The Current

'It's a coup': Zimbabwe journalist on military takeover and President Mugabe's house arrest

"If you have a man in military uniform taking over the state broadcasting station and reading out a statement at 4 a.m - that's a coup."
On Nov. 15, Zimbabwe's army said it had President Robert Mugabe and his wife in custody. The military patrolled the capital's streets following a night of unrest that included a takeover of the state broadcaster. (Associated Press)

Story transcript

At 4 a.m. local time on Wednesday, a special bulletin on Zimbabwe's state broadcaster reported the 93-year-old Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe who is under house arrest was "safe" — and that it's not a coup.

"We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover of government," Maj.-Gen. S.B. Moyo, a military spokesman, assured his country.

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

But to many, with the military seemingly in control of the capital Harare, and the airwaves, it looks like the beginning of the end for the world's oldest head of state. 

If you have a man in military uniform taking over the state broadcasting station and reading out a statement at 4 a.m — that's a coup.- Peter  Godwin , journalist and author

Peter Godwin, journalist and author of The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe, is quite certain what to call the latest political crisis in Zimbabwe.

"It looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it's a coup," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"If you have a man in military uniform taking over the state broadcasting station and reading out a statement at 4 a.m — that's a coup."

Many political observers wonder if this is the end for the world's oldest head of state, Robert Mugabe. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Godwin, who covered the 2008 presidential election and its aftermath, observes there's something different about this coup in the classic sense.

"This is not your average West African coup where the general who is perpetrating it wants himself to be the president. That's clearly not the case," he explains.

What's happening now as Godwin describes it is "a kind of protective coup" where it's clear the Zimbabwe army's General Constantine Chiwenga does not want to be president. 

Zimbabwe's army General Constantine Chiwenga has criticized the instability in the country's ruling party caused by President Robert Mugabe's firing of a vice-president. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

"[Chiwenga's] doing it in a sense to protect the old guard of the party, from Mr. Mugabe's wife Grace who has designs to replace him as president."
 

'Bedroom coup' vs. 'palace coup'

Which leads to the contest of coups, Godwin explains.

"The 'bedroom coup,' which is the one where Grace (Mugabe's wife) wants to take over Mugabe's life, and a 'palace coup' where the old guards say, 'no we should be the ones who take over.'"

Congregants cheer as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's wife Grace Mugabe addresses a national church interface rally in Harare, Zimbabwe, Nov. 5, 2017. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

He predicts one way or another, this will be the end of Mugabe as the ruler of Zimbabwe. 

"I don't think he can come back from this."

Although he's confined at the moment — he's still the president.-  Florence Chideya, Zimbabwe's ambassador to Canada

'The president is still the president'

But for Florence Chideya, Zimbabwe's ambassador to Canada, there's nothing to come back to because Mugabe remains "the president and commander of the defence forces."

"He is the president today."

President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace Mugabe attend a rally of his ruling ZANU-PF party, Nov. 8. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly four decades. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

She tells Tremonti the military has explained internationally that this is not a coup, calling it "a bloodless, peaceful transition" and suggests the military made the decision to intervene because "they felt that the country was being undermined."

"The whole reason for this intervention, the way the military has expressed it is that they are looking for the elements that have maybe abused the democracy that is there. So I don't know how you would say that this is a bad thing for the population."

Florence Chideya, Zimbabwe's ambassador to Canada, says President Robert Mugabe is still in charge and remains 'the president and commander of the defence forces.' (Stringer/Reuters)

Institutions like the judiciary and parliament all remain open, Chideya says, and civil servants are being encouraged to work. 

But with Mugabe ousted, who's in charge?

Chideya confirms "bureaucracy is ... intact. No one has gone home" and says she currently currently reports to the Minister of Foreign Affairs as well as the chief secretary.

"The president is still the president, although he's confined at the moment — he's still the president."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson, Ines Colabrese and Willow Smith.