HARARE – Zimbabwe’s army said Wednesday it had President Robert Mugabe and his wife in custody and was securing government offices and patrolling the capital following a night of unrest that included a military takeover of the state broadcaster.
The actions triggered speculation of a coup.
For the first time, the nation’s military is opposing Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state and one of the longest-serving authoritarian rulers. Mugabe has been in power since Zimbabwe’s independence from white minority rule in 1980. The military has been a key pillar of his power.
In an address to the nation after taking control of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp., Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo said early Wednesday that the military was targeting “criminals” around Mugabe and sought to reassure the country that order would be restored.
It was not clear where Mugabe, 93, and his wife were, but it seemed they were in the custody of the military.
“Their security is guaranteed,” Moyo said.
“We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” he said. “We are only targeting criminals around (Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice.”
Moyo added, “As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”
He urged other security forces to “cooperate for the good of our country,” warning that “any provocation will be met with an appropriate response.”
The ruling ZANU-PF party on Tuesday had accused army chief Gen. Constantino Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct” after he criticized Mugabe for sacking Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa’s dismissal left Mugabe’s wife, Grace, 52, in prime position to succeed her husband as the next president — a succession strongly opposed by senior ranks in the military.
Chiwenga had threatened on Monday to “step in” to calm political tensions, and now appears to be in control.
The army was praised by the nation’s war veterans for carrying out “a bloodless correction of gross abuse of power.”
The military will return Zimbabwe to “genuine democracy” and make the country a “modern model nation,” said Chris Mutsvangwa, chairman of the war veterans’ association, in Johannesburg.
Mutsvangwa and the war veterans are staunch allies of Mnangagwa, who fled Zimbabwe last week but said he would return to lead the country.
The Twitter account of ZANU-PF said Mnangagwa “will be president of ZANU PF as per the constitution of our revolutionary organisation,” replacing Mugabe, and said there was no coup or crisis in Zimbabwe. The U.S. Embassy closed to the public Wednesday and encouraged citizens to shelter in place, citing “the ongoing political uncertainty through the night.” The British Embassy issued a similar warning, citing “reports of unusual military activity.”
Armed soldiers in armored personnel carriers stationed themselves at key points in Harare on Wednesday.
Zimbabweans formed long lines at banks in order to draw the limited cash available, a routine chore in the country’s ongoing financial crisis.
As the situation deteriorated Tuesday night, prolonged gunfire was heard near Mugabe’s private residence.
Mugabe is the world’s oldest head of state, but his poor health has fueled a bitter succession battle as potential replacements jockey for position.
In speeches this year, Mugabe has often slurred his words, mumbled and paused for long periods.
His lengthy rule has been marked by brutal repression of dissent, mass emigration, vote-rigging and economic collapse since land reforms in 2000.
The main opposition MDC party called for civilian rule to be protected.
“No one wants to see a coup. … If the army takes over, that will be undesirable. It will bring democracy to a halt,” shadow defense minister Gift Chimanikire said on Tuesday.
Speculation had been rife in Harare that Mugabe could seek to remove Chiwenga, who is seen as an ally of ousted Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa, 75, was widely viewed as Mugabe’s most loyal lieutenant, having worked alongside him for decades.
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.
Grace Mugabe — 41 years younger than her husband — has become increasingly active in public life in what many say was a process to help her eventually take the top job.
She was granted diplomatic immunity in South Africa in August after she allegedly assaulted a model at an expensive Johannesburg hotel where the couple’s two sons were staying.
As the economy collapsed, Zimbabwe was engulfed by hyperinflation and was forced to abandon its own currency in 2009 in favor of the U.S. dollar.
The country, which has an unemployment rate of over 90 percent, is due to hold elections next year, with Mugabe pledging to run for office again.
In the late 19th century, after British settlers moved in from South Africa, attracted by mineral wealth, the mining magnate Cecil Rhodes gave his name to what became the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.
In 1965, when most remaining European colonies in Africa were obtaining independence under black majority rule, the tiny white minority in Southern Rhodesia broke away from Britain, forming a racist regime similar to that in neighboring South Africa.
This led to a bloody liberation war from 1972, led by Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. At least 27,000 died.
The war culminated in the country’s independence, negotiated under British auspices, in April 1980, and Southern Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe.
The country was in jubilation and the world hailed the birth of a model for Africa.
In a Harare stadium hundreds of thousands of people witnessed the hoisting of the new flag and reggae star Bob Marley performed one of his songs to celebrate independence.
In 1987 Mugabe became head of state after reforming the constitution to usher in a presidential regime.
In the years that followed his coming to power Mugabe kindled hope. He reached out to the white minority and put in place a social policy that benefited the black majority, up to then looked down on.
Mugabe began a process of expropriating farms from the white minority and giving the land to blacks, in a process that led to accusations of corruption and cronyism.
In March 2002 Mugabe was re-elected president in a poll marred by violence and widely denounced as rigged.