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Why did Zimbabwe's war veterans ditch Mugabe?

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Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe watches a video presentation during the summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Johannesburg, South Africa August 17, 2008.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe watches a video presentation during the summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Johannesburg, South Africa August 17, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo

What finally led to the fall of Robert Mugabe on 21 November? The liberation leader turned authoritarian president was toppled by his erstwhile allies, the war veterans. So what sparked their divorce?


Zimbabwe was plunged into chaos on Tuesday 14 November when soldiers and tanks were seen heading towards the capital Harare.

"There were soldiers at strategic points, no police to be seen, and that was a tip-off that something major was happening," Knox Chitiyo, an Associate Fellow at London-based thinktank Chatham House who was in Zimbabwe at the time.

"People were uncertain of what was happening and whether there would be a heavy police presence, a heavy military presence. People got home OK, because we called each other afterwards, but the absence of police told you that something major was happening."

Zimbabweans long accustomed to seeing police roadblocks at every corner, woke up to find the military in charge and President Robert Mugabe placed under house arrest.

"It was extremely shocking," Miles Tendi, a Zimbabwean writer and lecturer at Oxford University, who specialises in civil-military relations, told RFI.

"Going on the literature, a coup in Zimbabwe was highly unlikely, so, when it came to pass, it took many of us aback, probably all of us, I don't think anyone predicted that this would occur."

When is a coup not a coup?

The military insisted it wasn't a coup and that they were targeting "criminals" within Mugabe's entourage, who they claimed "had brought the country to the brink of economic collapse."

"But the speed at which events have moved, wasn't so surprising because the army was very aware that they couldn't let this drag on for too long."

The country's political uncertainty was sparked by Mugabe's sacking of his former vice-president now turned president Emmerson Mnangagwa, allegedly in a bid to allow his wife Grace to take over.

That was the final straw says Robert Besseling, Executive Director of risk firm EXX Africa.

"Mnangagwa has had links with the security and the military since the days of the liberation struggle. He played a key role in many of the military interventions in Zimbabwean politics, and the fact that he was removed was seen by those allies of his in the military as removing a key leader of theirs in the ruling party."

But few had predicted that the internal squabbles of the ruling Zanu-PF party, would spill over to the army and set it on a collision course with the president.

So how did we get here? And why did the war veterans, the men who fought alongside Robert Mugabe during Zimbabwe's liberation war against a white-minority regime, now lead the charge against him?

War veterans threaten Mugabe

"The war veterans and the military had given Mugabe a lot of warning shots," explains Knox Chitiyo.

"It looks like something that happened overnight, but from the time the War Veterans Association released a declaration last year, saying 'Look, we're not happy with the way Mugabe is running the country, we're not happy with the way he's running the party and we're removing him as our patron,' that was a massive warning."

In July 2016 the war veterans withdrew their support from Mugabe, calling on him to uproot the rot of corruption that was eating away at the country.

"The war veterans have always been one constituency that Mugabe could not ignore," Chitiyo says.

A letter of their demands made public expressed their frustration, that was already apparent in 1997, he recalls.

"In 1997 they demanded payouts for compensation, for the injuries they'd received during the war. The government had been very reluctant to do that, but they said to Mugabe 'If you don't give us this, we brought you in and we can remove you'."

"He read the mood well and realised this was very, very serious. I think what's happened now is that I think he felt he could substitute the support of the war veterans with the support of the Women's and Youth league, who supported his wife."

Underestimated Mnangagwa's support

The 93-year old also underestimated the determination of the war veterans and the military to see Mnangagwa suceed him, adds Knox.

"In a sense he misread the mood."

Mugabe's links with the war veterans are steeped in Zimbabwe's struggle against Ian Smith's white-minority government that followed British colonial rule. But Miles Tendi says the president was moving away from that history.

"Over the years, Mugabe had gradually begun to marginalise figures from the 1970s liberation war. And the military command, the present one is comprised of young commanders from that time. And they saw through his distancing of himself from that war generation a threat to their own interests."

A sacking, crowning and euphoria

The veterans have long wanted Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was sacked by Mugabe on 6 November, to succeed him. On Sunday 19 November, Mnangagwa was appointed leader of Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party afterMugabe was ousted as its leader.

News of Mugabe's removal from the leadership of the party he founded; was met with scenes of euphoria on the streets of Harare and, after a short interlude, by his resignation as president.

"Of course there's a lot of euphoria on the ground," comments Tendi. "He's been in charge for almost four decades, to put it bluntly: he was almost an irremovable object: But I'm slightly more cautious with regards to what comes after."

Tendi says the "individuals who engineered the de-facto coup are the same individuals who've kept him [Mugabe] in power for the last four decades."

So he has doubts about the ability of the military-backed transitional government to deliver the change Zimbabweans expect.

"Probably what we'll see are cosmetic reforms just enough to pacify the international community, to secure support, but not deep enough to result in a loss of power for the Zanu-PF ruling party," he says.

Misogyny and Grace Mugabe

As for Mugabe, he appears to have lost the support of the military leaders who had kept him in power by siding with his wife, Grace, in the succession battle.

"Look, she is an unpopular figure for a variety of reasons but I think she has been unfairly targeted,"Miles recoknos, pointing to the "misogyny" of Zimbabwean politics.

"You have the leader of the war veterans, Chris Mutsvangwa, saying that Grace Mugabe was promiscuous, that she was having sexual relations with all the members of the G40 group [faction within ruling Zanu-PF that supported her] and that's why they were loyal to her. So, part of the focus on Grace has been that: a sexist misogny."

Opposition divided

The internal squabbles within Zanu-PF come just months before the nation goes to the polls to vote for a new president.

The opposition are unlikely to benefit from that infighting, says Tendi, because "they've been very divided as well and are mostly broke".

Furthermore Zanu-PF has managed to get itself a younger leader, he says, whereas historic opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's health is poor.

That's not his only problem.

"Morgan Tsvangira's stand as an opposition leader was in juxtaposition to Robert Mugabe," says Tendi. "His campaign was always 'Mugabe must go'. Now that fight has gone because Mugabe has gone, he must reinvent himself to take on this new challenge that Emmerson Mnangwa presents."

"We can't eat elections"

While elections are scheduled for next year, Knox argues that people are more concerned with jobs than polls.

"Right now what people are most interested in is jobs: people say we can't eat elections, so it will be interesting to see how it will play out."

Despite the uncertainty, many Zimbabweans have hopes for a better future, as  embodied by Henry Olonga's 2000 hit song Our Zimbabwe, which has been filling the airwaves of state broadcaster ZBC since the military takeover.

The song's call for unity and hope was echoed in mass demonstrations on 18 November calling on Mugabe to resign, protests that, unprecedentedly, were supported by the war veterans.

The controversial leader, respected for his role in Zimbabwe's liberation struggle and loathed for his authoritarian rule, succeeded, in his last days, in uniting Zimbabweans against him.

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