For decades, Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe in a ruthless, even reckless manner.
Over nearly 40 years, he turned the “jewel of Africa” into an economic basket case that’s seen inflation of up to 800 per cent
Then, late in the night of November 14, the country’s security services detained and put Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president under house arrest in what appeared to be a military coup.
The whereabouts of his powerful wife, Grace, are unconfirmed.
Much remains unclear at this early stage.
Will violence erupt? Is this really the end of the Mugabe era?
I don’t know the answers to those questions yet. I’m not sure even Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who appears to have orchestrated Mugabe’s overthrow, knows how his gambit will turn out.
But with each passing hour, it is increasingly evident that Zimbabwe – a country whose politics I spent uncountable hours grappling with as a State Department official – is poised to see its first real leadership transition since 1980.
For decades, Mugabe’s grip on Zimbabwe was iron-clad. Even when challenged by an invigorated opposition in 2008, he kept the presidency by entering into a nominal power-sharing agreement. After a decisive electoral victory in 2013, though, he cast the coalition aside.
But as he grew increasingly frail this year, the power struggle to succeed him became frenzied. Two major camps were vying for power.
Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who as a soldier fighting for Zimbabwe’s liberation earned the nickname “the crocodile,” represented the old guard.
The 75-year-old enjoyed strong military backing, particularly from the veterans’ association, a powerful coalition of former combatants from Zimbabwe’s independence struggle which began in 1964 and ended in 1979.
Last year, the group broke with Mugabe in a public letter, declaring that he had “presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin.” Many believed that Mnangagwa orchestrated the group’s letter as a shot across the bow to warn would-be rivals.
The second camp jockeying to control Zimbabwe before the coup was led by Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe. At a relatively spry 53, she represented the younger generation, drawing significant support from the ruling party’s loyalist Youth League and from an informal grouping of emerging leaders known as “Generation 40.”
But Grace Mugabe was deeply unpopular among ordinary Zimbabweans, who called her “Gucci Grace” because of her extravagant spending.
In September, after Vice President Mnangagwa was emergency airlifted to South Africa due to a strange illness, Grace Mugabe had to publicly deny, on state TV, that she had poisoned her rival.
As recently as early November, it appeared that Grace’s camp had prevailed. President Mugabesacked Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa. Mnangagwa, it seems, had a different plan. While in exile, he stayed in touch with his military allies.
On November 14, Mnangagwa’s camp struck back.
Events have moved swiftly in the last 24 hours, and some big questions remain unanswered.
If Mnangagwa officially takes power, the first unknown is whether he will rule by fiat or cobble together a transitional government.
The choices that Zimbabwe’s political leadership makes in the coming weeks will have immense consequences on the future of the country whose development has stagnated under nearly 40 years of authoritarian rule.
Real transitions in Zimbabwe are all too rare.
[This article is an abridged version of one published in The Conversation]