By Aryn Baker
November 17, 2017

It would seem as if Zimbabwe’s military has President Robert Mugabe backed into a corner.

The 93-year-old has been held under army supervision since the military took over the airwaves on Nov. 14, and tanks patrol the still quiet streets of the capital, Harare. His former vice president-turned-rival Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose abrupt dismissal the week before triggered the political crisis, is back in the capital and determined to take power—seemingly with the blessing of the armed forces. Meanwhile, Zimbabweans are already celebrating the downfall of a dictator who has held the country in his iron grip for the past 37 years.

Yet Mugabe refuses to relinquish power before elections slated for April 2018, even as the military, the opposition and members of his own party insist that stands down immediately and hand power to Mnangagwa. And he can. Because he holds a trump card: the fear that the military’s power play could be called a military coup.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this was indeed a coup — despite the army’s insistence it has not taken over the government. Zimbabwean intelligence reports, cited by Reuters, suggest that Mnangagwa may have been planning for Mugabe’s exit with the military for more than a year. And Zimbabwe’s military chief General Constantino Chiwenga’s recent trip to Beijing to meet with the Chinese defense minister, though billed as a “normal military exchange,” is now raising questions. China maintains a close diplomatic and economic relationship with Zimbabwe, and its support for any change in government would be vital.

If the military does force Mugabe out of power, even with the support of the populace, it would still be considered a coup. That would automatically trigger suspension from the African Union as well as the 15-nation Southern Africa Development Community, and all of their activities. The region, and even European nations would likely impose economic sanctions. Zimbabwe would have trouble getting development assistance or even loans from international banks. And even the United States’ limited engagement with Zimbabwe would have to be dialed back. The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act “restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” That means that U.S. support for family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, governance programs and, ironically, democracy promotion, could be cut.

If Mugabe stands down on his own, however, the political transition maintains a veneer of legality that ensures the next government, whatever it looks like, has a soft landing and the chance of international economic assistance. “If this transition, for which Zimbabweans and friends of Zimbabwe have been waiting for such a long time, is to have a chance of succeeding it will need international engagement,” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Zimbabwe is already in economic freefall, beset by hyperinflation and unemployment so high that an estimated 3 million citizens are now living in neighboring countries. “No one wants to provoke a crisis that will send even more Zimbabweans fleeing over the border.”

Even members of Mugabe’s own party, Zanu PF, seem to understand what’s at stake. The party is working on its own transition plan, senior officials told Reuters on Friday, drafting a resolution to impeach the president if he refuses to stand down. “There is no going back,” the official told Reuters. “If he becomes stubborn, we will arrange for him to be fired on Sunday. When that is done, it’s impeachment on Tuesday.”

In the meantime, Harare’s streets remain calm, and Zimbabwean’s characteristic black humor about their own predicament remains intact: “Mugabe is suddenly a real Zimbabwean: an adult with several degrees just sitting idly at home,” tweeted @CynicHarare, a self-proclaimed “detractor” from Harare.

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