BSR: Zimbabwe – the Curse of November?


Month of the goat

The month of November is known in traditional Zimbabwean Shona custom as mwedzi wambudzi, literally, the month of the goat. For generations it was regarded as a sacred month. It was the only month of the calendar year when locals suspend traditional rituals and ceremonies.  A violation of the custom was taboo. It was regarded as abomination which could bring bad fortune to the land and its people. Should there be a violation, it was made good only by atonement.

It was a custom the locals took seriously. The more traditionally inclined still do, though others, having taken to modern culture and discarded the ways of the land, have decided to look the other way. For them, it is just another month and anything goes.

It is in this month that the boys in uniform decided to stage the most audacious and dramatic heist in Zimbabwean history since independence, grabbing power from a man who had held it tightly for thirty seven years. Within a week, Zimbabwe’s former strong-man, Robert Mugabe, whose hold on power had all along appeared impregnable was history. In the end, the regime collapsed with the ease of a clumsy deck of cards.

A “coup, not a coup”

From the start, there was controversy over the nature of Mugabe’s departure from power. Was it a coup? Was it a military-assisted transition? The authors of the coup were conscious of the fact that they were testing the margins. They offered a defence in advance, declaring without being asked that they were not taking over the government. Mugabe and his family were safe, they volunteered information to the world. Instead, they added, they were merely targeting criminals around him.

They knew of course, of the perils of declaring an outright coup. It would have drawn swift condemnation from the region and the international community. The trade union of African leaders is united in its revulsion towards two things: free and fair elections and military coups. Both are, in very different ways, a threat to their positions and both must, therefore, be suppressed.

The military generals knew they had to tread carefully, hence the front-loaded denial that it was a coup. Unwilling to take the responsibility that came with framing it as a coup, the regional and international community accepted the fallacy that it was not a coup. Caught in the middle, the media called it many names among them “military intervention” and military-assisted transition”.

The latter was way too presumptuous and dangerously simplistic. It was based on the fiction that there was some “transition” that had taken place. All this was a deceptive exercise in sugar-coating the reality of what had happened. It looked like a coup, felt like a coup and it was indeed a coup. While Mugabe ultimately handed in his resignation as parliament began impeachment proceedings, the entire process would never have happened had there been no military action a week earlier.

The fact of the matter is that the military had been deployed without the then president’s authority as Commander-In-Chief, contrary to the constitution. There was a farcical effort to sanitise the illegal military deployment through the High Court. Two litigants approached the High Court seeking a declaration that the military action was legal. The matter came before the Judge President, Justice George Chiweshe who ruled that the military action was lawful.

The judge’s order was a farce because the High Court had no jurisdiction in the matter. According to the constitution, only the Constitutional Court can make a determination regarding the constitutionality of the President’s conduct. Justice Chiweshe’s order was based on the finding that the military action was necessitated unconstitutionality on the part of President Mugabe’s conduct of office. The Judge had no jurisdiction in that matter. He had overreached in making the decision sanitising the coup.

Secondly, the order was farcical because it skirted around the illegality of the deployment which was in clear violation of section 214 of the Constitution because it was not on the President’s orders.

It was the illegal military action that triggered the chain of events that resulted in Mugabe’s resignation. Parliament was no more than a puppet of the military, dancing only because the military was calling the tune. A few times before November, opposition MPs had tried to bring a motion of impeachment but those efforts had received short shrift from ZANU PF MPs. Indeed, up until the military moved in, ZANU PF MPs were backing Mugabe to the hilt.

Succession War

The coup was the culmination of a bitter battle to succeed Mugabe. After four decades in power, would-be successors were getting tired and impatient. Mugabe had already survived many of his potential successors and he had already been endorsed as the ZANU PF candidate for the next election in 2018. However, with old age catching up, potential successors were sensing an opportunity.

After the clinical removal of Joice Mujuru in 2014, the way seemed open for Mnangagwa’s ascendancy. At the time, no-one could have foreseen that it would take a coup against his old mentor for him to take the presidency. It was not long after Mnangagwa took office as Vice President that new tensions began to show with erstwhile comrades who had helped dethrone Mujuru. It became a fight between two putative factions – Lacoste fronted by Mnangagwa and G40 which appeared to coalesce around Grace Mugabe. Professor Moyo argues that G40 was a media creation.

When Mnangagwa was “dropped”

Whatever the position, by November 2017, it was getting increasingly clear that the faction referred to as G40 was winning the political battle against Lacoste. The firing of Mnangagwa as Vice President was at once a moment of glory for G40 but also the spark that lit the powder keg which blew up a couple of weeks later. It is still difficult to understand why Mugabe made the rash and ill-thought decision to fire his lieutenant just weeks before the Extraordinary Congress.

He obviously acted in anger. Two days before, at White City Stadium, Mugabe had reacted with an outburst when he took to the podium moments after his wife was booed by a section of the audience. The Mugabes succumbed to the provocation and threatened to sack Mnangagwa which he swiftly did the following Monday. Fearing for his life and liberty, Mnangagwa took to his heels and fled Zimbabwe. A colourful version of his escape has been narrated albeit in different, not all together plausible terms.

Safely out of the country, Mnangagwa made a bold promise to return and lead Zimbabwe. That should have been a sign. Mnangagwa was so sure not only that he would come back, but that he would also lead Zimbabwe. But with Mnangagwa gone, Lacoste seemed to be down and out of the race. Had the crocodile run of water? We argued that the only option was for Lacoste to play the nuclear option or else that was the end of the road for them.

The General’s Return

Meanwhile, all this happened while the then General Constantino Chiwenga, the commander of the ZDF was out of the country. He had gone to China on an official announcement. We now know that he was the target of arrest by police on 12 November 2017, when he was due to return. Tipped off, armed soldiers attended at the airport on the day of his arrival, to fend off the arrest. It should have been clear by then that there was a stand-off between core units of the security services.

However, most people were not to know of the attempted arrest. Like most things at the time, the news was drip-fed to a market which was eager for information but also inundated with so much of it, some real and some fake that it was hard to make out what to believe. Thus the attempted arrest did not get the attention and coverage it deserved, otherwise it would have informed the assessment of the press conference held by General Chiwenga and other senior commanders on 13th November 2017.

In that conference, Chiwenga warned that the military would intervene. Writing on the “tersely-worded statement” on the day it was issued, we described it as “[marking] another landmark and ominous moment in the on-going race to succeed the long-serving leader, President Robert Mugabe.” We argued that it was a “clear and direct intervention by the military in the turbulent succession race” going against Mugabe who had warned the military to stay away from politics. It was a challenge that Mugabe had to respond to or look weak in the face of the military.

The statement was framed in the language of defending the liberation legacy. In light of the fact that the coup was dubbed Operation Restore Legacy, it is now clear that the press statement was a prospective justification of the coup. “… we are obliged to take corrective measures” when “the gains of the liberation struggle are threatened,” the general averred before adding, “It is our strong and deeply considered position that if drastic action is not taken immediately, our beloved country Zimbabwe will definitely be headed to becoming a neo-colony again.” Later on, he warned that “when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in”.

In our BSR analysis on the day of the statement we investigated  what the general meant by taking “corrective measures” and the threat to “step in”. “What is the sum total of these threats of intervention? Is the General threatening a military coup?” we asked in the BSR on the day of the press statement. What we found hard to believe at the time was that a seasoned general would threaten a coup and not simply execute one.

What is now clear with the benefit of hindsight is that Chiwenga had taken a big risk by defying his Commander-in-Chief and by threatening a military intervention. He could be charged with treason or offences relating to undermining the authority of the president or threatening unconstitutional change of government. Many people had been charged with such offense for lesser statements or actions. However, Mugabe hesitated when he should have been more decisive in his response.

In the BSR, we warned that if Mugabe failed to take action in response to the challenge “his authority will be seriously questioned”. We thought he would be accused of having lost command of the military. In the event, Mugabe issued a lukewarm statement through party spokesperson, Simon Khaya Moyo in which he was intimated that Chiwenga had committed treason. However, this was too weak and too late. Mugabe had already exposed his weakness and the generals realised they could push ahead. They had dared him with their statement and he had hesitated. They probably sensed an unsure leader and decided it was time to strike.

Hence on 14 November, military units began to move and occupy strategic posts in and around Harare. A coup was already in motion. When in the early hours of 15 November the then Brigadier-General S.B. Moyo announced on national television that the military had intervened, the process had already started. It was merely confirmation to a nation that was already on the edge and has sensed that the military was taking over. The military had “stepped in” as General Chiwenga had warned two days before. The military was taking “corrective measures”, as had also been forewarned.

It was also clear though, that Mugabe was unwilling to budge. He is a stubborn man and he had not remained in power for 37 years by easily submitting to demands. Now they were asking him to leave, but he also realised that they had a weakness in that they could not remove him by force and risk the tough response that was sure to come from the region and the international community. The authors of the coup were encumbered by their desire to avoid the perception that they were carrying out a coup. They had to rely on Mugabe resigning. Mugabe knew this and refused to resign.

Seeking legitimacy

The military had to rely on three sources to give some legitimacy to the removal process. First, in an unprecedented move, the military allowed the public to march against Mugabe on 18 November 2017. This not only added pressure upon Mugabe but also demonstrated to the world that Mugabe’s removal was a result of popular protest. A few days before, the military would have come down heavily upon opposition for protesting against Mugabe. This was an unlikely affair, more infatuation than real love, between Zimbabweans of all races and classes and the boys in uniform.

Second, the military sought judicial endorsement of the coup by getting a ruling that the military action was lawful and consistent with the constitution. The case that was brought before Justice Chiweshe and in which he ruled that the military action was lawful was principally designed to achieve this purpose.

Third, opposition support for the coup and opening up to international media also helped to give a decent face to the removal process. The opposition was caught in a dilemma. The prospect of getting a long-time rival removed was too tempting even if it meant sacrificing the opposition’s principles. The opposition had long fought military interference in civilian politics. But here they were, the boys in uniform, getting rid of a long-time nemesis who had seemed irremovable. It was too good to ignore. And so the opposition joined the bandwagon of militarism, helping to bolster the legitimacy of the coup.

On the other hand, if the opposition had been aloof, it would have suffered the wrath of the people who were excited by the prospect of Mugabe’s departure. For many people, Mugabe had become the sole problem that they forgot he was only a leader of a system, not the system itself. The opposition therefore danced to the prevailing tune as did most people who were eager to see the back of Mugabe. However, the price that the opposition paid for it was that it lost the moral authority to challenge the authors of the coup and the illegality of their actions.

What happened afterwards?

A year after the coup, the condition of the economy has worsened. The cash shortages have intensified, with the surrogate currency, represented in bond notes and RTGS (electronic) balances, trading at huge loss to the US dollar. Bond notes were introduced as an “export incentive” but effectively were designed to ease cash shortages. They were pegged at a fixed rate of 1:1 with the USD, a fallacy that has since been exposed by market forces. The predictable happened as following Gresham’s Law, bad money drove away good money.

But the government responded by printing more money through generating RTGS balances which were not backed by US dollars. For wages, it simply generated electronic balances at the banks. It assumed unsustainable debts. This was fuelled by the government’s insatiable appetite for borrowing in the domestic market. Total public debt this year stands at $16.9bln. £9.5bln of that is owed to local creditors. This domestic debt rose from just $275.8mln in 2012.

Most of the domestic debt was accrued as government issued treasury bills (TBs) to borrow from the market. In 2016, the value of borrowings via treasury bills was $2.1bln. By August 2018, the value had risen to $7.6bln, which means $5.5bln worth of TBs were issued in just under two years. A lot of these treasury bills were issued to fund Command Agriculture, the current regimes flagship programme. Some of it was used to fund the election campaign. It went on a spending spree, trying to impress, but it was creating a bigger problem. Unable to borrow more money, it resorted to charging higher taxes on the public. The 2% tax on electronic money transfers has been a source of controversy.

What is plain is that the post-coup regime is no different from the Mugabe regime when it comes to reckless spending and inept economic management. There is still too much greed, profligacy and misplaced priorities. The old adage rings true: old habits die hard. The days of hyperinflation have returned as prices of basic commodities have escalated. People are struggling to get basic drugs as the chemists have run dry due to foreign currency shortages.

When people celebrated last November, it was not just because they were happy to see the departure of Mugabe but because they sincerely believed it was the dawn of a new era and that their economic fortunes would change. Mnangagwa was touted as a pragmatic economic man who understood business. He has not done much to show this except for much rhetoric and flowery text in international newspapers.

Now Zimbabweans have come to the sad realisation that they were wrong. Mugabe left but the system remained in situ. People expected to see a difference but they have seen none. Takapemberera ngozi tichiti mudzimu (We celebrated a malevolent spirit believing it to be the spirit of a generous ancestor), they say in the vernacular. Mnangagwa’s supporters remain adamant that he will get it right; that he needs more time. He recruited a new Finance Minister, who was hailed the way a star footballer is received at a new team. But so far, he has struggled to make a mark. The conditions are dire. Being a technocrat is not enough; he has to work on his political skills too.

The August 1 Tragedy

The Mugabe regime was notorious for human rights violations. While the run-up to the general election was generally peaceful and was hailed as such even by international election observers, the situation turned ugly two days afterwards. The crackdown on protestors on 1 August brought a sad reminder of the Mugabe days and drew condemnation around the world. At least six people were killed and scores were injured when the military was deployed in Harare to put down protests by opposition supporters who took to the streets anxious at the slow release of presidential election results.

It was a complete disaster for a regime that had tried to show that it was different from its predecessor which was known for using excessive force. The international community condemned what they saw as the disproportionate use of force. The government did not help itself by failing to take responsibility. The initial reaction was not one of remorse but pointing lame to protestors and those who were accused of inciting them. It was as if Mugabe had never left Munhumutapa building.

The government undertook to establish a commission of inquiry to determine the cause of the post-election violence. In theory, this was a commendable move, if it enhanced transparency and responsibility. The problem is that one good step was followed by two steps backwards. When the legal announcement was made, the Commission included individuals who were obviously conflicted, including at least one well-known ZANU PF activist. The terms of reference were generally inclined towards finding fault with the opposition as opposed to identifying the cause of death of the civilians.

Security personnel, including military generals and government officials have embarrassed themselves during the Commission’s hearings by making ludicrous claims and shameless denials regarding the deaths of civilians. There was a time when people believed the theory that some generals were more professional than others. The generals who have appeared before the Commission have accomplished a demolition job of the foundations of that theory.

It could have been easier for the regime to have taken the opportunity to not only accept responsibility but to atone for it. Yet it seems to be designed as an exercise in blame-shifting, finding fault with the opposition and denying all responsibility. The regime wants respect and acceptance from outsiders, especially in the West, but it will be very hard to earn respect from the bizarre performances displayed by its senior figures in the security establishment.

A better strategy for the regime, after establishing a commission of inquiry, would have been to acknowledge responsibility and undertaken measures to atone for it. This would include holding perpetrators to account and compensating victims. Blatant denials and blame-shifting have only served to undermine the government’s sincerity and credibility. It remains to be seen whether the commission will produce an independent and frank report.

Old Friendships, New Tensions

To many people, the coup marked the concluding chapter to the succession fight in ZANU pf. Mugabe was gone. Lacoste had resorted to the “nuclear option” to defeat its rivals in G40. Finally, after years of waiting, Mnangagwa was in charge. His allies in the military had staged the audacious heist to grab power from the Godfather, Mugabe. It seemed the war to end all wars had been fought and won. However, the end of one chapter of tensions was merely the beginning of another.

It soon became clear that the victors were not united on sharing the spoils of war. Although Mnangagwa was the president, it was his vice president, the former head of the military, Chiwenga who had led the coup. Chiwenga was more assertive and more visible than any previous deputy leader. Given his instrumental role in the coup, it has seemed more like a co-presidency, a leadership of equals rather than a vertical hierarchy of a superior and his loyal subordinate.

The chief point of contest revolves around presidential terms. Just a few months after the election, pro-Mnangagwa voices have already begun asserting his claims to run for a second term in the next elections which are years away in 2023. Already, they are condemning those who have ideas of running in 2023, ahead of Mnangagwa. The message is clearly directed at Chiwenga who is believed to fancy a run in 2023, which would mean Mnangagwa serving just a single term. This is a source of tensions within the government. It leads to factions, uncertainty and endless fights which derail progress. The reality is that the coup only opened a new chapter of contestations which will dominate the next five years.

Squandered Goodwill

Yet upon reflection, the course of history might have been different if the authors of the coup had made different choices. The new administration had a vast reservoir of goodwill at its disposal when it grabbed power last year. Even the British government, which had previously kept a distance for nearly two decades was quick out of the blocks in welcoming the new regime, despatching a high-profile envoy in the person of Rory Stewart, the then Minister for Africa, to attend Mnangagwa’s inauguration, just days after the coup.

Mnangagwa received a rare invitation to attend the World Economic Forum at Davos, an invitation-only annual jamboree of the rich and powerful. Fresh from despatching the world’s oldest dictator, Mnangagwa was much in demand in the Swiss resort town, earning high profile interviews with international media. He made bold announcements, preaching the message of international re-engagement and that Zimbabwe was open for business. He spoke the language of capital and property rights, trying his best to charm the western audience. He occupied prime pages in the world’s reputable media, presenting himself as a reformer.

He invited international election observers, opened up to international media and promised free and fair elections. It is clear Mnangagwa believed he would have an easy run in the elections. With Tsvangirai clearly unwell and the opposition seemingly divided and a surge in goodwill in his favour gave him the belief that it would be easy. He overestimated his own electability and underestimated the opposition. By the time the election arrived, he was clearly feeling the heat. Consequently, he had to resort to ZANU PF’s old tricks to prevail.

The move to invite international election observers backfired as they condemned the election for failing to meet democratic standards, diminishing Mnangagwa’s claim to legitimacy. It’s not what Mnangagwa had planned. The election was supposed to seal his legitimacy and he needed validation from those who had previously doubted and condemned Zimbabwean elections. The EU, the US and the Commonwealth all refused to endorse the elections as free and fair, which has been a big blow to the regime.

Missed Opportunity?

Could the authors of the coup have taken a different direction back in November? Some say there was a chance. They could have formed a transitional authority, one that could have included the opposition with a mandate to resolve the chronic economic challenges while implementing political reforms in preparation for future open and democratic elections. This view was predicated on the assumption that authors of the coup were interested in political reform which is a key factor in buying international acceptance and promoting economic reforms.

For its part, the opposition seemed to be receptive to a transitional arrangement of sorts. It had enthusiastically supported the removal of Mugabe. The public also seemed to be united on the need to resolve the endemic economic problems as the primary concern. They were not interested in continued political contestations which seemed to reach no end. There was a view that if it meant politicians from either side working together to resolve the economic problems, that would be perfectly acceptable. They had suffered enough and wanted solutions to the economic malaise.

The story of what happened in those heady days is yet to be told. However, it suffices to say that hopes of parties on either side of the political aisle working together were dashed during the dramatic days of the coup. Senior politicians from ZANU PF were quick to dismiss the opposition, claiming exclusive credit for the removal of Mugabe.  These were early signs that the opposition would not be included in any post-coup arrangements. Indeed, as it happened, ZANU PF decided to go it alone. Buoyed by the goodwill that had been generated by the removal of Mugabe and the expectation of a better future, ZANU PF was clearly riding the crest of a big wave.

Indeed, in those early days of the new regime, any voices that raised caution were thwarted and condemned. It was a dramatic show of the tyranny of the majority, with minority voices silenced and dismissed with vast contempt. In the few weeks after the coup, sensing the general sentiment, the BSR warned of this danger of promoting a tyranny of the majority.


They will not say it out aloud but staunch traditionalists might be heard whispering in their corners that it all happened in the wrong month. It was never going to end well, they might declare, sure that anything done in the month of the goat is doomed to fail. Others will just say they had a chance and they have squandered the vast opportunities that presented themselves back in November.

Perhaps things could have turned out all so differently had they formed a pragmatic pact with the opposition and plotted a way to amend the supreme law of the land – they had the majority – to create a path that would stabilise the economy and reform the politics. But that’s assuming that they were ever interested in any of that. They weren’t. Theirs was a succession fight in which the only thing that mattered was political power. Everything else was peripheral.

It was not the first time that someone had grabbed power in the land between the Zambezi and the Limpopo. The last time it happened, it too, didn’t end well. It was on 11 November 1965 that Ian Douglas Smith carried out his own audacious heist and unilaterally declared independence from Great Britain, the colonial power. It was a stubbornness that led to a bitter war. Traditionalists will probably exchange a conspiratorial look and whisper to each other that that too happened in the month of the goat. And here we are …