HARARE, Zimbabwe — When Zimbabwe’s military detained President Robert Mugabe on Tuesday night, it seemed the stage had been set for the ouster of Africa’s oldest leader.
Two days later, it was clear that it might not be so easy.
On Thursday, Mugabe, 93, entered into talks with the military commanders who placed him under house arrest and with officials from neighboring South Africa. His motorcade streaked through the city without any army escort, indicating that he had at least some freedom of movement. In a photo from Thursday’s talks released by the government newspaper, he was smiling with his arm around the army commander responsible for the military takeover, appearing untroubled.
For the 37 years he has ruled Zimbabwe — from independence to the verge of economic collapse — Mugabe has outwitted his opponents at every turn, using intimidation, electoral manipulation and purges of his own party. Now Zimbabweans are wondering: Will he find a way to survive a coup?
By Thursday night, there were hints that Mugabe had at least bought himself some time. In meetings with a high-profile Zimbabwean Catholic priest and with military commanders, Mugabe resisted requests to step down, according to interviews with officials and media reports.
On Friday The Zimbabwean military released a statement saying that “significant progress” has been made in its efforts to apprehend members of President Robert Mugabe’s government.
But negotiations with Mugabe were still ongoing, it added, referring obliquely to “the way forward” without explaining if commanders were seeking Mugabe’s ouster or a different kind of negotiated settlement.
“You will be advised of the outcome as soon as is possible,” it said.
Many people would be happy to see him leave office. Mugabe has become deeply unpopular at home because of his repressive tactics and the country’s steep economic decline during his rule. Abroad, he has been criticized for his authoritarian rule and his seizure of farms owned by the white minority. He has regularly denounced the West for many of his nation’s ills.
And yet the military’s role in detaining Mugabe has become a flash point for a region that has attempted to enshrine democratic values in its charter.
Zimbabwean military leaders were aware of the sensitivities; after troops detained Mugabe and took over the state television station, a top general said early Wednesday that it was “not a military takeover.” The military leaders were prompted to act after former vice president and onetime defense minister Emmerson Mnangagwa was fired this month, paving the way for Mugabe’s wife, Grace, to succeed him as president.
At least publicly, the military has said it won’t push Mugabe to leave — even though it effectively took control of the government.
“The elephant in the room is the constitutional issue,” said Ibbo Mandaza, a Zimbabwean academic, referring to the illegality of the military takeover. “This is a region where coups are not tolerated.”
While some countries in southern Africa have evident democratic shortcomings, there have been few coups in recent decades. Many are still led by the parties that fought for independence from colonial rule.
The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), a regional body of 15 nations, met in Botswana on Thursday to discuss the situation and seemed to tilt toward Mugabe and against the military takeover. In an outline of issues discussed in
the meeting, the body described the “unconstitutional removal of democratically elected governments.”
The African Union also has taken a hard line against unconstitutional changes of government. Its bylaws require it to impose sanctions against countries that have undergone a coup and bar them from participating in the organization’s activities.
Further complicating the situation is the question of who might succeed Mugabe.
Many of those close to the military are hoping that Mnangagwa would become the head of a transitional government if Mugabe resigned. That possibility is worrying for many Western observers, who consider Mnangagwa to be corrupt and abusive. He was sanctioned by the United States in 2003 as one of several officials “who undermine democratic processes and institutions in Zimbabwe.”
Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto expressed support for Mugabe’s departure, telling Reuters:
“It’s a transition to a new era for Zimbabwe, that’s really what we’re hoping for,” Yamamoto said.
On Thursday, 115 civil society groups called on Mugabe to step down, and a range of opposition leaders, including Morgan Tsvangirai, once considered his main political rival, said it was time for Mugabe to go.
As Zimbabweans debated their country’s future in conversations and on messaging apps, Mandaza offered his own prediction: He expected Mugabe to resume the work of the presidency within days.
After its meeting on Thursday, the SADC said it was not ready to issue a conclusion about the Zimbabwe crisis. Even if the bloc decides to support Mugabe over the military, it’s possible its members won’t be willing to back up that decision, either by dispatching troops or using economic leverage. In 1998, it sent troops to Lesotho to quell a coup, but it has little experience intervening in larger nations such as Zimbabwe.
There is still some warmth between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, which fought for Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain and the end of white minority rule, and the other “liberation parties” of southern Africa, from South Africa’s African National Congress to Namibia’s SWAPO party.
Last year, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, described Mugabe as among “the leaders of his generation who stood up, risked their own lives, defeated colonialism and contributed to the liberation of the region and Africa.”
Mugabe has ruled since the country became independent in 1980. In his early days, he was regarded as a hero by many both at home and abroad.
But his support crumbled over the past two decades as the country’s economy withered and the government was plagued by corruption scandals. Men such as Victor Matamadanda, who once fought alongside Mugabe for independence, gave up on their former comrade.
Now, Matamadanda is the secretary general of the influential Zimbabwe National War Veterans Association, an anti-Mugabe group. He’s hopeful — despite the obstacles and delays — that the military takeover gives way to a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.
“It’s going to be madness,” Matamadanda said, imagining a brighter future for the country once Mugabe and his inner circle are gone. “For years, they’ve treated this country like their own personal village.”