With Mugabe under military control, the 'now what' questions for Zimbabwe mount

For the many Zimbabweans who had long dreamt of it, but had given up hope of ever seeing it, the apparent fall from power of President Robert Mugabe after nearly four decades of autocratic rule must come as an enormous shock, writes CBC's Margaret Evans.

Fall from power after nearly 4 decades of rule would come as enormous shock to Zimbabwe's political system

A newspaper headline in Zimbabwe's capital of Harare on Thursday says Mugabe is under house arrest, but witness reports Thursday afternoon said he was seen moving through the capital in a motorcade, according to The Associated Press. (The Associated Press)

For the many Zimbabweans who had long dreamt of it, but had given up hope of ever seeing it, the apparent fall from power of Robert Gabriel Mugabe after nearly four decades of autocratic rule must come as an enormous shock.

Most people seem to have accepted that regime change in Zimbabwe would only come after the death of "the old man" or "Uncle Bob," as he's called. 

So small wonder people found it hard to believe it was actually happening when reports of tanks on the roads headed towards the capital of Harare first began to surface late Tuesday. 

Urgent messages to contacts on the ground were met with sphinx-like responses. Most didn't wanted to commit. "Interesting times," said one political activist in Harare. 

"There will be no coup," said another contact in Harare. "There is nothing happening here." 

Mugabe addresses party supporters at a rally in Gweru, Zimbabwe, on Sept. 1. Questions mount over who would replace Mugabe, should military efforts to oust him succeed. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

To be fair, the generals who managed this seemingly bloodless coup were quick to pop up on the state broadcaster, insisting emphatically that it was not a coup.

But the mere presence of a man in military fatigues reading messages out from a recently commandeered state television screams, "Yes, this is a coup!"  

And they seem to have made quick work of it.

Mugabe's much younger wife, Grace Mugabe, whose political aspirations to one day succeed her husband as president have drawn the ire of Zimbabwe's generals and its liberation war veterans, was reportedly also been taken into custody, but may have fled or been dispatched to Namibia.

Will fired VP take the lead?

Former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose firing by Mugabe last week set off the current chain of events, has reportedly returned to Zimbabwe, if he ever left, and is preparing to take on the mantle of leadership, perhaps as early as Friday. 

Former Zimbabwean vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, seen here in 2016, is expected to return to the country. He's a likely replacement for Mugabe. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

And Mugabe himself is reportedly under house arrest and considerable persuasion to go gracefully, though witness reports Thursday afternoon said he was seen moving through the capital in a motorcade.    

Chris Mutsvangwa, head of the War Veterans Association in Zimbabwe, issued a statement yesterday calling the takeover, "a bloodless correction of gross abuse of power."

For those who have longed to see the back of Mugabe, it's almost too soon to think of what comes next. For those who supported him, that must be all they're thinking about — potential repercussions. 

A number of pro-Mugabe cabinet ministers have already been arrested.

And the Zanu-PF youth leader, Kudzai Chupanga ,who had earlier accused army chief Constantine Chiwenga of traitorous behaviour for threatening Mugabe, was today pleading youthful folly, even though he is 34 years old.

Accounts on the ground continue to suggest all is quiet, if not entirely normal, in Harare. People are going about their business. 

But the "now what" questions will continue to grow. Mnangagwa is no angel — a former intelligence chief nicknamed The Crocodile and known for his brutality — was every bit a part of an oppressive state hierarchy as Mugabe himself.

Mugabe, centre, falls after addressing supporters upon his return from an African Union meeting in Ethiopia, in this Feb. 15, 2015, file photo. (The Associated Press)

International support for Mnangagwa

Even before he broke with Mugabe, Mnangagwa, already had been singled out as someone who could potentially lead Zimbabwe out of crisis by western diplomats and members of international institutions like the International Monetary Fund. 

"We are between a hard place and a rock," lawyer and activist Promise Mkwananzi said in an interview.

"Emmerson Mnangagwa has demonstrated that he is the nexus between the three key main pillars, which is government, military and the political parties. And therefore there is no way out. He has to be the person that will sanitize the polarized environment in the country.

"I think he's generally acceptable to the international community, China, the U.K. and others," said Mkwananzi. "So whatever his past, whatever his background, whatever the allegations against him at this point in time, I think he is the person best placed to lead the transition and ensure that — in the coming five or so years — there are free and fair elections, and finally and hopefully Zimbabwe can get a government of their choice."

Mugabe, seen at a meeting with war veterans on April 7, seemed almost untouchable for much of his nearly four-decade rule. Shrewd and ruthless, he managed to stay in power despite advancing age, growing opposition and a dissolving economy. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

That has long been an elusive dream. Mnangagwa is reportedly reaching out to opposition leaders with talk of a national unity government.

But even if that complicated endeavour succeeds, helping Zimbabwe crawl out of debt, poverty and despair will be a very long haul.

Whatever the means of his removal, Robert Mugabe has left behind a twisted carcass of a country, its innards scraped clean to feed the never-ending demands of a ravenous patronage mill.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

With files from The Associated Press