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Opinion Please don’t call what’s happening in Zimbabwe a ‘coup’

A man reads the front page of a special edition of the Herald newspaper about the crisis in Zimbabwe on Wednesday in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Kudzayi Zvinavashe, a Zimbabwean journalist, is a co-founder of the news website Spiked.

Zimbabwe is a different place. On Wednesday morning, the nation woke up to the news that the army had taken control. The military announced on state TV and radios — carefully avoiding the words “house arrest” — that it had placed President Robert Mugabe and his family under its protection, stressing that it had guaranteed their safety.

“If you had asked me three days ago, I would have said that Grace Mugabe was going to be the president of this nation,” Munyaradzi Dodo, a young Zimbabwean, told me. “Now I think we’re at a tipping point. Nothing will ever be the same after this.”

Yet what comes next? Dodo, like many others I spoke with, expressed cautious hope for the future. After so many years of economic and social decline, a window for change has suddenly and unexpectedly opened. But there’s also a lot of uncertainty. Most Zimbabweans are hoping that the army won’t cling to power for long. They want the generals to oversee a transitional period that will lead to new elections.

Dodo and others have their doubts. The military, after all, has been the main pillar of Mugabe’s regime for all these years. “We’re caught in a situation where we’re asking ourselves, did we just kick out a dog and let a wolf come in instead?” said Dodo. Yet so far, there’s been no declaration of martial law, no state of emergency. Dodo told me that he felt perfectly safe — safe enough that he was planning to go out for drinks in the evening.

Interactions between the army and citizens have been civil — or, at least, that’s what people are telling me. All things considered, it has been a remarkably gentle process. The army has made a point of avoiding the word “coup.” A military spokesman who issued a statement on TV explained the armed forces’ action as arising from the need “to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country which if not addressed may result in a violent conflict.” There have been no signs of violence thus far, except for a few loud blasts heard on Tuesday evening.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe made it clear he won't be stepping down in a Nov. 19 televised address. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post, Photo: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/The Washington Post)

Some parts of Harare, especially the areas where government buildings are located, were blocked off by tanks and other government vehicles. Soldiers are waving traffic away. But most businesses remain open, and the city seems to be going about its normal routine (albeit with fewer people on the streets). Today, on Thursday, the roads have been opened, but the soldiers and tanks are still around. There are reports that the army has set up security checkpoints on the country’s main roads.

Indeed, the greatest moment of tension came on Monday, two days before the coup, when the commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, accompanied by 90 other top officers, held a dramatic news conference. He warned the ruling party, the ZANU-PF, to put an end to its internal factional battles, which have angered the army by leading to the “purging” of many veterans of the war of liberation in the 1960s and ’70s.

His news conference was not covered by state-sponsored broadcasters and print media until Wednesday, when the army took control of them.

Overall there’s a remarkable spirit of calm. We’ve seen neither protests nor public displays of jubilation. People are waiting to see how the situation turns out.

One thing is for sure, though: Zimbabweans are thrilled to see that the military has blocked Mugabe’s wife, Grace, from seizing power. It was her husband’s decision to fire Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa from his post, which would have paved the way for her to become Mugabe’s successor, that seems to have triggered the military’s action.

Another young Zimbabwean, Elizabeth Msindo, told me that she sees everything that’s happening as a conflict within the ruling party. For that reason, she says, she’s confident that ordinary citizens won’t be hurt by it. Life goes on.

“We welcome the move by the government, and we are ready for any change,” one young man said. “Any change is better than no change at all.” Yet it was still telling that he refused to give me his name. Not all Zimbabweans have overcome their deeply entrenched fear of the regime.

Many critics of the government believe that a new government will be able to survive only by taking a course diametrically opposed to Mugabe’s. It would take measures to revive the economy, to restore the rule of law and to usher in foreign investment as well as cultivating good diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. Zimbabweans are yearning for reform. Yet even as I spoke with analysts and experts on Wednesday, I was struck by how few of them were willing to be quoted on the record. The reason is simple: No one is sure if this is going to be a complete break with the past or just a temporary takeover.

Rashweat Mukundu, a human rights activist and veteran journalist, told me that, for most Zimbabweans, it’s as if they were sitting on the sidelines, watching two village bullies fighting. However things turn out, the onlookers always enjoy the sight of a bully getting a beating.

On a more serious note, he said that he does expect the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a 15-country regional bloc, to become involved. South African President Jacob Zuma, who is also the SADC chairperson, has sent an envoy to Zimbabwe. One likely scenario would see Mugabe hand over power to a transitional government headed by former vice president Mnangagwa but also encompassing members of the opposition parties.

Even though Mnangagwa has a tainted background (he used to run the secret police), he could well turn out to be a key figure in bringing Zimbabwe out of its current crisis. (He is, among other things, one of the few officials who has been pushing for abolition of the death penalty.) Still, if he ends up on the throne, he will have a lot of work to do in order to win the people’s trust. For the time being, Zimbabweans are keeping an open mind.