Zimbabwe’s head of state, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe, has been placed under house arrest after what seems to be a military coup took place in the nation’s capital.

Robert Mugabe
By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt/Released [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Mugabe is safe

Following numerous reports on social media late Thursday night about the increased military presence in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, the country’s military took control of the national broadcaster, ZBC.

Two military officials, one of them identified as Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo, issued a short statement that “the situation in our country has moved to another level.”

Addressing the public concern that the Zimbabwean military was overthrowing the government and President Robert Mugabe, the military chief of staff stated: “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.”

During the short announcement, Moyo assured the public that President Robert Mugabe and his family are safe and that their security is guaranteed. No further clarifications were given on the whereabouts and well-being of the oldest head of state in the world.

Is it a coup?

Despite the military’s claims that this is not, in fact, a military takeover, but rather, is an operation to reinstate Zimbabwe’s democracy, both experts and the general public are calling this a blatant example of a coup d’état.

In light of last week’s firing of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and next year’s impending elections, this apparent military takeover seems like a bloodless removal of power from Mugabe’s regime, which was instated in 1980. With most of the nation seeing Vice President Mnangagwa as the best contender to succeed the aging and often feeble President Robert Mugabe, his abrupt firing last week might be what incited this week’s events. Whether it’s a direct demonstration of the military’s loyalty to Mnangagwa or just an effort to remove the ruling party from power is yet to be seen.

However, what remains clear is the fact that the event currently unfolding in Harare has all the signs of being a coup. One could argue it’s a bloodless, modern interpretation of one, but a coup, nonetheless.

What’s happening now?

Witnesses report that life as usual is going on in Zimbabwe, despite the heavy presence of army personnel and tanks in the nation’s capital. Images and video footage shared on social media show people going on with their daily activities, navigating the tanks and soldiers patrolling the streets. But while civilians might not be affected by this recent turn of events, most of the presiding officials and ministers are.

The first lady of Zimbabwe, Grace Mugabe, entered Zimbabwean politics some two years ago. Since then, she has been pulling together a faction of influential politicians and activists around her, popularly named the G40. The president’s decision to fire Mnangagwa was largely seen as an attempt to transfer his power to the first lady, and because she is rather unpopular with Zimbabweans, this decision was not met with widespread approval.

The current whereabouts of Grace Mugabe remain unknown, but even though the military claims to have custody of the president and his family, some sources claim she fled the country and might be residing in Namibia. With most of the officials associated with the G40 faction in military custody, the future of Zimbabwean politics remains in question. Some analysts predict the prompt return of the former Vice President, who has left the country due to concerns for his safety, while others doubt that neighboring countries and the international community will stand for a military coup.

Despite the military’s assurance that national safety has not been compromised, gunfire and explosions were heard near Mr. Mugabe’s compound. Tanks and armored vehicles block the entrances to government buildings, and witnesses report an increased military presence at the airport. Foreign embassies have advised their nations’ citizens to stay indoors and avoid the city center, where most of the roads are either blocked or controlled by the military.

The future might not be so bright for Zimbabweans

Even though we expect more facts to unravel in the next couple of days, the future of Zimbabwean politics might not be nearly as bright as the coup might suggest.

With Robert Mugabe’s regime in power for 37 years, a large majority of Zimbabweans have never known any other leader. As the once-prospering economy crumbles and an overwhelming majority of the population remains unemployed, the struggling country could benefit from a new government.

However, as similar events in recent history have shown, such as the attempted coups in Libya, Turkey and Madagascar, military coups are rarely successful. Zimbabwe’s powerful allies South Africa and China most likely won’t support the unconstitutionally established government. The UN is also expected to step in, and the leading party’s power, while exhausted, is still significant.

The president, who is technically still in power, hasn’t been heard from, and neither have his allies. While life in the capital has quickly normalized, the political situation is still tense, and we have yet to see the full scope of today’s events. Robert Mugabe’s control over Zimbabwe is often described as being a dictatorship. However, the fact that it was palace intrigue that brought it down might not provide the Zimbabwean people with the future they’re hoping for.