Robert Mugabe at the 12th African Union Summit, 2009. Photo: Wikimedia Robert Mugabe at the 12th African Union Summit, 2009. Photo: Wikimedia

The coup against Robert Mugabe is about maintaining control

The crisis in Zimbabwe signals the end of the rule of one of the continent’s best known leaders, Robert Mugabe. But what is in store for the country following the military coup of the last few days?

To answer this question, we must ask who has led the coup and why. The coup is essentially about preserving the power of the deep state in Zimbabwe.

The origins of the deep state in Zimbabwe

The deep state emerged in the decades since the country reached black majority rule in 1980.

It has its roots in the armed struggle to overthrow the racist and brutal white minority regime of Ian Smith in the former British colony. The struggle dates back from the 1960s.

The liberation movement was never monolithic but the importance of its armed wing was all the greater because of the protracted nature of the liberation war.

After independence, Mugabe’s party ZANU won the first elections and has ruled ever since. It absorbed the other main wing of the liberation movement, ZAPU in the aftermath of the liberation war.

It did so brutally and by suppressing the country’s Ndebele minority, which inhabits the south and west of the country.

This act of brutal suppression was tied to Mugabe’s belief that ZAPU was in alliance with Britain in the post-independence era in order to prevent his rule.

The primacy of the Shona majority was thus ensured as was the rise of the army as a key factor in the state.

Zimbabwe’s army remained important also because neighbouring South Africa remained a brutal white minority regime which had an interest in destabilising its neighbours. It did so in an attempt at preventing them from aiding the struggle for black majority rule in South Africa.

Zimbabwe remained a key ally of the struggle in South Africa until the fall of apartheid in that country in 1994. But this did not end the power of the military in Zimbabwean politics.

The rise and rise of the deep state: the crisis in the DRC

By the 1990s, Zimbabwe was facing a domestic problem. After independence, the new state had inherited an infrastructure developed to serve a racist state, a white minority.

As part of the deal to end white minority rule, Zimbabwe’s leaders also accepted a moratorium on land reform. Britain was to help fund land reform to buy out white farmer from the early 1990s, but it failed to do so. This left the most lucrative sector of the economy in white hands.

The economy was moreover suffering as attempts to make the state work for the black majority could only last so long without major changes to inherited economic structures.

An increase in social spending on health, education and infrastructure could not be funded forever without changes to property rules. An obvious problem was that there was little employment for new graduates, who were being turned out in huge numbers.

Increasingly, Zimbabwe turned to the IMF, which demanded cuts in exchange for funds. This increased social unrest in the cities.

Zimbabwe’s military saw its chance to maintain its power by aiding Laurent Kabila’s forces to take over Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The rhetoric was one of pan-Africanism against US power in Africa.

But there was an economic motive too: who would control the continent’s richest country? Zimbabwe’s elites and generals wanted to make sure they did so. And they were richly rewarded.

But maintaining an army presence in the DRC from the mid-1990s was an expensive business, and it helped bankrupt the country, leading to the birth of a major opposition movement, the Movement for Democratic Change.

Maintaining the deep state’s grip with Mugabe as a figurehead

The MDC was a party rooted in the labour unions. But its leadership was decisively pro-Western, neo-liberal and in large part supportive of the country’s white farmers.

Mugabe’s sole way of staying in power was to unleash a tidal wave to sweep away white farmers and dosh out land to landless peasants and key supporters alike.

This often meant stealing elections, beating opponents, buying off discontent where possible, repressing enemies where necessary. The brunt of the attack was focused on the urban working class and the poor who served as the backbone of the opposition from 2000 onwards.

But by 2008, even this was not enough. Mugabe lost a presidential election. According to his opponent and victor of the election, the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai, the ruling party had tried to persuade Mugabe to go. He was in fact willing to leave but the army did not let him resign.

It was feared in army circles that allowing in Tsvangirai could endanger the deep state. So the general forced Mugabe to stay on. Soon, with South Africa brokering a deal, a unity government was formed in which ZANU PF (a fusion of ZANU and ZAPU from the 1980s) shared power with the MDC.

The unity government proved a neoliberal creature to the core. MDC ministers and parliamentarians proved as corrupt and power-hungry as their ZANU PF colleagues. For its compromises and record in government, the MDC lost much public support.

This allowed Mugabe to restore ZANU PF rule by 2013. The road now appeared open for a transfer of power to a younger generation of leaders from within the ruling party, who could serve the interests of the deep state and slowly begin to distance the regime from Mugabe.

This would serve in the long run to re-open the country in a major way to Western capital. Zimbabwe was now under sanctions. London and Washington could not forgive Mugabe his defiance. They would want a more pliant regime, and the generals were not unhappy to wash themselves of past sins by paving the way for a successor.

Maintaining the deep state’s grip without Mugabe: the long road to the coup

The problem was that Mugabe appeared not to want to go along with this plan for his own reasons. With the GDP halved, Mugabe appeared increasingly out of touch. In particular, his wife’s extravagance grated with the population. Grace Mugabe, dubbed ‘Gucci Grace’, also wanted to succeed her husband. And he appeared to want to go along with her desires.

In 2014, he sacked his deputy Joyce Mujuru, the heir apparent. She was a long-time politburo member and wife of a murdered top general. The army allowed this as the person who profited appeared to be long-time defence chief and security chief, Emmerson Mnangagwa. He now appeared to be heir apparent.

Mnangagwa is known to be open to reconciliation with the West. Wikileaks suggested as much. It leaked documents showing that opposition leaders in talks with the US embassy officials often mentioned him as a conciliator. Mnangagwa also gave a suggestive interview to the New Statesman implying he was ready to do things differently and come back to terms with the West.

When Robert and Grace Mugabe began to turn their fire on Mnangagwa this year, they were backed by even younger business stalwarts in the ruling party. Known as the G40, to indicate their young age (they are in their forties and fifties), the Young Turks wanted a deeper generational shift in the party than the army top brass was willing to countenance.

The army high command became increasingly livid with Mugabe as he appeared to be unwilling to heed their warnings that he was going too far. He owed his power to them but appeared oblivious to their interests.

Moreover, the economy has been fast deteriorating. Not only has GDP halved since 2000, but the recently re-introduced local currency, following years of dollarization, faced immediate inflation and higher commodity prices.

So the deep state decided that the executive was reckless and endangering its rule. With the opposition parties in disarray and now the ruling party looking ever more remote from the population, the army felt it had to step in once it became clear Mnangagwa would be forced to leave. When he was unceremoniously dumped by Mugabe last week, the army quickly stepped in.

What will happen next?

The media are keen to present this as a pro-Mnangagwa plot. To some extent, this may be true. He is seen as trustworthy by the top brass, and, though not popular for his role in repression in the last decades, Mnangagwa is seen as a potential interlocutor by South Africa, the Western powers and China alike.

The army will try pressure Mugabe to reinstate Mnangagwa, resign his own position or maintain a ceremonial role, and effectively let a new unity government take over. They do not want to be exposed in frontline politics but want to profit from the shadows and maintain their ability to intervene politically when they want to.

The various opposition factions have shown little-principled stance against dictatorship. They are ready to do a deal, as was obvious from their offers to Mnangagwa to join them once he was ousted. So expect little novelty in the post-Mugabe era. The deep state will do what it can to normalise its relations with the main capitalist powers.

And the working population at large will find no champions in the new government. They will have to look to their own power in the workplaces and neighbourhoods to fight whatever neoliberal constellation emerges. And they will have to seek alliances with the poor peasants who will get little or nothing from the new authorities.

Workers and poor peasants will find powerful allies in the working classes and poor peasantries of the neighbouring states – particularly South Africa. The dream of a united and independent continent, able to overthrow local tyrants and eject the great powers, is still the only way out for the masses of the people. The working class is the only class that can lead the way. 

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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