Military vehicles took to the streets of the Zimbabwe’s capital and prolonged gunfire was heard near the presidential residence early on Wednesday as questions mounted over Robert Mugabe’s grip on power, even as the army denied a coup in a state broadcast.
Zimbabwe’s military confirmed that it had seized power in a targeted assault on “criminals” around the President but gave assurances that the 93-year-old leader and his family were “safe and sound”.
Overnight, at least three explosions were heard in Harare, and military vehicles were seen in the streets.
The military has detained finance minister Ignatius Chombo after seizing power in an attempt to root out “criminals” around President Robert Mugabe who it said were causing social and economic suffering, a government source said.
The army said in a statement after taking over the state broadcaster that it was not a coup, with Major General Sibusiso Moyo denying the army was targeting the 93-year-old leader Robert Mugabe. “It is not a military takeover of government,” Moyo said, adding: “We wish to assure the nation that his excellency the president… and his family are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed.
“We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes… As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy,” he added.
He urged other security forces to “cooperate for the good of our country,” warning that “any provocation will be met with an appropriate response”.
Where is Mugabe?
It was not clear where Mugabe and his wife were on Wednesday. But the army said “their security is guaranteed”. The world’s oldest head of state reportedly attended a weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
Growing opposition to Mugabe
Mugabe last week fired vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa and accused him of plotting to take power, including through witchcraft.
Earlier this year the country was gripped by a bizarre spat between Grace and Mnangagwa that included an alleged ice-cream poisoning incident that laid bare the pair’s rivalry.
The first lady appeared to be positioned to replace Mnangagwa as one of the country’s two vice presidents at a special conference of the ruling party in December, leading many in Zimbabwe to suspect that she could succeed her husband. Grace Mugabe is unpopular with some Zimbabweans because of lavish spending as many struggle, and four people accused of booing her at a recent rally were arrested.
For the first time, this southern African nation is seeing an open rift between the military and Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state who has ruled since independence from white minority rule in 1980. The military has been a key pillar of his power.
The military’s actions have been seen as a major challenge to the increasingly frail leader. Days before, army commander Constantino Chiwenga had issued an unprecedented statement saying purges against senior ruling ZANU-PF party officials, many of whom like Mnangagwa fought for liberation, should end “forthwith”.
“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” the army commander said. The state-run broadcaster did not report on his statement.
The ruling party accused the commander of “treasonable conduct.”
Frustration has been growing in once-prosperous Zimbabwe as the economy collapsed under Mugabe. The country was shaken last year by the biggest anti-government protests in a decade, and a once-loyal war veterans association turned on the president, calling him “dictatorial” and blaming him for the economic crisis.
“Mnangagwa was held out by many as the best hope within ZANU-PF for piloting an economic recovery,” analyst Piers Pigou with the International Crisis Group wrote on Tuesday.
Now, “Mugabe will have to employ all his guile if he intends to ensure continued accommodation with the armed forces.”