Political turmoil has escalated in Zimbabwe, raising the question of whether 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe remains in control of the country he’s ruled for almost four decades — or if he’s been overthrown in a military coup.
The latest announcement by Zimbabwe’s army on sieged broadcaster, ZBC reveals the President and his family are safe but military is ‘targeting criminals around him.’
This follows reports of increased tension, heavy army deployment and explosions in the capital Harare and near the presidential residence.
The army has denied it had carried out a coup after taking over the headquarters of ZBC, Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster in the early hours of Wednesday. Military officers read an address live at 4 a.m. local time, saying President Robert Mugabe was “safe” and his “security is guaranteed”.
‘Not a military takeover’
“We wish to assure the nation that his excellency the president… and his family are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed,” he continued. “We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice.
“As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy,” he added.
Mugabe has not appeared in public or issued a statement. It is unclear whether he is in military custody.
Cabinet ministers arrested
“Although it doesn’t look like a coup, it is a coup,” Zimbabwe analyst Alex Magaisa, a senior Zimbabwe legal analyst based in the UK, told The Telegraph.
Several cabinet ministers, including local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere and finance minister Ignatius Chombo, and Mugabe’s nephew Patrick Zhuwayo, were arrested. There was allegedly a brief gun fight outside Mr Chombo’s house.
Sacking of an influential vice president
Speculation had been mounting throughout the day that a coup was under way against Mr Mugabe, after the head of the armed forces threatened to “step in” over the sacking of an influential vice president.
Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu-PF, accused General Constantine Chiwenga of treason over his comments, after the rare appearance of the military vehicles in Harare.
Gunfire erupted near Mr Mugabe’s private residence in Harare in the early hours of Wednesday, a witness told AFP.
“From the direction of his house, we heard about 30 or 40 shots fired over three or four minutes soon after 2.00 am,” a resident who lives close to Mugabe’s mansion in the suburb of Borrowdale said.
Opposition and Grace Mugabe, the first lady
Tensions have been building in Zimbabwe since Emmerson Mnangagwa, a powerful figure in the ruling Zanu-PF party, fled to South Africa last week after he was fired and was then stripped of his lifetime membership of the party.
The move was widely seen as part of a battle between Mr Mnangagwa and Grace Mugabe, the first lady, over the presidential succession when Mr Mugabe dies or steps down.
The Zimbabwean president, who is 93, fights his last election next year. Many expected Mrs Mugabe to be appointed vice president in Mr Mnangagwa’s place at the Zanu-PF special congress next month.
Gen Chiwenga, an ally of Mr Mnangagwa, demanded on Monday that Mr Mugabe immediately cease “purging” the former vice president’s allies in the party and in government.
“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” the head of the armed forces commander said.
South Africa and Zambia weigh in on Gen Chiwenga
The governments of South Africa and Zambia on Tuesday warned military leaders in Harare not to take any “unconstitutional” steps to avenge Mr Mnangagwa.
Senior military sources in Johannesburg and Pretoria said they warned General Chiwenga to avoid any “disruption to the constitution” after the military convoys were spotted on Tuesday afternoon.
South African diplomatic sources said late Tuesday that Zambian president Edgar Lungu also warned General Chiwenga to ensure that Zimbabwe’s constitution was respected.
A source living close to Mr Mugabe’s mansion said: “We presume any coup plotters would know that Zimbabwe would run out of fuel in a week or so, and that South Africa would likely cut off electricity. Zimbabwe is a landlocked country and cannot survive if all borders were closed.”
A military intervention in Zimbabwean politics would be fraught with difficulties. The African Union and the regional 15-nation Southern African Development Community are both on record that they do not recognise any authority which comes to power via a coup d’etat.
The Telegraph contributed to this report.