Analysis Uncategorized

Zimbabwe’s textbook coup.

Zimbabwe Coup

Ilizwi263’s Shaun Matsheza reflects on recent developments in Zimbabwe.

President Mugabe meets with General Chiwenga.

“The throne, once you have been crowned, is where you had best remain seated, without moving, day and night. All your previous life has been only a waiting to become king; now you are king; you have only to reign. And what is reigning if not this long wait? Waiting for the moment when you will be deposed, when you will have to take leave of the throne, the scepter, the crown, and your head.” (Italo Calvino)

The 15th of December marks exactly a month since the tanks rolled onto the streets of Harare.  Then Major general SB Moyo, clad in his military fatigues, dramatically declared that the president was safe, but the military was merely targeting ‘criminals around him.’ With those events, the sun began to set on the political life of one Robert Gabriel Mugabe, and ostensibly, on that day, Zimbabwe rescued itself from the iron clasp of Africa’s last liberation-era leader. It is yet to be seen whether the transition will lead to any improvements in the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans, and whether there will be any expansion of democratic space. At the moment, it seems to me like the gun only changed hands, but the robbery is still very much in progress.

Zimbabwe Coup
Business as usual, during a “private school coup” Image: Associated Press.

Much to the chagrin of the international media, the big drama played itself out behind the scenes.  Business went about as usual, as expectant foreign journalists found themselves attending eloquent press conferences in air-conditioned hotel lobbies, as opposed to wearing bullet proof vests and chasing the next gunfight from the back of an armored vehicle. A few images of the generals in their fatigues, engaged in civil conversations with the nonagenarian in his bespoke suits, gave a glimpse of what was going on. There was no chaos on the streets, no smoke and teargas, no images of lifeless bodies on the streets to titillate the senses of western viewers. The general consensus  is that this was no ordinary coup. As many Zimbabweans proudly declared on social media. .. our coup went to private school. 


To the world at large, the events of the second half of November appeared to unfold according to an esoteric rulebook; one that defied all analysis and prognostication. But I believe that the Zimbabwean “Military assisted transition”, or “Operation restore legacy” as it was officially called,  was a textbook example of a coup. Literally.

Text Book Coup

In 2011, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith published a book called the “Dictator’s handbook: Why bad behavior is almost always good politics”. The book draws on insights from economics, history , political science and psychology to shed light on how politicians gain and retain political power. Their core argument is that politicians, be they in authoritarian dictatorships or in democracies, can only stay in  power by pandering to a core inner circle of powerful allies, and that they must engage in self-interested behavior in order to stay in power. Essentially, they argued that the motives of politicians are “to come to power, to stay in power and, to the extent that they can, to keep control over money.”

In a nutshell, they argue that the difference between democracies and authoritarian regimes lies in the size of the winning coalition. A democrat has to win the support of a large part of the population, whereas an authoritarian ruler merely needs the support of a small, but immensely powerful, coterie of supporters.

Consequently, the journey from authoritarianism to democracy is characterized by an expansion of the size of the coalition necessary to seize and hold on to power, and the inverse is also true. This argument rings true in many of the historical examples they draw on, and it is a strong justification for my current sense of foreboding and unease regarding the democratic project in Zimbabwe. de Mesquita and Smith provide a a very useful lens for unpacking the recent events in Zimbabwe.

To come to power, a challenger need only do three things. First, he must remove the incumbent. Second, he needs to seize the apparatus of government. Third, he needs to form a coalition of supporters sufficient to sustain him as the new incumbent. … The relative ease with which they can be accomplished differ between democracies and autocracies.

( the Dictator’s handbook. p23.)

Step One Remove the incumbent.

Coalition members are in the game for specific spoils. The moment they come to suspect that their long run access to personal benefits will end, there will be serious motions to remedy this situation. In the case of Zimbabwe, coalition membership means access to the country’s mineral wealth, and access to the regional and international markets. It’s no co-incidence that Robert Mugabe is mentioned multiple times in the Dictator’s Handbook. After all, the man perfected the art. By the time he left the stage, Mugabe was the archetype of the African dictator. He ascended to the stature of Mobutu and Amin, and then went beyond.

Members of the elite club of African dictators.  Image: AfricanExponent

Mugabe mastered the art of creating a strong coalition, and keeping that coalition well-fed. The post-colonial history of Zimbabwe can be easily defined in terms of how many times Mugabe found new ways to keep his cronies happy. Details are yet to fully emerge about inconsistencies in the land reform, the plunder of the DRC’s mineral wealth, and the disappearance of the almost mythical 15 billion from the Marange diamond fields in Eastern Zimbabwe.

It’s only when his doddering actions began to threaten the interests of his core coalition that Mugabe had to be pushed aside. As the authors state, ‘If essential backers know that their leader is dying, then they also know that they need someone new to assure the flow of revenue into their pockets.’ (Dictator’s Handbook, p24.). Mugabe had simply outlived his usefulness, through no fault of his own except his vulnerability to the great equalizer that is time. 

He stayed on too long, and opened up the possibility of him not doing enough for his backers. He chose the welfare of his family and his wife over that of the wielders of actual power: bad move from a dictatorship maestro who should have known better. He was no longer in a position to reassure his coalition that he could continue to take care of them. This gave them impetus to find  a new political figurehead, and what better replacement than the man’s understudy of almost 40 years?

As the writers of the handbook say, ‘Speed is essential. Waiting is risky business. There is no prize for coming in second.’ (p.22) Once it was clear that Mugabe had finally made his choice regarding the succession, it was an easy decision for the generals to make, and an even easier one for Mnangagwa.  The moment he was fired, he used the one asset he had, the possibility of a speedy retaliation. All it took was a week, and his plan was in motion. The man was ready.

Step two: Seize the apparatus of Govt.

If Mnangagwa had the first step easy, then the second was even less of a challenge. In many respects, he already controlled the levers of power in the government. His decades of experience in Mugabe’s government, usually in the role of minister and finally as vice-president, gave him an intimate understanding of how the Zimbabwe government functions. In light of Mugabe’s creeping senility and natural decline, it was Mnangagwa who often stepped in.  In earnest, it was also no secret that the executive branch of Zimbabwe had already been on autopilot for years. This is why it was possible for government business to continue as usual in the midst of a de facto coup and paralysis at State House.

Former Finance Minister Ignatious Chombo arrives at Chikurubi Maximum prison upon his arrest. Image: Iharare

Another advantage that Mnangagwa had, was that he also already knew where the money was-at least the little there was to salvage- perhaps even more so than Mugabe. No surprise that Chombo, Mugabe’s pick for finance minister and a man legendary for his corrupt streak, was the first real casualty of the transition. Nothing else matters unless you can locate the money to reward your coalition. Which leads me to the final step.

Step three:  Stay in power

Analytical tools are only really useful if they go beyond describing the world to us, but give us a means to anticipate the future and act accordingly. We have seen Mnangagwa carry out the first two steps. He has managed to remove the incumbent in an ostensibly bloodless military intervention. He has also seized full control of government apparatus, a successful implementation of the first two steps. To think that anything he has done in this first month of his rule is in no way connected to step number three is to display the highest level of naivety. Mnangagwa has a clearly defined task, which is the task of any politician who gets as far as he has: stay .in. power.  The most important element in doing this is to have access to money, and lots of it. It is yet to be seen whether he will have the staying power of his predecessor, but if events on the ground, and the changes in public sentiment are anything to go by, it is safe to say that he is not going anywhere anytime soon.

A good place to start is always to shore up the the coalition of supporters. As stated above, coalition members are in it for specific spoils, and Mnangagwa has not hesitated to begin with dishing them out. The surly-faced Major General SB Moyo, who announced the coup-not-coup, is now the country’s foreign affairs minister; Air Marshall Perence Shiri is now minister of lands, the leader of the War veterans has been appointed a special advisor to the president, the Zimbabwean ambassador to South Africa, who allegedly facilitated Mnangagwa’s escape to South Africa, has been made head of the Central Intelligence Organization. Spoils. The head of the ZDF, Chiwenga, will likely put away his fatigues in return for the post of vice-president. Spoils. Soon, with the provision of a $1.5 Billion loan from Afrexim bank, we will likely hear of a salary raise for the country’s defense forces.

Where to next?

There are people who are already calling this the beginning of a new era for Zimbabwe. As I am writing this article, there is a barrage of criticism being leveled against the opposition MDC for calling for the maintaining of US sanctions until specific concessions towards leveling the electoral playing field are made. The mood is that Zimbabwe has moved into a new phase, that the sins of the past should remain there, in the past. There have even been calls for the nation to forget about the crimes committed during Gukurahundi in the 80’s. People want a focus on bread and butter issues, and to give the new government a chance. I am yet to be convinced.

What happened in the month of November was not a overall change in the winning coalition, it was merely an edit, a rejuvenation (how loosely we use the word for youth…Mnangagwa is 75), a restoration of a legacy as the coup executors called it. The coalition size has not expanded. Rather, it has moved in the opposite direction. The triumvirate consisting of the Zimbabwe Defence forces, their civilian reserves in the form of the war veterans, and the ruling party ZANU PF remain in power, only with the role of the party even less diminished. The gun now leads politics. The true power has emerged from behind the throne, and we are celebrating it like the proverbial idiot who claps for a witchhunter, even one who is out to catch his own mother. We have just witnessed the narrowing of the winning coalition, and the closing out of whatever democratic space remained in Zimbabwe.

I love Zimbabwe, as much as any other one of my countrymen. I think that Zimbabwe has a shot at becoming a beacon for every other African nation. We can do anything if we set our minds to it. But I am under no illusion about the men who currently lead us. There has been no fundamental change in the coalition in power. The reason why there was so little blood spilled is that this was no revolution, but a re-arrangement of chairs at the table. And while I would love to believe in the semi-new adminstration’s good intentions, I cannot help but temper my optimism with a healthy dose of realism. We are not yet uhuru. Despite the fact that multitudes marched on the 18th of November, Mnangagwa is not a popularly elected leader. He owes his allegiance elsewhere. Should the people try to march again tomorrow, like they did a few weeks ago, he will show where this allegiance lies.

It is entirely possible for autocrats to be civic-minded, well intentioned people, eager to do what’s best for the people they govern. The trouble with reliance on such well-intentioned people is that they are unconstrained by the accountability of a large coalition. It is hard for a leader to know what the people really want unless they have been chosen through the ballot box, and allow a free media and freely assembled groups to articulate their wishes. Without the accountability of free and fair elections, a free press, free speech, and freedom of assembly, even well-intentioned small-coalition rulers can only do whatever they and their coalition advisers think is best.

(Dictator’s handbook, p80)

From their track record, I’m not willing to believe that Mnangagwa and co. know what’s best for Zimbabwe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.