When the Zimbabwean military took control of the broadcast outlets in Harare and seized control of four-decade dictator Robert Mugabe, it appeared to follow the standard coup d’etat playbook. Only by severing the idol from its cult of personality within the country could new leadership emerge — for better or worse, although “worse” would take some doing. On which page of that playbook does it instruct coup leaders to allow the idol to make personal appearances at public events, though?
Whichever page it is, it should be removed forthwith. As it happens, Mugabe didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. In fact, he slept through it:
Mugabe, who is 93, opened a graduation ceremony at Zimbabwe Open University in Harare. He wore blue and yellow academic robes and a mortar board hat and appeared to fall asleep in his chair as his eyes closed and his head lolled.
Perhaps General Constantino Chiwenga hopes to get Mugabe’s party, Zanu-PF, to play ball by treating Mugabe as an already retired elder statesman. That’s a dangerous play, though; the coup can only succeed as long as those on the lower rungs of power believe that Mugabe has been permanently removed from the upper rungs. Having Mugabe preside over official public events doesn’t exactly build confidence in that outcome.
The friendly photographs from Chiwenga’s meeting with Mugabe also look like a mistake:
Zimbabwe’s official newspaper, the Herald, ran photographs late on Thursday showing him grinning and shaking hands with military chief General Constantino Chiwenga, who seized power this week.
The images stunned Zimbabweans who thought it meant Mugabe was managing to hold out against Chiwenga’s coup, with some political sources saying he was trying to delay his departure until elections scheduled for next year.
Chiwenga’s attempts at finessing Mugabe out of power could still backfire on him and on Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president whose ouster by Mugabe precipitated the coup. However, Chiwenga does appear to be making progress with Zanu-PF, according to the Associated Press:
At least one regional branch of Zimbabwe’s ruling party has called on President Robert Mugabe to resign, and others are said to be following suit.
The Manicaland provincial committee in the eastern city of Mutare has called for the resignation as other party meetings are held across the country. …
A ZANU-PF provincial youth league meeting in the capital, Harare, was attended by some formerly expelled members who have supported the recently fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. He is expected to lead any new government.
Three members of Mugabe’s cabinet have been arrested, according to an influential veterans’ group, and several lower-level officials as well. The leader of the group announced that they would give Mugabe another day to resign, but then all bets are off. “If he doesn’t leave,” said Mnangagwa ally Chris Mutsvangwa, “we will settle the scores tomorrow.”
That sounds more like a page out of the coup d’etat playbook. If Chiwenga allows this to fester for much longer, both Mugabe’s enemies and his allies will become emboldened to fight it out in the streets. Chiwenga may blunder his way into a civil war that he acted initially to avoid.