Lessons from Zimbabwe: Neo-Coup D’états and Africa’s Future

After 37 years in office, Robert Mugabe’s fall was sudden and unexpected. On November 24, millions of Zimbabweans gathered in their capital, Harare, and around their television sets to witness what many of them had come to accept as impossible, at least in Mugabe’s lifetime – a new Zimbabwean president.

Zimbabweans of all backgrounds – young and old, ‘Shona’ and ‘Ndebele’ – cheered and jubilated as incoming president, Emmerson Mnangagwa ‘the Crocodile’, made a grand entry into the stadium for his inaugural ceremony.

The time had come for the people of Zimbabwe – particularly millennials – to observe for the first time, a presidential swearing in ceremony without the familiar face of Robert Mugabe. In the state-owned newspaper, The Herald, the official reason given for Mugabe’s absence was that he was too tired.  Aside Mugabe, conspicuously missing from the crowd was his wife, ‘Gucci Grace’, who many believed to be his anointed heir.

Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, attends the 12th African Union Summit Feb. 2, 2009 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Source: USA Navy

Whereas events surrounding Mnangagwa’s inauguration have deservedly dominated media space and attention, of much relevance are the circumstances which led to what I shall refer to as ‘neo-coup d’état’.

The approach adopted by Zimbabwe’s military to force Mugabe’s resignation suggests an interesting pattern which military coups might take in the future. I contend that whereas ‘neo-coup d’état’ appears acceptable in Zimbabwe, partly due to Mugabe’s long stay in office and autocratic tendencies; it presents a new form of threat to the political stability of developing countries. More so, in the era of globalization where events in each country publicly unfolds in others, it should not be surprising to observe military and security agencies of other countries emulate or at least attempt to replicate Zimbabwe’s ‘neo-coup d’état’.

What has changed? This was the first question I asked myself when I learned about

Mugabe’s house arrest and subsequent announcements by the military that they were taking actions to remove corrupt individuals around the president. Had the president invited them to do that? If yes, why would the announcement come from the military and not the president? Why would it be necessary for the military to control access to the national media? And why would the president, his wife and his guard be confined to the statehouse?

All attempts to answer these questions pointed to one direction – a military coup had been initiated to oust Robert Mugabe. However, to complicate things further, the military persistently denied carrying out a coup, assuring the president’s safety.  This denial was followed by Mugabe’s first public appearance at Open University’s graduation ceremony. What was surprising and unusual of this appearance, however, was Mugabe’s silence. Would a president who had supposedly sanctioned a military crackdown on corrupt officials shy away from commenting on it? Even when such comments are necessary to dispel rumors of a coup? The Mugabe we have become used to would have definitely made a statement.

Strikingly visible and consistent in Zimbabwe’s political impasse was the military’s strong-willed efforts to reject any labeling of a coup d’état. In the past, ambitious military officers have staged coups with little effort to disguise their intentions. This was not the case in Zimbabwe; the military was determined to go the extra mile – allowing Mugabe to attend a public event and flooding social media with ‘happy-face’ pictures of themselves and Mugabe – to prove that whatever was happening was not a coup. The military’s determination to avoid such a label was probably in part due to Mugabe’s popularity within the African Union (AU), and mainly a plan to circumvent the sanctions and condemnations that a fully-fledged military coup would attract.

Despite all his faults, Mugabe remains a popular figure in the African Union, which elected him as chairman in 2015. A military coup against him would draw wide criticism from members of the AU and complicate their relationship with his predecessor. Apart from this, a military coup would be in contravention to ‘Article 23’ of the AU’s Lomé Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government (UCG) and African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG).

In effect, the AU would have been mandated to apply sanctions on any resultant government after Mugabe. The AU’s intention to apply these sanctions was made clear after its chairperson, Alpha Conde, referred to Zimbabwe’s crisis as a coup in disguise, calling on the military to halt their actions immediately and restore constitutional order. The AU and African countries would not stand isolated in criticizing a coup d’état’s resultant government – wide criticisms and condemnations would be drawn as well from the international community.

To avoid this, Zimbabwe’s military chose a subtle path to pursue their agenda – the ‘neo-coup d’état’. In a neo-coup d’état, the military pursues an unconstitutional act (to overthrow an elected government) through a constitutional process. Thus, even though the military initiates an action that is not constitutional, they rely on the constitution to pursue subsequent goals – making the result of their action appear legitimate and constitutional. Hence, the military might coerce a president they do not like to resign, replacing him with their preferred vice president or prime minister. Whereas such an action might go unpunished in Zimbabwe for obvious reasons, it is important to acknowledge the threat it presents to stable constitutional governance in Africa.

For decades, political instability – military coups, civil wars, electoral violence, etc. – has remained a major concern for developing countries, particularly in Africa. Principal among the sources of political instability in Africa has been military coups and takeovers. Research by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and other institutions show that there have been more than 200 coups in Africa since the post-independence era of the 1960s. Despite this gloomy picture, AfDB finds that the incidence of military coups in Africa has reduced in the 21st century. Africa has enjoyed this relative political stability not because economic conditions have drastically improved, but because military coups have been widely condemned as unconstitutional within the African and international community.

With the emergence of neo-coup d’états, beginning in Zimbabwe, condemnations/claims about the unconstitutionality of military coups could be less effective – after all, the intended outcome of such military actions will be tailored to suit constitutional dictates. After nearly four decades in power, Mugabe may have overstayed his welcome, but he was still the constitutionally elected leader of Zimbabwe – at least until 2018. Any action to remove him from office should have been triggered by the constitution. In this case, however, constitutional efforts to remove Mugabe were triggered only after the military made moves to remove him.

Africa’s political stability is severely threatened by this trend of coup d’états disguised by their constitutional outcomes. For rule of law (and by extension democracy) to prevail, political processes must be treated importantly as their outcomes. There should be no glorification or tolerance for unconstitutional acts that hope to achieve constitutional outcomes. Embracing such acts would usher us into an “ends justify the means” arena, where stakeholders of all sort – politicians, military, civil servants etc. – would excuse their unconstitutional parochial actions for having long-term or future benefits. In sum, though a neo-coup d’état might seem tolerable in Zimbabwe; it should be repressed for the massive threat it poses to political stability in Africa.

Maxwell Adjei

Maxwell Adjei

Contributor at InPRA
Maxwell Adjei is a Ph.D. student in Political Science (Conflict Analysis and Management) at Kent State University. He received a master’s degree in Public Administration (MPA) and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science (International Politics) from Park University (Missouri) and University of Ghana respectively. His research interests include international organizations (IOs), sustainable development, conflict resolution, peacebuilding and security in Africa, democratization, public policy, and social enterprise.
Maxwell Adjei