed to the feeling of a smooth change by carrying on with their daily lives, walking past the army's armoured personnel carriers to go to work and to shops.

Tanks blocked roads after dark Wednesday night and soldiers with automatic weapons kept up their patrols, but the situation appeared calm.

Citizens in Harare carry on with daily lives among army personnel and vehicles 0:35

The chairperson of the African Union Commission has told reporters in Washington that Mugabe and his wife are "safe in the country."

The comments by Moussa Faki Mahamat at the National Press Club were shared on Twitter by a spokesperson for the continental body. There had been questions over whether first lady Grace Mugabe had left Zimbabwe.

The AU leader also says a delegation from the 15-nation Southern African Development Community is already in Harare as authorities seek to meet with Mugabe and the army.

Many who have never known any leader but Mugabe waited, as usual, in long lines at banks to draw limited amounts of cash, a result of this once-prosperous country's plummeting economy.

Zimbabweans queue outside a bank to withdraw cash as armed soldiers patrol the streets in Harare on Wednesday. (Associated Press)

"I am just following what is happening on WhatsApp but I am still in the dark about what is happening," said Felix Tsanganyiso, who sells mobile airtime vouchers. "So far so good; we are going about our business without harassment. My plea is that whoever takes over should sort out the economy. We are tired of living like this."

First lady unpopular

The whiplash developments followed Mugabe firing his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, last week, which appeared to position the first lady, Grace Mugabe, to replace him as one of the country's two vice presidents at a party conference next month.

But the first lady is unpopular among many Zimbabweans for her lavish spending on mansions, cars and jewels. Last month she went to court to sue a diamond dealer for not supplying her with a 100-carat diamond that she said she had paid for.

President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace Mugabe attend a rally of his ruling ZANU-PF party in Harare on Nov. 8. Mugabe has ruled the southeast Africa nation for well over 30 years. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Grace Mugabe, 52, has been known as the leader of the G40, a group of cabinet ministers and officials in their 40s and 50s who are too young to have fought in Zimbabwe's war to end white-minority rule in Rhodesia.

When Mnangagwa was fired, the generals and war veterans felt they were being sidelined and took action to stop that, analysts say.

Mnangagwa's whereabouts were not clear Wednesday, with some sources saying he is in Zimbabwe. 

'The old man should be allowed to rest'

Critics of the government urged Mugabe to go quietly. "The old man should be allowed to rest," former Zimbabwe finance minister and current activist Tendai Biti told South African broadcaster eNCA.

On Monday the army commander made an unprecedented statement criticizing Mugabe for pushing aside veterans of the liberation war. The following day, the ruling party condemned the army leader for "treasonable conduct."

On Tuesday evening the army sent armoured personnel carriers into Harare and soon seized control of the state broadcaster and other strategic points, including Mugabe's residence.

Overnight, at least three explosions were heard in Harare. Military vehicles were seen in the streets.

Mugabe's security 'guaranteed'

Early Wednesday, in a televised address to the nation, Major General Sibusiso Moyo said the army had "guaranteed" the safety of Mugabe and his wife, but added the military would target "criminals" around Mugabe, probably referring to the first lady's G40 group.

A military tank is seen with armed soldiers on the road leading to President Robert Mugabe's office in Harare. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

He urged other security forces to "co-operate for the good of our country," warning that "any provocation will be met with an appropriate response."

In the clip below, the CBC's Margaret Evans, who spent time reporting in Zimbabwe earlier this year, spoke to The National's Andrew Chang about the implications of a potential coup.

'People will be fearing violence' 2:15

Local media reported South Africa's defence and state security ministers, dispatched by President Jacob Zuma as regional envoys, arrived in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, on Wednesday night and were expected to meet both Mugabe and the military. Their ultimate goal was not clear.

Zuma earlier called for "calm and restraint" and asked the defence forces "to ensure that peace and stability are not undermined in Zimbabwe."

Who will rule Zimbabwe should be established in the coming days.

"There is a soft transition underway," said Zimbabwean analyst Alex Rusero. "The whole idea is that the military has always been the chief broker in [Mugabe's ruling party] ZANU-PF … but there were attempts to sideline the military by G40 and [the military] are reasserting their position."

'Lipstick on the pig'

Mnangagwa may well be installed as a transitional leader to return Zimbabwe to constitutional rule, Rusero said.

Zimbabwe may enter a period of negotiation to get Mugabe to step down voluntarily, said Piers Pigou, southern Africa consultant for the International Crisis Group, who also suggested that Mnangagwa may be an interim leader.

"Zimbabwe could have some kind of inclusive government and some kind of democratic process, possibly leading to elections," Pigou said.

"It's clearly a coup d'etat, but typical of Zimbabwe, the military is trying to put a veneer of legality on the process … It is part of the theatre that Zimbabwe is so good at, to try to make things look orderly and democratic. South African and other neighbouring countries may be brought in to help put some lipstick on the pig."

War veterans praise army

The army has been praised by the nation's war veterans for carrying out "a bloodless correction of gross abuse of power." The military will return Zimbabwe to "genuine democracy" and make the country a "modern model nation," Chris Mutsvangwa, chairman of the influential war veterans' association, told The Associated Press in Johannesburg.

Secretary General of Zimbabwe's War Veterans Association, Victor Matemadanda, addresses a news conference in Harare Wednesday. He said veterans stand with the army and that Mugabe should be recalled as president and ruling party leader. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

That organization's secretary general, Victor Matemadanda, says the veterans stand with the army and Mugabe should be recalled as president and ruling party leader.

Matemadanda told reporters in Harare that the country has been sliding into a "state of chaos."

He said the ruling party should establish a commission of inquiry into Mugabe and why he decided to let his wife insult veterans and the Armed Forces.​

Human rights violations

Mugabe has long been accused of human rights violations, including increasing crackdowns on dissent, amid a deteriorating economy.

"Police abuse increased, and there was excessive use of force to crush dissent," New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its latest report on the country.

"Human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists and government opponents were harassed, threatened or faced arbitrary arrest by police. Widespread impunity continues for abuses by police and state security agents."

'This is not a military takeover of government,' says army official 1:27

UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed "the importance of resolving political differences through peaceful means and dialogue, and in line with the country's constitution."

Haq wouldn't speculate on what's going to happen in Zimbabwe, saying "at this stage there's a bit of confusion on the ground."

Haq added that "we are aware that our colleagues in Harare have been able to go about their work."

Diaspora expresses cautious optimism

Several million Zimbabweans fled the country, mostly to South Africa, after the economy shrank by more than a third from 2000 to 2008 following the collapse of the agriculture sector. Unemployment rose to over 80 per cent.

Many in the diaspora said they were happy to see change back home at last.

"I think it's a step in the right direction for a political situation which was now a joke," said Kevin Mpofu, 28. "The arrests that have happened so far are a celebration for many Zimbabweans tired of the corruption and abuse of power."

A 30-year-old Zimbabwean working as a marketing officer in South Africa who gave his name as Billy said it was "about time, but it might be 20 years too late."

He worried that one strongman might follow another: "It may be hard in future to remove that person as well. We might have another 37 years ahead of us of a single person."

With files from CBC News and Reuters