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When the state is the man and that man is Mugabe, a new era begins with his fall

Protesters at a rally outside parliament in preparation ahead of the proposed impeachment of President Robert Mugabe. Kim Ludbrook/EPA

The parliamentary impeachment of beleaguered President Robert Mugabe - in terms of section 97 of Zimbabwe’s constitution – could be the culminating moment of a soft coup that staves off the indignity of slipshod regional interventions, while saving the legitimacy of a régime sans a disgraced Mugabe dynasty.

It might just work. But it might not.

Events have not transpired as the faction loyal to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president of Zanu-PF and of the country who was deposed by Mugabe earlier this month, had planned. The aim of the faction – known as the Lacoste faction because of Mnangagwa’s nickname “The Crocodile” – was to get their leader back on the road to power. That was after his derailment by the Zanu-PF Generation 40 group (aka G-40) that ostensibly rallies younger, savvy party members to take the lead, but favours Grace Mugabe to succeed her husband.

A number of unintended developments have led to a situation in which, a week after the army issued its limp-wristed and ambiguous statement that Mugabe should go, he remains in place and a new avenue - parliamentary impeachment - is being pursued to get rid of him.

It is by no means certain that Zanu-PF’s crocodiles can pull off the next stage. When the state is the man and that man is Mugabe, a new era begins with his fall.

The plans that didn’t quite go to plan

First, the army chiefs’ warning to Mugabe on the night of November 13 that he vacate office, wasn’t met with the desired response. Rather than Mugabe taking the hint and welcoming Mnangagwa back, or telling G-40 to stop their shenanigans, Zanu-PF accused the Military Chief General Constantino Chiwenga of treason.

Second, the effect of this was to trigger a real coup. The military’s round-up and detention of their enemies in G-40 was not quite bloodless: at least one of security guards protecting finance minister Ignatius Chombo was killed. The Central Intelligence Organisation’s security director Albert Ngulube came within a few inches of the same fate. And there was no ambiguity about the fact that the Commander-in-Chief had been detained by his underlings – albeit in his own chintzy “Blue Roof” mansion.

Third, the delight displayed for the well-organised war vets’ demonstrations on Saturday was never going to last long. On Saturday it served the purpose of providing the army with a veneer of legitimacy. But by Monday the patience of the soldiers had begun to wear thin. They warned students who had closed down the university to return to classes, encouraging them to:

be calm and to proceed with their educational programmes.

And when Christopher Mutsvangwa, head of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, announced that the war vets want “the whole population to descend upon Harare”, the putschists soon released a document entitling their project “Operation Restore Legacy”, as if to dampen the masses’ enthusiasm.

Yet Sunday’s setback – the fourth – was the most severe. Mugabe’s press conference shocked just about everybody. He studiously ignored the issue on everyone’s minds: his resignation. Instead, Mugabe noted that the soldiers had raised the concerns causing all of the fuss with “comradeship and collegiality”. This issue was the,

open public spurts [sic] between high ranking officials in party and government exacerbated by multiple conflicting messages from both the party and government [that] made the criticisms [of lack of unity] levelled against us inescapable.

There we had it. The curse of Zanu-PF’s history: disunity. It was in our faces once again. “It has to stop,” Mugabe warned, and scoled:

The way forward cannot be based on swapping by cliques that ride roughshod over party rules and procedures.

Zimbabweans must resolve their “inter-generation conflict … through a harmonised melding of old established players as they embrace and welcome new ones through a well-defined sense of hierarchy and succession”. The party must go “back to the guiding principles”, he said.

Last-ditch attempt to repeat history

Mugabe was not going anywhere. He was determined to preside over December’s extraordinary Zanu-PF conference that had hastened this crisis. In his view, he and only he could ensure the “processes that must not be prepossessed by any acts calculated to undermine [the congress] or to compromise the outcomes in the eyes of the public”. Only he could resolve the tensions of the last few months, ensuring “no bitterness or vengefulness” to mar “our hallowed ideas of reconciliation”.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addressing the nation at the State House in Harare, on Sunday night. EPA-EFE/The Herald handout.

If in the 1980s Zimbabweans could reconcile with,

those who oppressed us… surely this cannot be unavailable to our own… we must learn to forgive and resolve contradictions real or perceived in our Zimbabwean spirit.

Consciously or not, Mugabe was repeating a history of at least 40 years, albeit in almost mirror image. The coup makers had not forgotten: their Monday Manifesto referred clearly to the vashandi moment. This was when in early 1977 Mugabe and others in the “old guard” squashed a group of young and rebellious “political soldiers” who were proving far too threatening to his liking. He sent them to Mozambique’s prisons.

This too was “inter-generation” conflict. But four decades ago he was on the dominant side, and dealt with the disunity somewhat differently than on November 19 2017. In 1977 he said that “we must negate” those who,

arduously strive in any direction that militates against the party or who, in any way, seeks… to bring about change in the leadership or structure of the party by maliciously planting contradictions within our ranks. This is… the negation of the negation… the Zanu axe must continue to fall upon the necks of rebels when we find it no longer possible to persuade them into the harmony that binds us all.

The intervening years have borne much of Mugabe’s ideology of dealing with dissent. Yet, with a Panglossian view, one could believe that Mugabe has learned something over the past four decades. Now he wants all the older generations in Zanu-PF to embrace and welcome the new contenders for power. Forgiveness and reconciliation, with no bitterness or vengeance, shall prevail – under his leadership of course.

Too little, too late

Unfortunately, this self-interested repentance is too late for most members of Zanu-PF. Mugabe’s rhetoric is falling on deaf ears. Impeachment through parliamentary means is not a hard landing, although many hitches could still arise, including a messier militaristic denouement.

Yet, as political scientist Ralph Mathekga puts it, if we assume the impeachment’s success and a relatively smooth Zanu-PF congress, only fully free and fair elections can resolve the contradictions unleashed by the half-measured coup that started as even less than that.

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