Why Zimbabwe’s army acted now to oust Mugabe

Grace Mugabe addresses supporters earlier this year (AFP/Getty Images)

The news from Zimbabwe is by no means clear and the situation may well be what is called “fluid”, but several things seem to have happened.

First of all, it appears that the 93-year-old, Jesuit-educated Robert Mugabe is no longer in power and has not been in power for some time, no doubt due to his increasing physical and perhaps mental frailty. Real power has been exercised by his wife, Grace, and the faction around her.

Recently there have been manoeuvrings to do with the succession. The vice-president and long-term heir apparent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was unceremoniously sacked by Grace and her faction earlier this month, and fled to South Africa, claiming his life was in danger. It seemed Grace had won the succession struggle. However, faced with the prospect of Mugabe II, that is, President Grace, the army decided to act. They have taken over the government.

What will happen now? Mugabe is under house arrest and will no doubt be allowed to live out the rest of his life in peace, perhaps as a figurehead, which he has been for some years now. Indeed, if Mugabe had been at the height of his powers, this disguised military coup would never have happened. Grace, her children, and her political faction will be sidelined in some way. The personal prestige of Mugabe will probably save Grace and the children from harm even after he is gone. Although she appears to not be taking any chances, having reportedly fled to Namibia.

Mrs Mugabe, it is important to remember, is loathed by many – if not most – of her fellow countrymen. She married the president as his second wife (his first wife, Sally, was universally admired and respected) and has used her position to the full to enrich herself and her relations, just when the whole country was going from bad to worse economically. Her arrogant behaviour has alienated many who would perhaps otherwise have turned a blind eye to what is, after all, common behaviour in the families of African dictators. Mrs Mugabe was recently accused of assaulting a South African model.

Everyone in Zimbabwe will be at pains to point out that this is not a coup, though of course it is, and want us to think of it as more as a sort of cabinet reshuffle. It is undoubtedly good news that Grace has been removed from power. It is hard to think of a worse candidate for the presidency of Zimbabwe than her. No one will lament her political passing, apart from her closest associates, which is of course a sign that she was rather a bad politician and had failed to build a broad power base.

Now power is bound to pass to Emmerson Mnangagwa, which is to be welcomed, if only because he is not Grace. But whether he is able to set Zimbabwe on a better course is by no means guaranteed. Mnangagwa has been at the centre of Zimbabwean politics since independence in 1980 and has closely collaborated with Mugabe. Whether this loyal henchman can now transform himself into an enlightened democrat and responsible guide to the economy remains to be seen. As for Grace, wherever she is being held, you can be sure she must be furious and plotting revenge. Her future career will certainly be worth watching.