Social media abuzz with rumours of imminent coup; claims Mugabe residence under siege

President Robert Mugabe leaves after delivering his State Of the Nation address at Parliament in Harare, Zimbabwe, December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Zimbabwe has staggered a step closer to a military coup, amid rumours that tanks have already rolled out of army bases heading for the capital Harare and that soldiers are laying siege to President Robert Mugabe at his residence.

By Peter Fabricius

Reuters reported that witnesses had seen four “tanks” heading towards Harare on Tuesday and that another witness had seen two other tanks parked beside the main road from Harare to Chinhoyi, about 20km from the city.

Other reports claimed that the army had been besieging Mugabe in his residence for two days. In chronically rumour-prone Zimbabwe, none of the reports could be confirmed and the ruling Zanu-PF party tweeted; “…there is NO coup happening in Zimbabwe”.

The reports or rumours were nonetheless inspired by a hard and disturbing fact – military chief General Constantine Chiwenga’s public threat on Monday that the military would “step in” to stop Mugabe purging leaders of the liberation movement. This was a clear reference to vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, strongly supported by the military, whom Mugabe fired last week, apparently at the behest of his wife Grace.

Chiwenga– flanked by army chief General Philip Sibanda, the acting air force chief and most of the rest of the military’s top brass – said the gains of the liberation struggle were being threatened by “counter-revolutionaries” within Zanu-PF and so the ZDF could be “obliged to take corrective measures”.

His attack was clearly aimed at Grace Mugabe who is locked in a bitter power struggle with Mnangagwa. He fled the country after being axed, apparently fearing for his life, and issued a defiant statement saying that the Mugabes and their cohorts would leave Zanu-PF in the coming few weeks “ as we will very soon control the levers of power”.

Chiwenga’s statement was deleted from all state media. On Tuesday Zanu-PF issued a statement, accusing Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct… meant to incite insurrection and violent challenge to the Constitutional Order”.

But there was no evidence he had been fired.

Opposition Senator David Coltart said on Tuesday that Chiwenga’s statement this week clearly showed that Mnangagwa did indeed control the levers of power as he had boasted.

He added that Zimbabweans were in denial about the country’s perilous situation, apparently unaware that the country faced a “grave constitutional crisis.”

He said Chiwenga had challenged President Mugabe “either to turn his back on his wife… or to face the wrath of the military”. But Mugabe would never abandon his wife at his age and in his state of dependence.

He also did not think that Mugabe would call Chiwenga’s bluff. Chiwenga’s threats were no bluff as he was backed by most of the military command.

“It would also be a grave mistake to think that this comes from a small or weak faction of the military,” Coltart added, noting that Chiwenga had been flanked by Sibanda and about 90 other senior officers when he read his statement.

“It appears that the only significant officers not present were Police Commissioner Chihuri and air force commander Shiri (who I am told is ill). The presence of General Sibanda in particular demonstrates that at the very least a significant portion of the military oppose what is going on within Zanu-PF, and consequently the decisions taken recently by President Mugabe.

“So although General Chiwenga did not overtly threaten a coup, and although he swore allegiance to President Mugabe, in reality the military have demanded that Mugabe reverse his various decisions or else there will be consequences. It is hard to see Mugabe backing down on the decisions he has taken, and therein lies the growing crisis – or the vortex of the perfect storm I have been speaking and writing about for 18 months.”

Coltart said some in the Zimbabwean opposition were gloating over Chiwenga’s challenge to Mugabe. But he himself warned that a military coup would be a disaster for Zimbabwe, not only because it would be unconstitutional but because there was no guarantee that the military would return Zimbabwe to civilian rule if the military did take power.

He urged the political opposition instead to join forces with the Zanu-PF dissidents in Parliament to impeach Mugabe under section 97 of the Constitution. This would require a two-thirds majority of both houses of Parliament. But Coltart thought that high threshold could be achieved because of the growing numbers of disaffected Zanu-PF legislators who supported either Mnangagwa or former vice president Joice Mujuru whom Mugabe fired two years ago, also at Grace Mugabe’s behest.

A senior South African official said the government was watching the situation closely but had not confirmed the truth of the social media reports that a coup was actually under way. 

“Those pictures of tanks heading for Harare seem to be old,” he said, adding that other neighbours of Zimbabwe, such as Botswana, had also not confirmed the reports.

Until the reports were confirmed, Pretoria would not intervene in the crisis, he said.

He nonetheless agreed that General Chiwenga’s statement was disturbing and that “most of the top brass seem to be behind him”.

He urged the military not to intervene, saying “they know SADC and the AU’s position against unconstitutional changes of government”.

This was a reference to standing decisions of the Southern African Development Community and the African Union that any member government that came to power by military coup or other “unconstitutional means” would be expelled from these two organisations. DM