BSR: Coups beget coups – White City a harbinger of darkness?


The most dramatic news from Zimbabwe was the explosion at a ZANU PF campaign rally held at White City Stadium in Bulawayo last Saturday. The explosion was immediately described as an attempt to assassinate President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took over when former president, Robert Mugabe was ousted in a coup last November.

There were multiple victims and two security aides have since died while receiving hospital treatment. The latest issue of the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper quotes sources saying it could have been worse had the grenade not been deflected by a rope holding a tent. The incident has certainly shaken the electoral season and brought more global attention to the July 30 elections.

The conspiracy-theorists

Amid the chaos of the aftermath, the conspiracy theory industry went into overdrive. Naturally, a number of theories were offered into what had happened, why and who might have been responsible for it. Everyone, it seems, has their theory on what happened at White City. Some scrutinized the video footage, becoming instant experts in the trade. Others noted behavior which they deemed odd and from there, drew firm conclusions, which they happily shared with the rest of the world. Social media has been hectic.

Our view at the time was that it was too early to draw firm conclusions, let alone point fingers at anyone. The situation was still very fluid and given that it impacted the highest office in the land, it needed to be treated with more discretion. We thought it was important to empathize or commiserate with the injured or the bereaved, in the event that there were fatalities. In any country, an attack on the president is an attack on the nation because the presidency is the highest national institution. When such an incident happens, the curtains of party politics that separate people are cast aside in defence of that office. It is not time to score political points, whether it be by harvesting sympathy or by being critical. But obviously, such an attack is a matter of public interest. Likewise, citizens are entitled to ask questions and to demand answers.

In normal circumstances, people rally to defend a national institution when it is under attack, even if they don’t like the person occupying it. It is the office that matters, not the occupant. Nevertheless, one could discern doubt and scepticism among some citizens, even soon after the incident. Was this real, they asked. Some were more direct, offering a theory that it had been staged. Others went further to suggest that it was a Machiavellian plot to win the sympathy vote.

That there was such skepticism even in those early hours as to the authenticity of the incident, in the face of horrific injuries, is testament to the extreme polarization, deep mistrust in government and grave suspicions that are pervasive in Zimbabwe’s political environment. But it also points to something else.

The boy who cried wolf

In this case, the attitude may be explained by the old legend of the boy who cried wolf. When a boy was assigned to look after the village sheep, he got into a habit of raising false alarms such that when the real danger happened, nobody listened to him. They had responded to the boy’s alarm twice only to discover that it was a prank and afterwards they ceased to believe him. And on the day that the wolf actually came to attack the sheep and their help was really needed, they ignored him and the sheep were killed.

This is the problem with Mnangagwa. There have been so many claims of assassination attempts in the past, but no conclusion to any investigation to establish the veracity of the claims that some have ceased to believe the claims. In all the previous cases, not a single investigation, if any were carried out, has yielded a result. No one has been prosecuted, let alone convicted.

It is not surprising then, that on this occasion, even if it was a real assassination attempt, some people’s initial reaction was to dismiss it as another false alarm. Much will hinge upon the investigation. If it follows the doomed course of previous investigations, journeys to nowhere, it will only add to the suspicions that people have. If it should happen again in future, people will be even quicker to dismiss it.

Animal farm

Mnangagwa’s reaction to the incident was calm and composed. Within hours he was appearing on national television, being interviewed and showing people around State House in Bulawayo and also visiting the injured in hospital. He was also reassuring the nation via social media. Some praised him for his show of composure, arguing that it was presidential and necessary to calm nerves. There was no need to panic and it was good of him to carry on as normal.

Others, however, thought this behavior was odd. Their view is that such a serious incident which posed grave risk to the life of the president and stability of the nation should have been treated with the seriousness it deserved. They thought Mnangagwa was too relaxed for a man who had supposedly been at risk of death. But one may also argue that it was Mnangagwa’s way to send a message to his enemies that he was unfazed by the attack.

These are differences of opinion, based on conjecture and perceptions rather than fact. Some people in Turkey and around the world had difficulty believing that the attempted coup in 2016 was real given the behavior of key figures and institutions at the time. Some concluded that it had all been staged in order to justify a clampdown by the government.

The incident also revealed another dark side of the system, where Animal Farm-style, some animals are more equal than others. The manner in which victims have been treated, seemingly according to their station in life has left a sour taste in the mouth. Two members of Cabinet, a Vice President and a Minister were airlifted to South Africa for treatment, continuing a well-known pattern. Those who lead Zimbabwe and aspire to continue leading it know local facilities are not good enough. When Mnangagwa was allegedly poisoned last year, he too was flown to South Africa.

Meanwhile, two brave men, the security aides who looked after the two Vice Presidents’s lives, had to make do with the parlous local public health facilities which were not good enough for their bosses. There may be perfectly good medical explanations for the way the victims were treated but their families will be left wondering if their relatives could have been saved had they been given the same amount of care and attention accorded to their superiors. Another is still battling for life, left behind in Zimbabwe as the leaders were transported to a foreign country. On 30 July, the politicians will be seeking office to continue leading the ones they left behind.

A lone wolf?

The big question that remains to be resolved is who was behind the attack. The Zimbabwe Independent reports that an unidentified young man of about 25 was apprehended by the military, suspected of having hurled the grenade which caused the explosion. Intriguingly, the police who have a constitutional mandate to investigate crime had not had access to the suspect, according to the Zimbabwe Independent. If true, it begs the question why the military has been keeping the said suspect away from police. This is odd and suggests that there is some disharmony between the two security organs.

There are of course other issues to consider, including the protection of the suspect’s constitutional rights. Whatever offence one is accused of, they are still entitled to the right to liberty, the right to Habeas Corpus and all other rights due to accused and detained persons. This is the due process of law, guaranteed under the Constitution and it must be respected. Some reports on Friday suggested that there were actually two suspects who would appear in court on Saturday. If so, it’s a start and the due process of law must be fulfilled. Otherwise human rights lawyers and advocates ought to be on high alert lest there may be abuses carried out in the name of investigating the White City explosion. Atrocities have occured in the past in the name of hunting down miscreants – and memories of that are still fresh in that part of the country after Gukurahundi. The matter needs careful and sensitive handling.

But even if the suspect did throw the grenade, an important question still remains: was he a lone wolf or part of a bigger network? A grenade is not something that an ordinary individual can ordinarily possess. Or could the coup have caused a rupture in the weapons handling system that some affected serviceman may have stashed away weapons? It has been said that some of the security organs, such as the police were disarmed and that their armoury was emptied. If true, could some weapons have found their way into the black market? This raises a general security risk as it means dangerous weapons could be in the hands of dangerous elements – one of the unintended legacies of the coup.

Too much haste or a decoy?

Mnangagwa himself was uncharacteristically hasty. In an interview with the BBC after the attack, Mnangagwa pointed his finger at the G40 element which was involved in a leadership tussle with his Lacoste faction leading to the coup last November. He was quick, however, to qualify his accusation, calling it a “hunch” and admitting that he had no evidence. What explains Mnangagwa’s haste in naming attackers when he knows very well that he does not have evidence and there is an investigation going on?

Mnangagwa has a security background (he was State Security Minister for the first 8 years of independence) and had been security boss in ZANLA, ZANU’s army, during the war. He is a lawyer and has served as Justice Minister for an aggregate period of more than decade since independence. He has sat in the highly sensitive and opaque Joint Operations Command (JOC) for long periods since 1980. The default position of someone with that background is to be cautious, discreet and even cagey in response to enquiries. As a leader, you can’t be so reckless as to make accusations without evidence. What if you’re wrong? If Mnangagwa’s calm response to the attack was presidential, his hasty accusation based merely on a hunch runs in the opposite direction. So why would Mnangagwa be so publicly judgmental on such a sensitive matter that threatened his life?

It maybe that he truly believes that G40 are still after his life. But another view is that he does not actually believe it’s G40 but that he is using them as a decoy to side-foot his real enemies whom he knows are behind the attack. He is probably playing the fool. Deception is a well-known strategy of war and Mnangagwa may well be deceiving his real enemies within ZANU PF into believing that he does not know it was them that did it. If he really believes G40 were capable of that, would his government have welcomed and accepted the return of one of the so-called G40 cabal as they did recently? It is hard to believe that Mnangagwa actually believes G40 are a real threat to his life. He probably knows that the threat lies elsewhere and is perhaps much closer to home.

Mnangagwa is aware of these internal threats. He has in recent weeks warned against a plot to topple him after the election. Confident that he will still be in power after the July 30 election, Mnangagwa told a meeting of aspiring parliamentarians and those who lost in the party primaries that he was aware of a plot to impeach him. This shows that he knows he has enemies within the party. Some may be remnants of the G40 faction but there may well be another faction that has rallied against him in the aftermath of the coup. If there is a threat of impeachment post-election, it is also probable that there could be a plot – by the same people – to get rid of him before the election.

Who is after Mnangagwa’s job?

Mnangagwa must be aware that someone within is after his job. What was not analysed when Mnangagwa warned against the impeachment plot was who would stand to benefit from his removal after the election? It wouldn’t be Mugabe, his wife or any of the G40 kingpins who are already out of ZANU PF or no longer active. The beneficiaries from his impeachment would be persons who are already in ZANU PF. In terms of the Constitution, the Vice President who last acted would take charge temporarily while the ruling party selects a successor – the same method by which he got into power. Therefore, it is more likely that one of his Vice Presidents would benefit from his impeachment.

Likewise, it is one of his Vice Presidents who would benefit from his assassination prior to the election. The Electoral Law is that where a presidential candidate dies before polling day, the process of nomination would have to start afresh. This would therefore stop and delay the election.

In this case, however, the attack was not just on Mnangagwa alone although it has been presented as such. Both his Vice Presidents were also in harm’s way and a more accurate strike could have killed all three at once.

The default provision in such an unprecedented scenario would have been section 100(4) of the Constitution which allows Cabinet Ministers to nominate one of their number to act as President where the President or his deputies are unable to perform their duties, in this case it would have been because of death. Could the beneficiary be one of the Ministers who wants to run for the presidency and was nowhere near the rally? It sounds attractive but also far-fetched.

Perhaps one basic security lesson to be learnt from this incident is that you cannot have all members of the presidium on the same platform or even travelling together. It exposes the nation to unnecessary risk. All three could have been killed and it would have created a serious crisis and possibly chaos. They should never again occupy the same spaces at least during the campaign period. The same applies to the opposition leaders.

From the bowels of history

Shocking though the attack at White City was, it was by no means unprecedented in so far as assassination attempts in an election campaign are concerned. In the run-up to becoming the first democratically elected Prime Minister in 1980, Robert Mugabe survived quite a few assassination attempts. On February 10 1980, while driving from a rally to the airport in what is now Masvingo, Mugabe’s car narrowly escaped a massive explosion which exploded soon after it had passed the spot.

Writing in The Washington Post a day later, reporter Caryle Murphy recounted “Guerilla leader Robert Mugabe narrowly escaped injury today when 80 pounds of remote-controlled explosives were detonated under a convoy of cars taking him to the Fort Victoria Airport …” Five people were injured and a witness is quoted as claiming “It’s a miracle anyone is alive”.

This was a second attempt on his life within a week. Some four days earlier, a hand grenade had been thrown against the wall surrounding his new home in Mt Pleasant residential suburb. Even during the war there had been a few attempts too, but incredibly recent accounts suggest that he was saved by tips from Britain. One account states that he escaped an assassination attempt in Maputo when Rhodesian special forces arrived at his home, only to find him gone. Recent accounts suggest that he had been tipped by the British. Unfortunately, the ZANU Chairman, Herbert Chitepo was not so fortunate. He was assassinated when a bomb was planted in his car exploded on 18 March 1975. His tragic death remains one of the most researched key moments of the liberation war.

Likewise, recent reports also say Joshua Nkomo also benefited from similar tips, such as an incident when he also left his home in Lusaka just before Rhodesian troops arrived. Nkomo was to encounter more life-threatening situations during the early years of independence, this time from his old comrades who were in charge of government. It got so dangerous that he was forced to flee the country fearing assassination. The harassment from the security services personnel was relentless. The irony, of course, is that Mnangagwa was in charge of State Security at the time of Nkomo’s troubles when he fled for his life.

Mnangagwa was the security chief in ZANLA during the last years of the war and as Mugabe’s right-hand man and protector-in-chief at independence, he was well-placed to get an insight into the security machinations. He knows how the system works. Perhaps that is why he is unfazed. But it’s also why people are surprised by the apparent lapses in his security arrangements which have seen him at the end of so many attempts. The fact that he should know better causes some to speculate that there is some method to what has happened.

Operation Quartz

There is one other account from the 1980 elections which is important in the current context. There are reports that at independence there was a special military operation called Operation Quartz, which designed to eliminate Mugabe and senior ZANU leaders and the guerillas who were already at assembly points. Apparently, the fear was that if Mugabe had lost the election, his army would have returned to the bush to restart the war. The aim of Operation Quartz was to prevent this.

However, this operation was never implemented. Mugabe won overwhelmingly, taking 57 of the 80 seats in Parliament. Even at this time, the situation was tense and there were fears that the Rhodesian forces or elements of it might carry out a coup.

This history matters because it’s a reminder that things rarely happen by accident or in isolation. A lot of planning goes into such audacious attempts. Of particular significance are security plans in response to potential election results. Various actors including those in the military do scenario-planning and tailor their responses accordingly.

To the extent that Operation Quartz in 1980 was true, it was a planned response to a specific scenario. Likewise, Operation Makavhotera Papi (who did you vote for) which was launched in the wake of the March 29 2008 election in which Tsvangirai had won was not a spur of the moment response. It would have featured in the scenario-planning – what’s to be done if Mugabe loses to Tsvangirai? The egregious violence that took place between March 29 and June 27 in 2008 was a well-planned affair.

This brings us to the current election. With an election due in four weeks’ time, the key actors in the security sector must already have done scenario-planning. They have probably put in place responses to every scenario. A normal response is to accept the election outcome, whoever wins. Power is transferred constitutionally from one government to the next, whoever wins.

But it would be foolhardy to rule out other responses to different scenarios. As we have already seen, there have been planned responses to specific scenarios in previous elections. Who knows what planned responses there are in this election? But whatever they are, the bottom line is they must facilitate rather than impede legitimacy, the most critical element of this election because without legitimacy, the country would be doomed. It is in this context that the grenade attack ought to be assessed.

Attack on the electoral process

From a strategic view, the grenade explosion must also be seen as an attack on the electoral process. The ZEC Chairperson, Justice Chigumba, was too hasty when she declared that nothing short of an earthquake would stop the election. The attack at White City Stadium was a rude reminder that there are indeed circumstances other than an earthquake which can actually halt an election. As the Electoral Law provides in section 108, the death of a presidential candidate before polling has finished triggers a new nomination process. With 23 presidential candidates, an unprecedented and unusually large number in the history of Zimbabwe’s presidential elections, it would be foolhardy to rule out anything. This is why the security of candidates is crucial once they have been nominated because it is tied to and affects the electoral process.

This brings us to the scenario where there are some actors who, for whatever reason, do not want an election on July 30 and are prepared to do anything to stop it. If the death of a candidate can halt and delay an election, it is one avenue that can easily be exploited by those intent upon such a scenario.  To that extent, it is fair to conclude that an attack on a candidate is also an attack on the electoral process. In that respect, it is easy to appreciate why presidential spokesperson George Charamba averred that the attack in Bulawayo was also an attack on the current electoral process. It is in that context that the security of presidential candidates becomes a matter of national security.

The problem, of course, is that there is deep mistrust between some in the opposition and those providing state security. In an ideal world, it should be the tradition and perhaps even the law, that once they have been nominated, presidential candidates receive close protection from the State. The State becomes responsible for their security. It is a sign of a polarized political environment and institutionalized bias of some State institutions and how they have been privatized by the ruling party, that candidates would hesitate to receive State security which they would have to work with if they win elections anyway. The practice where State security personnel wear regalia of a political party or attend gatherings of a single political party to the exclusion of others is what reduces confidence among other contestants. This is why there is need for deep institutional reforms in Zimbabwe.

Coups beget coups

It is somewhat a cliché, that coups beget coups. This means once a coup has happened, it is likely to happen again. Nigeria’s history lessons in this respect, as do other African countries where coups have happened in the past. Usually, there is a repeat. Farther afield, after the first coup in 1960, Turkey has had more since then. Three other military interventions followed in 1971, 1980 and 1997. As recently as 2016, there was another attempted coup, although the authenticity of that has been contested, with others claiming it was staged to justify a clampdown.

The point though, is that history of coups suggest that more are likely to follow the first one. Once the military has tasted power and its actions are celebrated, it feels more emboldened to do it again. In our case, it’s worse in that the coup actually received judicial endorsement. As we warned at the time, that was a reckless move which created a dangerous precedent. It provided a legal foundation for future coups. Coups are elite driven processes – military elites arrogating to themselves powers to choose who must lead. They are the antithesis of the democratic process, in which people participate to choose leaders on the basis of equality of votes in an election.

The coup last November was a popular one, but that is not unique to Zimbabwe. People were tired of Mugabe’s long-running rule. But based on other experiences, it is likely that Zimbabwe has not yet felt the true effects and consequences of that coup. Its impact may be felt beyond the current generation. The likelihood of another coup remains a serious concern. Zimbabwe is still very fragile after the coup. There is no cohesion in the top echelons of the State. There is no harmony in the security organs, some of which, like the police and intelligence services took blows during the coup. Instead, there is competition, envy, jealousy, colliding ambitions and deep suspicions. This is evident in the alleged tussle over the grenade suspect between the military and the police. This is a recipe for insecurity and instability.

The grenade attack in Bulawayo, to the extent that it was a threat on a sitting president’s life, must be seen for what it is: another attempted change of leadership using unconstitutional means. It is in that context that the cliché that coups beget coups begins to take meaning in our context.


The apparently conciliatory, reasonable and pacifist tone exhibited by the current regime should not fool people into believing that all is well at the top. It’s just a facade. There is a lot of deception going around. The people at the top do not trust each other. There is contestation for power. The terms used by presidential spokesperson George Charamba are instructive. He made reference to the existence of “unresolved leadership issues”. He did not elaborate.

But it’s hard to imagine G40 is still part of these unresolved leadership issues. How can it be G40 when the claim is that G40 were vanquished last November? More importantly, it has nothing to do with the opposition but is an internal matter within ZANU PF. It is worse that there is apparent disharmony in the security sector, with some arms feeling ostracized and immobilized. This does not bode well for the country’s stability. It is doubtful that the forthcoming election will resolve that problem.

It is likely that we will only see the real Mnangagwa if he prevails, as he hopes to, on July 30. Mnangagwa has a habit of speaking well of himself, perhaps a little too well, actually, which unfortunately has the opposite effect on the audience. It leaves the listener with more questions than satisfaction. This much was evident in his recent BBC interview soon after the White City incident. He was effusive on his own behalf. If Mnangagwa is courting the West in pursuit of legitimacy, he is also playing a game of deception with his internal foes within ZANU PF. He knows them but he won’t go after them just yet. An election victory and newfound legitimacy untied from the clutches of the military will embolden him. If he wins, the post-election period could turn out to be a season of long knives.

When some months before the coup Charamba said “chine vene vacho chinhu ichi” (leadership has its owners) in a retort to G40, he did not specify who “vene vacho” (owners) were. The assumption was that it was Lacoste, as a collective. That was too broad and lacked nuance. It is now apparent that Lacoste itself is unravelling and there may be many claiming to be “vene vacho” – claims arising from the November coup, some probably believing they did more, risked more and deserve more sooner rather than later.

The scene resembles that of a gang of robbers who, having executed an audacious heist, find themselves squabbling and fighting over the spoils. It is an old and much-used cliché but there is, indeed, no honour among thieves. White City is not a random incident. It is just the latest chapter in a long-running saga.