BSR: The downfall of Robert Mugabe


Big story

The downfall of Robert Mugabe is easily the biggest story of the year for most Zimbabweans and many who follow the politics of the southern African country. After leading the country for 37 years and planning to go for another term, and having been thwarted several times in their efforts to vote him out of power, many Zimbabweans had become frustrated, disillusioned and pessimistic in recent years. Some had long resigned to their fate, believing Mugabe was destined to rule for life.

However, November marked an epic turn of fortunes for Mugabe, as the once loyal military launched a dramatic operation (dubbed Operation Restore Legacy) which effectively pushed him out of power. While the military took care to dress up their operation in legal apparel, beyond that veil, it was to all intents and purposes, a military revolt which no one had seen coming. Under the Constitution, only the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces has the power to deploy the defence forces within Zimbabwe. Mugabe had no role in the deployment of the defence forces in November. It was clear that he had lost command of the defence forces and his fate was no longer in his hands.

These dramatic circumstances of the collapse of Mugabe’s rule captured with world’s attention. He was a colossal figure in African politics and he had made a number of foes during his long reign. After dominating Zimbabwean politics for decades, it was ironic that in the end he succumbed so feebly to the crafty machinations engineered by some of his most trusted allies. He will probably go to the grave feeling betrayed by his comrades, but he must shoulder a large amount of responsibility for his own demise. He had all the time in the world and all the warnings to prepare a dignified exit for himself. But Mugabe had never shown any intention to retire. Indeed, had he retained power, he would be preparing to run again for another term in 2018 at age 94. He had overstayed his welcome, even in his own party but he did not know it. In the end, he had to suffer the ignominy of being chased out of the house like a stray animal.

Stubborn streak

Mugabe’s humiliating exit is a lesson in the folly of stubbornness.  His stubborn streak was evident during his last days in office. Even as his old military and political allies applied pressure upon him, Mugabe refused to bend. His anti-climactic “Asante Sana” speech on 19 November 2017, will be remembered as the most deflating moment of those riveting and suspenseful days in November.

That Sunday evening, the world waited with bated breath as Mugabe prepared to deliver what most believed would be his resignation speech. Twenty four hours earlier, Zimbabweans from all walks of life had marched peacefully in Harare and Bulawayo calling on him to step down. It was a big festival where the entire nation exhaled. A few hours before the much-anticipated speech, Mugabe’s party had sacked him. It had also given him an ultimatum to resign by midday the following day or face impeachment. There was so much anticipation that global news networks suspended normal programming to capture the historic moment of Mugabe’s resignation. It never came. Instead, Mugabe rambled on, with visibly uncomfortable generals by his side. it was a baffling speech which showed a man who was out of touch with reality. The signs were clear to everyone else except Mugabe. The generals were asking him to leave with some dignity but he was intransigent. He wasn’t going to leave without a fight.

He only relented on 21st November when it became clear that parliament was going to impeach him. On the morning of his resignation, he had even called a Cabinet meeting, as if everything was normal. Just a handful of allies turned up. He was living in a bubble, unaware of the scale of the storm gathering around him. By afternoon it had dawned on him that he had run out of options. He was facing the humiliation of impeachment. He had long lost the people. Now he had also lost the military and the party. It was the perfect storm as a combination of military, political and parliamentary strategies left him marooned and with no hope of getting a political lifeboat. He signed his resignation letter as parliament went through the motions of the impeachment process. The letter was delivered and the Speaker of Parliament read it out to an jubilant House. It was an ignominious end to a long and controversial career. He could have avoided this humiliation if he had heeded the signs and appreciated the reality that he could not go on forever. But he was too stubborn to let go.

Old habits die hard

But history suggests that Mugabe always had this stubborn streak from an early age. One of his relatives, James Chikerema once described how, as a young boy herding cattle together with other village boys, a young Robert would select and drive away his grandfather’s cattle away from the village herd the moment he was upset by any disagreement. Similar patterns of behaviour are evident in his long political career. It’s his way or no way at all. In 2002, after Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth following a violent presidential election, Mugabe unilaterally decided to leave the organisation altogether. Zimbabweans were not consulted. In the 1990s, he clashed with Nelson Mandela when he monopolised the chairmanship of the SADC Troika Organ on Security and Defence.

There were other incidents. During the Inclusive Government between 2009 and 2013, Mugabe insisted on making unilateral appointments and decisions, excluding his power-sharing partners notwithstanding the letter and spirit of the Global Political Agreement. In 2013, he threatened to pull out of SADC if the regional body continued to press him on electoral reforms. He also rudely described President Zuma’s envoy, Lindiwe Zulu as a “street woman” as she continued to press for electoral reforms. Back in 1979, at the end of the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference, Joshua Nkomo thought there was an understanding that the liberation parties (ZANU and ZAPU) would contest the general elections together as one unit, the Patriotic Front. When Nkomo turned up for the meeting, Mugabe had already left London. The parties ended up contesting as separate units.


Against this background, it is not surprising that Mugabe never saw anyone ruling Zimbabwe as long as he lived. The party fed the arrogance by deifying him and openly declaring him as the “One Centre of Power”. The marches and rallies held in his honour, where thousands were bussed in from around the country against their will and without any clue as to what they were arching for only served to feed his delusions of grandeur. He must have felt invincible as sycophants showered him with fake accolades. In 2015, at the opening of parliament, Mugabe read a speech he had read just a few weeks before but still, the ZANU PF MPs cheered him on and congratulated him. It was the sycophantic system that fed his ego. Just a few weeks before he was unceremoniously dethroned, the government renamed Harare airport in his name. It was also planning to build a new university bearing his name. It’s not surprising that he lived in a huge bubble, unaware of the mess he had created and the pain his rule had caused among Zimbabweans. He forgot, however, that he was merely surviving on borrowed power. He believed the hype around him.

Mugabe lost to Morgan Tsvangirai in the election of March 2008. Although the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission declared a run-off on the basis that the winner, Tsvangirai had failed to get an outright majority, many observers believe the results were manipulated. It took six weeks before the results were announced, an inordinate delay during which most people believe the results were doctored. The run-off gave Mugabe a second bite of the cherry. However, the run-up to that run-off election was characterised by egregious violence authored by Mugabe’s supporters. It is widely believed that the military was heavily involved in that campaign. On this view, Mugabe only retained power because of the military intervention. In other words, he was beholden to the military, which had saved him. From that moment, it meant Mugabe was wearing borrowed robes. What happened nine years later, in November 2017, is that the owners of those robes took them back. However, Mugabe had forgotten that he was wearing borrowed robes. He had believed the lie that he was in charge when in fact, the military were the power behind the throne.

The Grace factor

However, it is possible that despite their misgivings and hunger for power, Mugabe’s allies would have kept their restraint if Mugabe’s haughty wife, Grace, had not intervened in his last few years in office. That Grace Mugabe’s role was a trigger of the events that led to Mugabe’s demise was publicly confirmed by Patrick Chinamasa, the Finance Minister and close ally of Mnangagwa at a recent event in South Africa. While accounts that lay excessive blame on Grace Mugabe for her husband’s demise are to be treated with caution as they tend to minimise Mugabe’s agency, the story of his downfall would be incomplete without an articulation of her influence.

For a large part of their marriage, Grace had remained in the background. She was a subject of media interest, but mostly for her alleged extravagance and love of high fashion rather than for her politics. She dutifully accompanied her husband during election campaigns and on occasions delivered supportive speeches. But these were cameo appearances rather than major parts in the political drama.

All this changed, however, in 2014, when she descended from the balcony and found space on the dancefloor. That is when she gained more visibility and prominence. However, once there, she also exposed herself to the vagaries of the dancefloor. She loved the public stage and the power that came with it, which she was keen to demonstrate. She revelled in the power she held over her captive audience, but she forgot it was borrowed power. Those of us commenting on these events warned that this power only lasted as long as Mugabe lived or was in power, but this obviously fell on deaf ears. She loved to chide and harangue perceived opponents and critics. Joice Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa, both Vice Presidents at the time became her most high profile victims. But there are others, including presidential spokesperson George Charamba and Kazembe Kazembe, now a Minister, who were treated like naughty schoolboys in front of huge crowds. Before them, Ray Kaukonde a former Minister was also publicly humiliated. Chris Mutsvangwa was her favourite punchbag. Grace’s mouth knew no boundaries and once she took charge of the microphone, everyone was fair game. Even serving generals in the military were not spared.

All this, however, only served to create enemies for her and alienated her husband from his old allies. In 2016, Mugabe suffered a revolt of the war veterans, a group that had supported him for many years. The defiance by the war veterans was a clear sign that Mugabe’s powers were waning. Grace became one of the most reviled figures on the political scene. People were not impressed by her methods and style of politics. She was loud, angry, arrogant and rude to other people. The lowest point came in South Africa back in August when she allegedly assaulted her sons’ young female companion, Gabriella Engels, using an electric cable. It created a major diplomatic incident as Grace invoked diplomatic immunity to evade arrest and prosecution. It left whatever remained of her reputation in tatters. Zimbabweans could not bear the thought of her as a future President, but the rate at which events were moving, she was getting closer to it.

Away from the public stage, there were rumours that she was accumulating wealth by abusing political power. In the Mazowe area, poor villagers were left stranded and homeless after their land was expropriated as she sought to expand her empire. A businessman from the Middle East who facilitated the purchase of a multi-million dollar diamond ring for Grace had his properties unlawfully seized after a contractual disagreement with the former First Lady. Her oldest son from a previous relationship was seen bragging with multi-million dollar Rolls Royce vehicles and she was rumoured to have bought expensive properties in Sandton, Johannesburg. All this was happening at a time when most Zimbabweans were struggling to withdraw their wages and pensions from banks which have been running short of cash for the past couple of years. The Mugabe family had become detached from the people and notorious for arrogance and abuse of power.

Perfect storm

All this meant when Mugabe came under pressure from the military in November, most Zimbabweans were in celebratory mood. It was not because Zimbabweans like military rule, no. It was partly because they had simply grown tired of and were exasperated by the arrogance of the Mugabe family. It was the perfect storm as all forces, for different and perhaps conflicting reasons converged on 18 November to march against Mugabe. They had tried everything for 37 years and failed. Elections had not worked. Many people were disillusioned by and had given up on elections. 2008 was a constant reminder that they could beat Mugabe but he could still cling on to power. For many people, the manner of Mugabe’s departure no longer important. He simply had to go. Now that his own allies in the military were pushing for his removal, they were only too happy to join in the push, even if their role meant giving civility to the process. There might have been some illegalities committed along the way, but what mattered at the time was that Mugabe had to go. Only the most detached or pro-Mugabe supporters would not understand and appreciate the euphoria that accompanied the demise of Mugabe and what it meant to the long-suffering citizens. It was an historic moment to savour.

Of course, some, including Mugabe’s staunch allies, have been arguing that his departure was illegal. The victors themselves have also seemed insecure, taking every moment to publicly state that the military action that set off Mugabe’s downfall was constitutional and lawful. There is even an unchallenged court order justifying the military action. No doubt, there will be many journal articles and perhaps some academic theses examining the legalities of Mugabe’s downfall. But one cannot overlook the irony that Mugabe’s long rule was sustained by countless illegalities over the years. He should never have been president beyond March 2008, probably even beyond 2002. His rule was sustained by a combination of legal and electoral manipulation, repression and violence and if his removal was unlawful, he was gored by the sword which he happily used against opponents for many years.

Waning powers

But the years also seem to have taken the edge off Mugabe’s craftiness. He had become more emotional in his reactions, dispensing with rational decision-making. When Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa on 6 November, it was an impulsive reaction rather than the calculated and careful decision-making that had characterised Mugabe’s rule over the years. In the past, Mugabe worked with Joice Mujuru for years after he had already identified the Mujurus’ alleged betrayal in 2008. He made Joice believe that she was still in favour even after the 2013 elections, only to drop her a year later. Of course, the Retired General Solomon Mujuru had already met a mysterious death back in 2011.

With Mnangagwa, Mugabe dropped his guard too soon and let emotion get the better of him. He was visibly angry at the Bulawayo Presidential Interface Rally when his wife was booed by sections of the audience. It was the moment he decided and threatened to sack Mnangagwa, a lot sooner than he would have intended. A younger Mugabe would have been more patient. There was already an Extraordinary Congress due only a few weeks later. He would have waited to deliver the blow at the time. But in a moment of impetuous judgment, Mugabe showed his hand too early and sacked Mnangagwa just two days after the Bulawayo rally. It was this rash act that lit the powder keg and precipitated the military pushback as his former allies fought to save their political lives which meant sinking their master’s. In the end, it was Mugabe, not his rivals who failed to make the Extraordinary Congress which he had planned. In a moment of poor judgment, the grand master who had dominated the game for so long had been checkmated by his rivals.

The vanquished

It is now 5 weeks since Mugabe left office. He has received a lavish package, including a controversial grant of immunity. He has remained in the background. He missed an opportunity to say goodbye to the nation when he delivered the Asante Sana speech two days before he was forced to resign. His wife, too has kept her silence in the background, licking her wounds and probably still in shock, wondering where it went wrong. Her faction seemed to be enjoying great success when the tables suddenly turned. It all came crashing down in the most dramatic fashion. Her main allies have either been arrested or fled into exile. The script is not quite the same as the fate that befell Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four, her allies in the late 1970s after the Chinese leader’s death. They all ended up in prison. In this case, Zimbabwe’s Jiang Qing has been silenced and is only safe on account of her husband whom the winners of the succession race still respect. Her allies were forced to flee the country.

The powerful General

The Lacoste faction is now in charge. However, they also know that the enemy is still alive, so they cannot afford to be complacent. This is why they have to consolidate their power and hold over the state. The military played a key role in this process, which is why leading members now occupy key positions within the state. The appointment of Retired General Chiwenga as Vice President was not surprising as it was always believed that he would deputise Mnangagwa in the event of a Lacoste victory in the succession race. From there, he will be eyeing the top office after Mnangagwa.

However, the appointment of Chiwenga to take charge of the Ministry of Defence shows the military man’s desire to retain control and influence over his main source of power. Until 2023, a Vice President is not elected to office. For now, Chiwenga serves at the pleasure of the President. Moving from the Commander of the Defence Forces role to Vice President meant conceding a key command role in the defence forces, where his power lies. However, taking charge of the defence ministry means he retains a role in his sphere of influence. In this regard, it is important to understand that unlike other ministers, the position of Minister of Defence is constitutionally defined and has a specific mandate. Section 216 of the Constitution states that the Minister of Defence must be consulted by the President in the appointment of commanders of the defence forces.

More significantly, section 216(5) provides that all commanders of the Defence Forces must exercise their command “in accordance with general written policy directives given by the Minister responsible for the Defence Forces acting under the authority of the President.” This is an important provision which ensures that the Minister of Defence is effectively part of the command structure of the military. Previous defence ministers might not have had a hands on role in the military but given his immediate past experience it is unlikely that Chiwenga will keep the same distance. He has moved next door, but there is no wall between the neighbours. And he has also retained the keys to the old house. Indeed, when the veil of formalism is lifted, it might even be said that there is a power-sharing agreement between the President and his deputy as far as command of the defence forces is concerned.

Others will argue that the above is a cynical view of the current state of affairs. A more benevolent way to look at it is that having Retired General Chiwenga maintaining a role in the military through the defence ministry ensures the current government is insulated against insurrection. In other words, the current government is aware that a dangerous precedent was created in November 2017, when the military intervened to set off the chain of events that led to Mugabe’s downfall. They cannot afford to allow a new set of men in charge while they are confined to the civilian structures. It is better therefore to have a military man, whom the soldiers understand, are loyal to and perhaps fear, in charge of the political authority, which is the defence ministry. In this way, the view is that the government is creating a coup-proof structure. This view is not implausible but it does not negate the fact that in the power dynamics of the new government, the Retired General also wants to retain his greatest source of authority.

Legal inconvenience

There is a legal problem, however, for the President over the defence ministry because while he is entitled to assign the administration of a ministry to his Vice President, section 215 of the Constitution specifically compels him to “appoint a Minister to be responsible for the Defence Forces”. The problem is that a Vice President cannot, at the same time, be appointed as a Minister as that would violate section 103 which prohibits a Vice President from holding any other public office. This is why in the press statement, the President has not appointed his Vice Presidents as ministers. He has merely assigned them to administer two ministries – defence and war veterans for Vice President Chiwenga and national peace and reconciliation for Vice President Mohadi.

To appreciate the nature problem, it is important to understand that being assigned to administer a Ministry and being appointed a Minister are two different things. This is why the Constitutional Court stated in a previous case when he was still Vice President, that Mnangagwa was not the Minister of Justice but was merely administering the Ministry. The media and members of the public might have referred to him as the Minister of Justice, but legally, he was not.

The problem is evident in relation to the Ministry of Defence. Section 215 of the Constitution is very specific that the President “must appoint” a Minister of Defence. It is not, therefore, enough for President Mnangagwa to assign Vice President Chiwenga the role of administering the Ministry of Defence because that does not constitute an appointment as required under section 215. This means legally, there is currently no Minister of Defence as required under section 215 of the Constitution, which is a constitutional violation. To cure this, the President must appoint a separate Minister of Defence. Since section 225 makes the same requirement in respect of the intelligence services, the same Minister would be responsible for Defence and security. He could, if he so wishes, assign Vice President Chiwenga to supervise and oversee that Ministry. If this is not corrected, civil society, the opposition or individuals can challenge the President and government through the courts in order to correct this legal misstep.


In the end, Mugabe fell on his own sword. During his time as president, he relied heavily on the military in order to thwart political opponents. The military were happy to do his bidding as long as their interests were protected. However, in the last 2 years, Grace Mugabe took centre-stage and began to ruffle feathers, threatening the interests of the military. The relationship between Mugabe and his allies in the military and among war veterans ruptured. Mugabe himself forgot that his source of power lay in the military and believed the thousands who were forced to come to his rallies were genuine supporters. It was Grace’s relentless attacks which raised the political temperatures. Mugabe had two protagonists vying to succeed him. One was his wife, Grace and the other, was his long-time lieutenant, Emmerson Mnangagwa. He chose his wife and this precipitated a revolt by his lieutenant who had the advantage of backing from the military. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mugabe will now live the rest of his days as a pensioner, something that he should have done a long time ago and on better and more amicable terms. He might still have retained a measure of influence. A combination of stubbornness, the intoxicating effect of power, and his wife’s growing influence affected his vision and judgment. His immediate legacy is that he has left Zimbabwe with a curious political arrangement in which the military now has more visible power and influence than ever before. What this means for Zimbabwe’s immediate and long term future will be the subject of intense debate in the next few months as Zimbabwe prepares for a general election in 2018.