A power struggle over who will succeed the 93-year-old Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe spilled out on the country’s streets on Tuesday, when tanks were seen heading towards the country’s capital, Harare.
The move follows a threat issued by the head of the armed forces on Nov. 13, who said the military was prepared to step in if a purge continued of senior officials in the ruling Zanu-PF party who had fought in the 1970s liberation war against white minority rule.
“The current purging, which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background, must stop forthwith,” General Constantino Chiwenga told a news conference on Nov. 13., the Guardian reports.
Why is this happening now?
It’s a power play between two factions in the regime: the former liberation fighters in Zanu-PF against the party’s youth faction, who are loyal to Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
The latest skirmish began when Mugabe sacked his right-hand-man, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a veteran of the 1970s liberation war, for allegedly plotting against the government. The move seemed intended to pave the way for Grace Mugabe to become his successor. But the war veterans and the military are the powers behind Mugabe’s rule and they want the power to choose who will replace the nonagenarian when he dies.
What should I know about Grace Mugabe?
The 52-year-old is a deeply polarizing figure in her country. The former secretary married the President in 1996 after the death of his first wife. She quickly earned the nickname ‘Gucci Grace’ for her lavish shopping trips abroad despite being on an E.U. sanctions list, which was implemented in 2002 after electoral fraud and human rights abuses by the regime. When questioned about her spending habit, she reportedly said: “I have very narrow feet, so I can only wear Ferragamo.”
In August this year, she made headlines for allegedly lashing a model with a plug after finding her in a hotel room with her two younger sons, Bellarmine and Robert Jr. She managed to escape prosecution when the South African government allowed her to claim diplomatic immunity.
Beyond the extravagance, she has proven to be politically ambitious. In 2014, she was unveiled as a potential successor to her husband, the world’s oldest head of state, after gaining a seat in Zanu-PF’s powerful politburo. That year, she influenced the dismissal of another competitor to the throne, former Vice President Joice Mujuru.
This July, she challenged her husband to name his preferred successor and has explicitly expressed her desire to succeed him.
Is this a coup?
It is too early to tell. Zanu-PF denied the rumors of a coup in a tweet, urging people to “please continue with your lives”:
But experts say the military presence probably only serves as a warning to Grace Mugabe. The director of nonprofit Vanguard Africa speculated on Twitter that it was a “show of force”:
As the presence of the tanks indicate, Grace Mugabe’s attempts to hedge her power faces opposition from influential figures within the country. The tussle comes as the country’s weak economy continues to struggle and more than 70% of the population live in poverty.