For Zimbabwe, a Coup Isn’t the Answer

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, center, during the country’s 37th Independence Day celebration in April. CreditJekesai Njikizana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There is no doubt that the events of the last 48 hours in Zimbabwe mark the beginning of the end of Robert Mugabe’s reign. The dictator’s 37-year-rulewas distinguished by untold suffering, high inflation, shortages of water, electricity and money. Millions of Zimbabweans left the country in search of better opportunities. The majority of those who remained were left to live in poverty and illness.

In a confusing sequence of events on Tuesday and Wednesday, the military seized the state television broadcaster ZBC, and in an effort to downplay what was happening said there was no coup, but that it was targeting criminals around the president.

No matter what the military says, this is a coup.

Some citizens, rightfully desperate for change, say this is the best step toward some kind of reform, but it’s not. There is evidence this intervention is driven by the self-interest of military generals rather than national interest, which makes prospects for economic and democratic reforms bleak.

It’s no secret that Mr. Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, are unpopular. But the army will, without a doubt, continue the party’s rule. In successive elections since 2000, the army played a very retrogressive role in rigging elections and leading violence in the name of “national interest.” That same army mismanaged revenue from mining diamonds in the town of Chiadzwa just four years ago, bungling what could have been a prosperous economic moment for the entire country.

The army was silent when the former vice president Joice Mujuru, a widely admired veteran, was pushed out of the government in 2014 for wanting to run for president. The army only took a stand when Emmerson Mnangagwa, regarded as the longest serving ally to Mr. Mugabe from the liberation struggle, was pushed out of office by Mr. Mugabe this month. Mr. Mnangagwa occupied a key security ministerial position from 1980 to 1988 and was in the defense ministry from 2009 to 2013 before being elevated to the vice presidential post.

The coup is merely a response to fighting within the ZANU-PF. For months, tension has been building inside the party with the emerging possibility that Mr. Mugabe’s wife, Grace, could succeed him instead of Mr. Mnangagwa. The special relationship between Mr. Mnangagwa and the army best explains its intervention. It is naïve to believe that any leader who takes power under such conditions will strive for democratic reform.

If the army successfully assumes control, in the coming weeks and months, we mustn’t be fooled into believing there will be any departure from Mr. Mugabe’s politics. With a fractured civil society and splintering opposition parties, the prospects of such a complete military takeover are high. A divided and vulnerable civil society is an easy target for manipulation. In the absence of constitutional legitimacy — a vacuum created by Mr. Mugabe — the military will seek favor in the court of public opinion, with a restive citizenry desperate for any leader offering a remotely better life. Zimbabweans have been yearning for a messianic moment, and this is an opportunity for a shift from Mugabe politics.

Wednesday’s coup appears to be the start of the military’s center-stage role in Zimbabwe’s politics, and there is no guarantee what will happen if its interests are threatened.

The past 48 hours have revealed that Mr. Mugabe — the man we all thought would rule until his death — can be toppled; the next 48 hours will show how the army manages Mr. Mugabe’s potential resignation or removal. Amid reports of him refusing to resign, and the army dismissing a delegation sent by President Jacob Zuma of South Africa to intervene, the battle lines are drawn. Mr. Mnangagwa, who has since returned to the country, will likely explore legitimate options to step in as president, with his loyal soldiers beside him.

To many, this is the best option — a well-known figure at the helm who fought in the wars of independence — but only time will tell if this will work. In the best-case scenario, Mr. Mnangagwa will shepherd the country safely to next year’s elections.

But if the situation remains in the hands of the army, I don’t expect such an election. The army will need more time to create a predictable outcome for itself. This also applies if Mr. Mugabe hands power to a transitional government, which would need time to stabilize and prepare for the elections. The army will determine and shape the pace of developments as it protects “national interests.”

Handing power to the military will leave Zimbabweans at the mercy of a very unpredictable group that has rarely worked on behalf of the people. And military leadership will most certainly leave the people with an unpredictable future. While the military might want to use this opportunity to reorganize the ZANU-PF and then call for an election, the party’s problems are not the people’s problems.

The best option for Zimbabwe right now is a transitional arrangement with multiparty representation to stabilize the country, with the Southern African Development Community pledging support to guarantee an election. This could involve a coalition between Ms. Mujuru, Mr. Mngangagwa, the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and former Home Affairs Minister Dumiso Dabengwa.

As Zimbabweans around the world celebrate a moment of relief, we must remember that the future looks bleak. Coups are a regressive path to achieving democratic ends. Once the army has settled in, its interests — not ours — will be the priority. Any prospects for reforming the country lie in returning power to citizens — and for the army to respect civilian authority.

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