BIEA Annual Lecture 2018: The ‘not coup’ coup in Zimbabwe in November 2017: Background and implications for the future

When is a military coup not a military coup? If the official narrative from new Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration is to be believed, it is when army leaders move on the capital, place the president under house arrest, and begin impeachment proceedings which leave him with no option other than to resign. According to official channels, these events of November 2017 represented an orderly transition of power. As welcome as Mugabe’s departure may have been for many Zimbabweans, the nature of the transition raises serious questions about the country’s future.

Prof. Brian Raftopoulos, speaking at the BIEA Annual Lecture in Nairobi last week, invited those assembled to see through the official narrative for the charade that it is, and gave thoughts on what the ousting of Mugabe portends. He has described the November 2017 intervention as ‘one of the biggest political frauds in the history of postcolonial Africa’. Prof. Raftopoulos is currently Director of Research at the Solidarity Peace Trust and Research Associate at the Cape Town University, and has been a civic activist in Zimbabwe since the 1990’s.

The lecture covered a broad sweep of issues currently plaguing Zimbabwean politics. Prof. Raftopoulos described how, throughout the leadership takeover, Zimbabwe’s military leaders (and factions within the ruling Zanu-PF party) cleverly constructed key narratives to achieve their bloodless coup, gaining acceptance of their actions from both the Zimbabwean public and key international stakeholders.

First among these was ‘constitutionality’. Rather than publicly turning on president Mugabe, military leaders played the game of ‘protecting the constitution’ and weeding out so-called ‘political criminals’, particularly those close to Grace Mugabe. They then used the language of constitutionalism to expel Mugabe from the ruling party, starting impeachment proceedings and eventually forcing his resignation. This distancing of the transition from the less palatable idea of ‘military control’ and retaining a semblance of legality around the process enabled them, for the time being, to get buy-in from stakeholders such as the SADC and African Union.

Secondly, the military used the language of change and political resurgence – traditionally the remit of the opposition – to bring people out onto the streets of Harare. The opportunity to oust Mugabe (rather than support of Mnangagwa) galvanised popular support, which allowed the instigators of the coup to spuriously claim legitimacy for their cause.

Thirdly, in the months following the coup, Mngangagwa has used the language of international re-engagement, performing his role as new leader for a global audience. He has discussed neo-liberal reforms and shrinking of the public sector in a manner which is set to appeal to international investors, in the hope – Raftopolous argued – of deflecting criticism of the means through which he rose to power.

Against this background, the November coup represents a dangerous moment for the future of Zimbabwe. First, for all Mnangagwa’s glittering rhetoric around building Zimbabwe’s economic future, there will be no economic stabilisation without political reform. The factors which led to economic decline under Mugabe, such as the legacy of colonial inequalities, the endemic corruption and patronage networks within the state, are not being addressed under the new, similarly crony-led administration.

What has changed, however, is that the ruling factions within Zanu-PF have appropriated the language of political change, and with it, the opposition’s political space. There is a danger that, despite their crucial successes in driving political debate in Zimbabwe in the past, the opposition parties now find themselves written out of the country’s future. Also, and most importantly, the perception of who really controls Zanu-PF and Zimbabwean politics more generally has been overturned. After the climactic events of November, there can be no doubt that the military are increasingly to the fore, controlling both the party and the structures of the state. Together, these three factors hardly paint a picture of future stability.

Thanks to this careful way in which the coup and its accompanying public narrative have been manoeuvred – with a combination of constitutionalism, so-called popular support and neoliberal reforms for international re-engagement – there is a danger that the world may accept the fraudulent narrative of ‘transition’. At its heart, this is still a destructive military takeover of the state. With this acceptance, internal and external pressure for political reform may be relaxed, and the creation of a new, more democratic future for Zimbabwe may slip ever further away.

In a matter of months, countries across Africa as disparate as Angola, Ethiopia and South Africa have joined Zimbabwe in ousting their entrenched leaders – all heads of liberation parties which have held power for decades. The week prior to the BIEA Annual lecture saw the departure of both Jacob Zuma and Hailemariam Desalegn. Against this backdrop, a lively discussion of Zimbabwe’s turmoil seemed to reflect something of a wider zeitgeist. Time will tell, however, whether Prof. Raftopoulos’ fears for the future of his country will be realised.

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