It appears to be time for another round of a not-so-fun game: coup or not coup?
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who was placed under house arrest by the military on Wednesday, is reportedly refusing to give up power over the country he has ruled for 37 years. Mugabe held talks on Thursday with South African envoys. A Catholic priest has also reportedly been mediating between the president and the military commanders who pushed him out. The crisis was sparked by Mugabe’s firing last week of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has close ties to the military and is part of a faction of veterans of the 1970s guerilla war against white minority rule. The move was widely seen as an attempt to clear a path to power for Mugabe’s controversial wife, Grace, who is supported by many younger members of the ruling Zanu-PF party. The military is clearing hoping to install Mnangagwa in power, with Mugabe either resigning or remaining as a figurehead until a scheduled party congress in December.
Morgan Tsvangirai, the country’s most prominent opposition leader and former prime minister, has also returned from abroad where he was receiving medical treatment, and called on Mugabe to resign.
All of this is very awkward for other African governments. Under ideal circumstances, regional leaders, including South Africa, would probably prefer Mnangagwa. He’s anything but a reliable democrat—as Todd Moss and Jeffrey Smith note “He was the chief architect of a massacre of some 20,000 civilians in the 1980s, an episode known as Gukurahundi” and “is also implicated in billions of dollars in missing diamond revenues”. In an interview with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, author Peter Godwin describes him as a “powerful and evil man, and as power-hungry as Mugabe is.”
But he is also, at the very least, a political veteran and known quantity who might conceivably work to repair Zimbabwe’s devastated economy and moribund political institutions. This would be preferable to Mugabe clinging to power until he dies, possibly succeeded by Grace. But military coups are also not something these leaders, keeping a wary eye on their own militaries, want to encourage.
The Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc currently chaired by South African President Jacob Zuma, met in Zimbabwe on Thursday and called on the army to avoid any “unconstitutional” change in government. SADC has traditionally had little tolerance for coups. It even organized a military intervention led by mainly South African troops to put one down in Lesotho in 1998.
The African Union also put out a statement affirming its “full support to the country's legal institutions.” The current AU leader, Guinean President Alpha Condé, said that Mugabe’s detention “seems like a coup” and demanded a return to constitutional order. (This is a little rich coming from Condé, whose own rise was facilitated by a military coup in 2008.)
The U.S. government, which has targeted sanctions against Mugabe and his wife, said it was “deeply concerned by recent actions undertaken by Zimbabwean military forces” but avoided using the word “coup.” This is to be expected: U.S. law prevents any financial assistance to "any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by decree or military coup."
The international community’s aversion to coups is likely a big reason why the Zimbabwean military has denied that it is taking power, and claims that it is targeting the “criminals” around Mugabe, rather than the leader itself.
So how should we think about all of this? Zimbabwe’s coup—and that’s what it is, even if no one wants to call it that—presents a quandary. Zimbabwe’s political order under Mugabe was anything but democratic: He ruled through violence and intimidation and it was unlikely that he was ever going to give up power through a peaceful democratic process. On the other hand, existing norms against coups exist for good reasons: coups often lead to more authoritarian governments (a very real possibility with a figure like Mnangagwa at the helm, backed by the military) or the kind of “coup traps” of recurring military interventions that have plagued countries like Thailand and Turkey. It would be easier for everyone if Mugabe simply shuffled off into ignominious exile, leaving his country to clean up his mess. But Mugabe was never one to make things easy.