(CNSNews.com) – However Zimbabwe’s current crisis resolves itself, the short-term outcome is unlikely to be good for the people of the southern African country, impoverished under the almost four-decade-long misrule of President Robert Mugabe.
Neither First Lady Grace Mugabe, nor her main rival in the contest to succeed the autocratic 93-year-old president – the recently-ousted vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa – offer a prosperous future to a country once dubbed the breadbasket of Africa.
Mnangagwa appeared to have the upper hand as of early Thursday, with unconfirmed reports claiming he has been appointed interim president, after Mugabe was placed under house arrest by a military angered by Mnangagwa’s sacking.
The army insisted it had not carried out a coup – despite having seized the presidential palace and the state broadcaster – but was instead targeting “criminals” around the president, whom it said was “safe” at home..
“This is not a military takeover of government,” it said in a statement. “What the Zimbabwe Defense Forces is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country which if not addressed may result in violent conflict.”
But the head of the African Union, Guinea’s president Alpha Conde, described the episode as “clearly soldiers trying to take power by force” and calling for the immediate restoration of constitutional order.
(The A.U. in 2013 suspended Egypt after the military toppled President Mohammed Morsi; Zimbabwean military chiefs’ denials of a coup may be a bid to avoid similar A.U. action.)
If Mugabe has indeed been toppled, it looks like the consequence of a palace intrigue linked to his succession, rather than the result of popular resistance against an authoritarian regime.
A power struggle between Grace Mugabe and the vice-president Mnangagwa culminated in her demands for his dismissal, leading to his removal from the post earlier this month, accused by the government of “disloyalty.”
His dismissal cleared the way for Grace Mugabe to be appointed vice-president, when the ruling ZANU-PF party holds a special congress in December.
With the army’s intervention, however, that looks unlikely to happen. Grace Mugabe’s whereabouts are unknown, although she is rumored to have fled the country.
‘Sometimes, the cure may be worse than the disease’
Mrs. Mugabe, 52, who like her husband is under U.S. sanctions, is notorious for a lavish lifestyle and extravagant overseas shopping trips. She heads the ZANU-PF women’s league and enjoys significant support among younger party members.
Mnangagwa, 75, is no liberal democrat either. A member of ZANU-PF for more than half a century, he held key cabinet posts include defense, justice and national security and was viewed as a loyal lieutenant to Mugabe until the recent falling-out.
Mnangagwa was nicknamed “the crocodile” because of his guile during the war against white minority rule – and afterwards, when he is alleged to have played a key role in Mugabe’s deadly purges of black opposition supporters in the 1980s. As many as 20,000 people were killed in the massacres.
Like both Mugabes he is also the subject of U.S. sanctions, and is also believed to be one of the wealthiest men in the poverty-stricken country.
“[Mnangagwa] is hardly a radical departure from the status quo,” Simon Allison, Africa edition for South Africa’s Mail & Guardian wrote in a column Wednesday.
“For decades he was Mugabe’s enforcer-in-chief, the man assigned to do the dirty work while Mugabe played the respectable statesman for the cameras.”
“ Can this man really be trusted to usher in the kind of radical political transformation of which Zimbabweans have been dreaming for so long?” Allison asked, then answered his own question in the negative, adding, “Sometimes, the cure may be worse than the disease.”
The U.S. Embassy in Harare was closed to the public on Wednesday and Thursday and has advised American citizens in Zimbabwe to “shelter in place” amid the uncertainty
“We continue to monitor the unfolding situation,” said the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Jen Savage. “We urge all to remain vigilant, calm and safe.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in a statement to the House of Commons did not hold back on criticizing Mugabe, long an outspoken critic of capitalism and Western governments.
“The House will remember the brutal litany of his 37 years in office: the elections he rigged and stole, the murder and torture of his opponents, the illegal seizure of land, leading to the worst hyperinflation in recorded history – measured in the billions of percentage points – and forcing the abolition of the Zimbabwean dollar,” he said.
“And all the while, his followers were looting and plundering a richly-endowed country, so that Zimbabweans today are, per capita, poorer than they were at independence in 1980.”
Elections are due to be held in Zimbabwe next year – Mugabe had indicated an intention to run again despite his age – and Johnson said Britain and its international partners would do all they can to ensure those elections provide “a genuine opportunity for all Zimbabweans to decide their own future.”
“Authoritarian rule, whether in Zimbabwe or anywhere else, should have no place in Africa. There is only one rightful way for Zimbabwe to achieve a legitimate government and that is through free and fair elections, held in accordance with the country’s constitution.”
Then named Rhodesia, the country was a British colony until its white minority government declared independence unilaterally in 1965. Independence and majority rule came in 1980, after a long and bloody bush war.