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Zimbabwe facing a struggle for power: U of T political scientist

The world's oldest leader, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and his wife Grace Mugabe attend the celebration of Mugabe's 93rd birthday in February (photo by Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

After almost four decades of rule, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe appears to no longer be in control. Zimbabwe’s military took over state television to announce the autocrat was in custody.

As tanks appeared on the streets of the capital, Harare, the military said there had not been a coup, and the 93 year old, considered the world’s oldest head of state, and his family were “safe and sound.”

“What we are witnessing right now is a power struggle within the leadership but not a military takeover,” said Mark Manger, associate professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs.

He says the military is backing Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president who was deposed by Mugabe last week. Mugabe had supported his wife's bid to lead Zimbabwe's governing party.

“Everyone knows now that nothing will happen against the will of the generals,” he added.


Can you explain what’s taking place in Zimbabwe? Why did the military put Mugabe under house arrest, and why now?

What we are witnessing right now is a power struggle within the leadership but not a military takeover. The Zimbabwean governing party, the ZANU-PF, is divided into several factions. The two factions vying for power right now are the “old guard” around the deposed vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is supported by General Constantino Chiwenga, and the ZANU-PF Generation 40 (G40) young upstarts and the ZANU-PF Youth League who seem to have aligned themselves with Grace Mugabe, Robert’s wife. 

Mugabe may well be unable to hold the reins because his health is failing, and with a ZANU-PF party congress coming up, the faction around Grace Mugabe had managed last week to depose Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa. Next month, the ZANU-PF was supposed to have a party congress, possibly putting a successor to Mugabe in place without, of course, being able to force him to retire. That prompted the army leadership to act.

Mugabe isn’t formally under house arrest but “held in a secure place for his own protection.” Importantly, the story that Mnangagwa and General Chiwenga want to portray is that they are the guardians of the revolution, and that Mugabe is a good man surrounded by criminals. In fact, General Chiwenga gave Mugabe a warning that the military “would protect the revolution.”

Why was Emmerson Mnangagwa deposed? Was Mugabe trying to put his wife in power?

It looks like that. Mnangagwa is 75 years old and was a teenager active in the liberation war, as was General Chiwenga. Mnangagwa could well have succeeded Mugabe given his (relatively) younger age, and he is one of the last leaders that emerged out of the liberation struggle.

Grace Mugabe is in her 50s, and is Mugabe’s former secretary and second wife. She is despised by the military leadership and senior liberation fighters, who see her as a greedy woman who seduced the ailing president. She and Robert Mugabe started their relationship while his first wife, Sally Mugabe, who was well liked, was seriously ill, around 1990. Her sons with Robert Mugabe are seen as playboys who flaunt their wealth on social media. The liberation fighters may have feared that Grace Mugabe might want to become president, or worse, one of her sons.

Given Zimbabwe’s history and the fact that Mugabe has been in power for almost 40 years, what does this struggle for power mean for the country?

It’s unlikely that we will see any improvement in the situation of the average Zimbabwean. Neither side has any democratic credentials. Mnangagwa is also known as “the Crocodile” because he was a ruthless state security minister, trained by the Chinese, and probably responsible for the massacre of at least 10,000 people.

With leaders like him trying to succeed Mugabe, we’re most likely going to see an attempt to continue ruling Zimbabwe through the dominant party of the ZANU-PF. 

What are the wider implications for the continent with a military regime running Zimbabwe? For the world?

It’s highly unlikely that Zimbabwe will be run by a military regime.

Power hasn’t changed hands after all. We are probably going to see a return to civilian rule, with Mnangagwa or someone close to him installed as successor to Mugabe. Given that we see very little opposition right now, life goes on more or less as normal for Zimbabweans, and the military appears unified. We can assume that the soldiers will return to the barracks at some point soon – everyone knows now that nothing will happen against the will of the generals. Even oppressive parties like the ZANU-PF want to present at least a veneer of constitutional democracy to the world.