Zimbabwe’s military has placed Robert Mugabe, the country’s only leader since gaining independence in 1980, under house arrest in a move that has the trappings of a coup.
Military officials announced on television early Wednesday that the military had taken custody of Mugabe and that he and his family are “safe and sound, and their security is guaranteed.” They didn’t characterize their actions as an attempt to unseat Mugabe or to take over the country in the long term.
“We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo, a Zimbabwean army officer, said during the broadcast.
“As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy,” he added.
The military seized control of the state broadcaster, ZBS, before making the announcement on television.
South African President Jacob Zuma released a statement on Wednesday saying that he’d spoken to Mugabe over the phone, and that Mugabe “indicated that he was confined to his home but said that he was fine.”
Experts say that information is scarce and it’s difficult to get a read on the direction of things.
Chipo Dendere, a postdoctoral fellow at Amherst College, told Vox that the military’s takeover appears to be a “guardian coup,” a situation in which “the military takes over arguing that it’s for transitional purposes only.”
Zimbabwe’s military seems like it could be pushing back against Mugabe’s latest power grab
The military’s arrest of Mugabe happened abruptly, but the fact that leaders of Zimbabwe’s armed forces decided to take action against Mugabe with a show of force isn’t a huge surprise.
The 93-year-old has clung to power for nearly four decades since the country won independence from the British. He is known as a ruthless leader who has violently cracked down on public protests and the press while presiding over a bleak economy with an unemployment rate of more than 80 percent. (Prices escalated so rapidly due to hyperinflation in 2008 that the government was forced to print $200 million notes.)
International observers have also accused Mugabe of abducting, abusing and torturing civil society activists. While Zimbabwe is formally a democracy, both local and international monitors have pointed to evidence of Mugabe rigging national elections in his favor.
Mugabe’s health appears to be declining, and questions over who will take the reins after he steps down or dies are laying the foundation for a power struggle among the country’s elites.
That struggle, in fact, may have been what triggered the coup. On Monday, Zimbabweans were startled by a striking announcement from Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, Zimbabwe’s top general, stating that the military would not “hesitate to step in” to “protect the revolution.”
Zimbabwe watchers saw Chiwenga’s statement as a stark warning to the long-serving president. Last week, Mugabe fired his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, an act that was widely read as an attempt to clear the way for his wife, Grace Mugabe, to succeed him as ruler of Zimbabwe.
Mnangagwa, an ally of Chiwenga’s, then fled to South Africa and said he would challenge Mugabe’s rule.
Chiwenga himself went to China, an ally of Zimbabwe’s, to meet with military officials there last week. When asked if he was aware of Chiwenga’s plans for a military takeover, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said on Wednesday that he was “not aware of the details,” according to the Associated Press.
The situation in Harare doesn’t appear to be chaotic at the moment. The New York Times reports that as of early Wednesday, taxis were running, people were making their way to work, and soldiers on the streets didn’t appear to be interfering with people’s commutes.