Day 6

Zimbabwe's coup: Was Grace Mugabe the trigger?

Robert Mugabe is the one who's nominally under house arrest, but some Zimbabweans think Grace Mugabe was the coup's real target.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's wife Grace Mugabe looks on during a national church interface rally in Harare on Nov. 5, 2017. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

This week, the military seized power in Zimbabwe, taking control of the state broadcaster and moving forward with its plans to try to oust President Robert Mugabe from power after 37 years.

But as the dust begins to settle, some political observers believe it's Grace Mugabe — not her husband — who's at the heart of the crisis.

On Friday, the president made his first public appearance since the takeover, presiding over a graduation ceremony at Harare's Zimbabwe Open University.

Grace Mugabe, however, was nowhere to be seen.

Before the takeover, the younger Mugabe was being groomed as her husband's successor. Last week her chief rival, vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, was forced out of power, bringing her closer to that goal.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace wave to supporters in Harare on Feb. 23, 2014. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

A step too far

Former Zimbabwean journalist Innocent Madawo tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that it was Mnangagwa's ouster, and the accompanying threat of Grace Mugabe's rise, that triggered the military coup.

"That's when the military was like OK this is really happening. If we don't do something here we are done," says Madawo.

Grace Mugabe acquired support within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, with her primary base in the youth wing of the party.

In 2014, she was designated the chairman of the women's league in the party. All that stood in her way from climbing further up the political ladder was the popular vice-president Mnangagwa.

Madawo says that Mnangagwa, a hero from Zimbabwe's liberation from white minority rule, had a large backing in the army, who were hoping that he would succeed the president.

President Robert Mugabe and new wife Grace leave the Kutama Catholic Church August 17, 1996 after exchaning their wedding vows. The couple were traditionally married shortly after the death of Mugabe's first wife Sally. The ceremony was attended by six thousand invited guests. (Howard Burditt/Reuters)

Vice-president seen as successor

"He had spread tentacles around the military such that he [was] their figurehead after Mugabe, when they had realized, 'OK Mugabe is getting old', says Madawo. "They needed a replacement. They had chosen him." 

Grace Mugabe gained the support of a party faction that didn't support Mnangagwa, and began to publicly insult him.

Additionally, she's been involved in several international incidents in which she's been accused of assault, one in Hong Kong and one in South Africa. She avoided charges because of diplomatic immunity, but Madawo says that neither incident has endeared her to the Zimbabwean public.

Madawo says she has a reputation in Zimbabwe of stealing Mugabe away from his late wife. Her reputation is also not helped, he says, by the luxurious lifestyle she leads in a country where unemployment and deep poverty are pervasive.

"Every step of the way she has been either saying something that rubs people the wrong way or doing something that rubs the people the wrong way," says Madawo.

Grace Mugabe is shown in August, not long after she was accused of assaulting a young model at a Johannesburg hotel in South Africa. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Assocciated Press)

Eliminating rivals

The president has little support in the capital Harare because of the way he's handled the economy. The military is saying it trying to clear the government of "criminals" who have been stealing from the government.  

But the goal may be to make it impossible for Grace Mugabe to seize power in the future.

Madawo says that officials in the party feared that if she became president, she would begin to target her political rivals and have them fired, like she's been accused of doing to the former vice-president.

"They would have would have been okay carrying on the way things were, were it not for Grace aggressively thinking and moving towards putting yourself into the vice presidency and, hopefully, eventually into the presidency," says Madawo.

For a full timeline of Grace Mugabe's involvement in Zimbabwe politics, explore the timeline below. 

For our full conversation with Innocent Madawo, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.