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Zimbabwe’s leadership change and the enduring legacy of Robert Mugabe

By Dave Schneider

Mugabe, ZANU-PF say ‘patriotic’ military intervention was not a coup

Editor’s note: Fight Back! is publishing this informative analysis by Dave Schneider on the recent events in Zimbabwe. It contains the views of the author, and Fight Back! editors welcome commentary and responses from readers.

On Nov. 21, Robert Gabriel Mugabe resigned as president of the Republic of Zimbabwe. The resignation came amid impeachment proceedings in the Parliament of Zimbabwe initiated by Mugabe’s own party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). In a letter read by Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda to lawmakers, Mugabe tendered his resignation effective immediately.

Mugabe is succeeded by his former vice president and longtime liberation war leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was sworn in as interim president on Nov. 24. Mnangagwa, 75, was sacked as vice president earlier this month, sparking a dramatic military intervention that led to Mugabe’s resignation.

These explosive events mark the latest chapter in an intense political struggle within the ruling ZANU-PF party, which boiled over onto the whole nation on Nov. 15. A week after the sacking of Mnangagwa, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) moved into Harare, the capital, and secured Mugabe in his home in order to target “criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country,” according to a ZDF statement.

In the days that followed, First Lady Grace Mugabe, who at one time seemed poised to succeed Robert as president, left the country and had her party membership stripped by ZANU-PF. Several government officials closely tied to the Mugabes were removed from their posts. Most significantly, the ZANU-PF Central Committee and all ten party provinces voted unanimously to downgrade Robert Mugabe from First General Secretary of the party to a rank-and-file member on Nov. 19, setting the stage for his resignation two days later.

Many observers and authorities have labeled the ZDF’s intervention a ‘coup.’ Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Western-backed opposition Movement for a Democratic Change (MDC), jumped on the bandwagon, along with most of the Western media.

Notably, however, neither ZANU-PF, nor the military, nor Robert Mugabe himself have referred to the events as a coup. Indeed, while the military intervened in Zimbabwean politics, no unconstitutional change in government took place. Mugabe was not removed from power at any point until his resignation, which he called “voluntary.”

The dramatic events in Zimbabwe that led to this change in leadership were not a coup d’etat. Instead, they were the product of an intense struggle within ZANU-PF over succession and the direction of the country. With Mnangagwa as president, Zimbabwe enters a new chapter in its history marked with challenges and opportunities to build on the legacy of Mugabe.

ZANU-PF, Mugabe and the Liberation War Veterans

ZANU-PF is a revolutionary party that comes out of Zimbabwe’s national liberation struggle, known as the Second Chimurenga, which overthrew white-minority rule in 1979. Two parties led the 15-year liberation war: the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which had its social base among black peasants and farmworkers, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). The two parties would later merge in 1988 to become the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

Land and freedom were the driving issues of the Second Chimurenga. White British settlers led by infamous mass murderer Cecil Rhodes colonized Zimbabwe and most of southern Africa in the 1880s. Calling it ‘Rhodesia’, the white settlers created a horrific racist state built on removing black peasants from their land and enforcing racial inequalities. A 1962 survey of land in Rhodesia found that white settlers – never more than 1/16th of the population – owned 51% of the land and 82% of the best land in the country, although by 1976, only 15% of their land was actively used.

This monstrous colonialism sparked resistance. Influenced by Marxism-Leninism and socialist guerrilla movements across Africa, ZANU and ZAPU waged an insurgency against Rhodesian President Ian Smith’s racist regime from 1966 to 1979. Thousands of black revolutionaries faced incarceration or death at the hands of white Rhodesian troops and their apartheid South African counterparts. Among those locked up was ZANU founder Robert Mugabe, a former school teacher incarcerated by Smith from 1963 to 1974.

ZANU and ZAPU signed the Lancaster House Agreement with Britain and the U.S. in 1979, ending decades of white-minority rule and transferring political power to the indigenous black majority. As part of the agreement, the newly formed government of Zimbabwe agreed to a gradual land reform, whereby Britain and the U.S. would subsidize the purchase of land from white settlers and its redistribution to the indigenous black population. In total, both countries pledged around $1 billion in aid to Zimbabwe toward this effort and redevelopment.

Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980, but he quickly encountered obstacles. Britain paid only a fraction of its obligation under the Lancaster Agreement, and the U.S. paid nothing at all. Worse yet, white farmers refused to sell the best farmland to the government, even land that they didn’t use. When these white farmers did sell land, it was over-tilled and priced much higher than its actual worth to the point where less than 19% of redistributed land from 1980 to 1992 was of prime value. Land hunger for the black majority continued.

By the late 1990s, war veterans of the liberation struggle became enraged at how little had changed in terms of land ownership. The influential Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association has worked closely with ZANU-PF throughout its history, but Zimbabwean war veterans also see themselves as guardians of the liberation struggle. Amidst a deteriorating economy, they began directly organizing peasants, workers and the urban poor to seize land from white owners – a campaign known as jambanja.

Under massive pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Mugabe initially opposed these land occupations. However, war veterans inside ZANU-PF called massive rallies, mobilized popular support and convinced Mugabe to back the process. In 2000, ZANU-PF and President Mugabe approved a constitutional amendment to enshrine the “Fast-Track Land Reform Program” into law. In the years that followed, Zimbabwe undertook the largest, most progressive land reform in the history of Africa. Among the leaders of this enormous land reform program was current Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Most Western reporting on the recent military intervention in Zimbabwe has neglected this historical context. ZANU-PF is a revolutionary party whose commitment to national liberation goes beyond any single leader. Importantly too, war veterans and the military have played a unique, revolutionary and sometimes corrective role in Zimbabwe’s post-independence politics.

Power struggle in ZANU-PF sparks intervention by military

The Zimbabwe Defence Forces maintain that they have not executed a coup d’etat. Instead they claim to have targeted “corrupt elements” seeking to destabilize the government and take power within ZANU-PF. These “elements” loosely organized themselves as a faction within the party known as Generation 40, or G40.

G40 is a collection of middle-aged intellectuals who did not fight in the liberation war. These members view the continued prominence of war veterans in Zimbabwean political life as stifling their opportunities at self-advancement, and many have disturbing ties to the West. Jonathan Moyo, the brains behind G40, is a liberal professor who fled Zimbabwe during the Second Chimurenga. He worked for the multi-billion-dollar Ford Foundation in Kenya before returning to Harare in the early 2000s. Others have similar ties to massive non-profits in Europe and the U.S., which have often advocated for regime change in Zimbabwe. Although the G40 claimed to have support among the ZANU-PF youth, its actual leaders were much older and the faction lacked any real mass base.

After Mugabe’s re-election in 2013, ZANU-PF began to talk internally about a successor to the president, whose old age made another term unlikely. War veterans like Mnangagwa and then-Vice President Joice Mujuru emerged as leading candidates, much to the dismay of G40. Needing a contender of their own, the faction united behind First Lady Grace Mugabe and advocated making her the next president.

Grace Mugabe’s extravagant luxury spending in Europe and her ties to rampant corruption in the diamond industry made her wildly unpopular among ordinary Zimbabweans. Beyond this, Grace Mugabe also lacked any credentials as a liberation war veteran. Her proximity to Mugabe gave G40 great influence to purge potential rivals and long-time ZANU-PF leaders, which began in 2014. As Mugabe’s age increasingly forced him to take a step back from governance, Grace Mugabe’s role became more pronounced, culminating in the sacking of Mnangagwa on Nov. 6, 2017.

G40’s accumulation of power greatly disturbed Zimbabwe’s war veterans, who held protests against Mugabe’s government in 2016. According to ZDF General Constantino Chiwenga after the military intervention, the G40 had captured state authority by manipulating Robert Mugabe and targeting opponents within ZANU-PF. By extension, many of the newly resettled black farmers, whose land acquisition was organized largely by liberation war veterans, feared the prospect of a G40 takeover of ZANU-PF. Factional infighting in the ruling party risked opening the door to the reversal of fast-track land reform.

Mnangagwa’s removal proved the last straw in this intra-party struggle. With the full backing of the Liberation War Veterans Association, the ZDF targeted G40 members, secured Mugabe in his home, and responded to assassination threats against Mnangagwa and other ZANU-PF leaders. They arrested Moyo and others, while Grace Mugabe fled the country.

Importantly, they did not force Robert Mugabe to resign, nor did they prevent him from speaking at a graduation ceremony days later or calling a cabinet meeting. Mugabe was not forced to resign – in fact, he defied expectations that he would leave office in his Nov. 19 speech – and was neither arrested nor forced to leave the country. The goal of the intervention was to stabilize ZANU-PF and ensure an orderly transition of power within the party.

Mugabe himself affirmed this in his resignation letter to Parliament. The 93-year-old liberation leader, who sources say was “relieved” to finally resign, cited two reasons for his resignation: first, his “concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe,” and second, his “desire to ensure a smooth, peaceful and non-violent transfer of power that underpins national security, peace and stability.”

Mugabe, ZANU-PF reject the ‘coup’ label

While the Western media and their darlings, like MDC opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, describe the military’s intervention as a ‘coup’, this is not an opinion shared in most of Zimbabwe or southern Africa in general. ZANU-PF declared that the military was playing a “patriotic” role in protecting the “national democratic project” of the country. The party’s Youth League – once considered a bastion of support for G40 – echoed the same sentiments and praised the ZDF.

Mugabe also refused to call the military intervention a coup and united with the criticisms issued by the war veterans, ZANU-PF and other sectors of Zimbabwean society. In a nationally televised address on Nov. 19, he said the ZDF’s actions “did not amount to a threat to our well cherished constitutional order, nor was it a challenge to my authority as head of state of government, not even as commander in chief of the ZDF,” adding that “the command element remained respectful with the dictates of constitutionalism.”

“Whatever the pros and cons, where they went about registering those concerns,” continued Mugabe, “I as the president of Zimbabwe and their commander in chief do acknowledge the issues they have drawn my attention to and do believe these were raised in the spirit of honesty and out of deep patriotic concern for the stability of the nation and welfare of our people.”

Far from denouncing the military’s actions – as one would expect during a coup – Mugabe instead acknowledged the underlying issues behind the military intervention, namely disunity and factionalism within ZANU-PF and the country’s worsening economic conditions.

Later in his speech, Mugabe offered words of self-criticism. “Of greater concern to our commanders are the well-founded fears that the lack of unity and commonness of purpose in both party and government was translating into perceptions of inattentiveness to the economy, open public spats between high ranking officials in the party and government, exacerbated by multiple conflicting messages from both the party and government, [which] made the criticism leveled against us inescapable.”

Speaking to the sidelining of war veterans and liberation leaders in ZANU-PF by the G40 faction, Mugabe said, “the current criticism raised against it [party disunity within ZANU-PF] by the command element and some of its members, have arisen from a well-founded perception that the party was stretching or even failing in its own rules and procedures.” In response, he acknowledged, “the war of liberation exacted life-long costs, which whilst hardly repayable may still be ameliorated,” and “have to be attended to with a great sense of urgency.”

Members of Southern African Development Commission (SADC), which mediated talks between Mugabe and the military, likewise refused to call the events a coup. In neighboring South Africa – Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner – neither the ruling African National Congress, nor the South African Communist Party, nor the Economic Freedom Fighters attached that label to the ZDF’s actions. All three parties instead praised the peaceful transition of power.

Some observers argue the question of whether or not to call these events a ‘coup’ is just semantics. In actuality, this question of ‘coup’ or ‘not a coup’ has incredibly significant consequences. The African Union and important regional bodies like SADC are charter-bound to expel any member state that experiences a coup d’etat or unconstitutional change in government.

Similarly, laws in the U.S. and other major countries suspend diplomatic relations and aid to countries deemed to have undergone a coup. However inconsistently the U.S. applies the label, the allegation of a ‘coup’ has often served as a pretext for foreign intervention.

Zimbabwe continues to undergo massive changes, the effects of which will become clearer overtime. However, it’s important to seek truth from facts, and the fact is that a ‘coup’ did not oust Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe’s legacy and moving forward

While Mugabe’s resignation letter brought cheers from the MDC opposition, members of ZANU-PF did not share their reaction.

ZANU PF Member of Parliament Terrance Mkupe said in an interview with the BBC on Nov. 11, “What was quite interesting was that when the letter was read out, only half of the House [of Parliament] was actually celebrating. Almost every ZANU-PF MP was actually almost in tears.” He continued, “A lot of guys were crying. We didn’t want this for our leader. We still love our leader. We didn’t want our leader to go out this way, because it felt like things could have been done in a much better way.”

For ZANU-PF, the military intervention and Mugabe’s resignation were necessary steps to protect the future of the party and the ongoing struggle for national liberation from enemies. G40 factionalists have taken advantage of Mugabe in his old age and jeopardized the party. The threat of impeachment came as a last resort to ensure a smooth transition of power to new leadership, namely Emmerson Mnangagwa. It was not intended to destroy or reverse the tremendous revolutionary gains made under Mugabe.

In his inauguration speech, Mnangagwa opened with a moving tribute to Mugabe, who he called “my leader” and praised for his leadership in the liberation war. He also declared in no uncertain terms that the fast-track land reform was “irreversible,” and called on the U.S. and Europe to lift its barbaric sanctions on Zimbabwe. True to Mugabe’s anti-imperialism, Mnangagwa also pledged the nation’s continued support for the Palestinian liberation struggle.

Mugabe’s revolutionary legacy continues in the 169,000 indigenous black farmers – most of whom were peasants, farmworkers, and the urban poor – who received 7 million hectares land under the fast-track land reform program. It continues in the majority-black ownership of major Zimbabwean companies and industries achieved through the indigenization program, and the nationalization of the nation’s diamond mines. Zimbabwe’s incredible achievements in the field of public education has virtually wiped out illiteracy and created one of the most educated nations on the continent.

The achievements of Mugabe’s 37-year tenure brought harsh reprisal from the Western imperialist powers. Devastating economic sanctions, political destabilization and predatory loan schemes by the IMF and World Bank have wreaked havoc on the people of Zimbabwe, leaving an economy with high unemployment and inflation. As president, Mnangagwa will have to confront these challenges and more.

But if the history of ZANU-PF proves anything, it’s that no challenge is insurmountable. The party remains in power and stands poised to win next year’s presidential election. Socialist China, a long-time ally of ZANU-PF dating back to the liberation war, offered its congratulations to Mnangagwa and pledged its continued economic support for the nation. Opportunities abound as Zimbabwe begins writing its next chapter.

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