Robert Mugabe and his family remain under detention in Zimbabwe twelve hours after the military declared on national television that it had temporarily taken control of the country to “target criminals” around the head of state.
The move by the armed forces appears to have resolved a bitter battle to succeed the 93-year-old president, which had pitted his former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, against his wife, 52-year-old Grace Mugabe.Announcement by military on state broadcaster says President Robert Mugabe and family are safe but army is ‘targeting criminals around him’
Mnangagwa was reported to have returned to Zimbabwe on Wednesday morning from South Africa, where he fled after being stripped of his office by Mugabe last week in an apparent attempt to clear Grace’s path to power.
The military takeover comes two days after the army chief – flanked by other senior officers – warned that he was prepared to “step in” to end turmoil in the ruling Zanu-PF party.
It is likely to signal the departure from power of the world’s oldest leader within days, weeks or at most months.
Soldiers have sealed access to parliament, government offices and courts in the capital, residents said. Access to the president’s official residence was also blocked by troops. But Harare appeared calm.
“Although a little bit scary, I think this is good for us. It has been a long time, we are going through a lot of hardships,” a fruit and vegetable seller in the centre of the city told the Guardian.
“People are excited because they are ready for change,” said an official who asked not to be named because of his job. “I don’t think things will get violent because they are doing this for the people — if they start shedding blood they can’t do that any more. That is why they told people to stay away from the centre of town unless they have business, so troublemakers cannot stir things up.”
Early on Wednesday a military spokesman, Maj Gen SB Moyo, made an announcement on state television saying Mugabe and his family were “safe and sound and their security is guaranteed”. Troops had seized the network’s offices late on Tuesday night.
Moyo insisted – despite appearances – that a coup had not taken place, adding: “as soon as [the armed forces] are done the situation will come to normalcy”.
Cancelling all leave for members of the military, he urged the security forces to “cooperate for the good of our country”. “Any provocation will be met with an appropriate response,” he warned.
There was no sign of any resistance to the takeover or to the arrest of a series of senior officials associated with Grace Mugabe and her G40 faction. The youth wing of the ruling Zanu-PF, which had made defiant statements directed at the military earlier in the week, appeared to condone the military action.
Mnangagwa, a former spy chief, has strong support among many in Zimbabwe’s armed forces, and it is unclear who might oppose him in coming days.
In contrast, Grace Mugabe is deeply unpopular and has few allies internally or, crucially, regionally.
The South African president, Jacob Zuma, on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has expressed concern at the infolding situation in Zimbabwe, calling on the various actors to resolve it amicably, the Reuters news agency reports.
Zuma calls for calm and restraint and expresses hope that there will be no coup in Zimbabwe, which he says would be in conflict with the positions of both the SADC and the African Union. He says the former will monitor the situation and stands ready to help resolve it.
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A visit to China last week by the head of the Zimbabwean army, General Constantino Chiwenga, was entirely normal, Beijing has said as the military action in the southern African country unfolds.
China is closely watching the situation in Zimbabwe and hopes that relevant parties can properly handle their internal affairs, its foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, told a daily news briefing.
Gen Chiwenga met the Chinese defence minister, Chang Wanquan, on Friday, where the latter expressed a willingness to promote relations with Zimbabwe.
The Chinese defence ministry showed a picture of the two men, both wearing military uniform, shaking hands, and another one of officers from both countries sitting opposite each other holding a meeting at the People’s Liberation Army headquarters in Beijing, Reuters reported.
Asked whether Chiwenga had briefed China on plans to seize power, Geng Shuang said:
I can only tell you that his visit to China this time was a normal military exchange mutually agreed upon by China and Zimbabwe. As a country that is friendly with Zimbabwe, we are paying close attention to developments of the situation in Zimbabwe.
Maintaining peaceful and stable development accords with the fundamental interests of Zimbabwe and regional countries, and is the common desire of the international community. We hope the relevant parties in Zimbabwe appropriately handle their internal matters.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has updated its travel advice to British nationals this morning.
Due to the uncertain political situation in Harare, including reports of unusual military activity, we recommend British nationals currently in Harare to remain safely at home or in their accommodation until the situation becomes clearer. Please continue to monitor our travel advice and embassy social media accounts for updates.
You should avoid political activity, or activities that could be considered political, including political discussions in public places and criticism of the president. You should avoid all demonstrations and rallies. The authorities have sometimes used force to suppress demonstrations.
The national police force has recalled all officers on leave, Associated Press reports. A senior police official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press, said all officers have been ordered to return to their posts immediately.
“Although a little bit scary, I think this is good for us. It has been a long time, we are going through a lot of hardships,” a fruit and vegetable seller in downtown Harare tells the Guardian’s correspondent.
Samaz said he had worked his whole life in a job he did not want to stay in because there was nothing better for him. “My beard is grey and I am still in the street,” he says.
He adds that there are many fewer people than usual in the streets of the capital. He was surprised by the morning’s news, which he found out when he headed into town in and was told about a “no-go area”.
Zimbabwean defence forces have seized control of the state broadcaster ZBC overnight, screening a statement declaring that it is “targeting criminals” around the president, Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe and his family are “safe and sound”, said the army spokesman Maj Gen SB Moyo said. Mugabe has not appeared in public or issued a statement. It is unclear whether he is in military custody.
In a statement broadcast overnight, Moyo insisted:
We wish to make this abundantly clear this is not a military takeover of government. What the Zimbabwe defence forces is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country, which if not addressed may result in violent conflict.
But the statement made it clear the army had acted in response to a purge of Zanu-PF members, including the vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was sacked by Mugabe last week, and had been angered by the failure of state media to report on a warning issued by the army chief, Gen Constantine Chiwenga, on Monday:
The situation in our country has moved to another level … To members of the Zimbabwe defence forces, all leave is cancelled and you are all to return to your barracks with immediate effect …
Military spokesman says President Robert Mugabe and his family were ‘safe and sound and their security is guaranteed’
It is fairly clear the armed forces have taken power in the former British colony – they control the state broadcaster, the streets of the capital and, most importantly, the personal residence of the head of state.
It is also fairly clear why they have acted now. This is a pre-emptive strike to stop Grace Mugabe, the president’s 53-year-old wife, and her clique taking pole position in the race to succeed the oldest living ruler in the world.
Robert Mugabe addressing party members earlier this month in support of Grace Mugabe becoming the party’s next vice-president.
The fortunes of the first lady have been rising in recent months, at the expense of the allies of the military within the ruling Zanu-PF party. The most obvious example is Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president and veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation war who was fired unceremoniously last week, clearing the way for Grace to be appointed in his place.
But there are others who have been sidelined. Senior soldiers fear they will suffer if Grace and her associates take over. They also believe she will be corrupt, vindictive and incompetent, and know that the first lady’s violent outbursts and extravagance – as well as that of her entourage and sons – have already made her very unpopular.
The soldiers are also concerned about a further massive deterioration of the economy. Inflation and the collapse of the Zimbabwean currency has already impoverished many rank and file soldiers, and hit the incomes of officers too. The wages of the millions of government employees – troops, police, civil servants and others – often go unpaid for months on end. This means the seizure of power today will be greeted by many with relief, if not enthusiasm.
The course of events over the next few days is harder to see clearly. Whatever happens is likely to be chaotic and fast-moving – though it will be a surprise if there is any violent resistance to the takeover.
Once the dust settles, and the rise of Grace and her faction has been reversed, the soldiers will have to decide. Will they return power to the civilians – particularly the ageing head of state and commander-in-chief, Mugabe – or will the temptation to run the country themselves prove too great? Will they call back Mnangagwa to take power himself with Mugabe perhaps reduced to a figurehead?
Two key markers will be the annual convention of the Zanu-PF next month, and the elections next year. Observers will be looking for an early commitment from the military to allowing both to go ahead.
The opposition MDC party has said it wants to see a peaceful, constitutional “democratisation” of Zimbabwe following the army move, Reuters reports.
In a statement, the MDC says it urges the establishment of a stable, democratic and progressive nation state.
Chris Mutsvangwa, chairman of the Zimbabwe war veterans’ group, has praised the night’s events as a “bloodless correction of gross abuse of power” by members of Robert Mugabe’s government.
Mutsvangwa told the Associated Press he believed the army would return Zimbabwe to “genuine democracy” and make the country a “modern model nation.”
The war veterans are supporters of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice-president who was fired Mugabe last week following a power struggle over succession with the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe.
The military in Zimbabwe appears to have taken control of the country’s airwaves amid high tension in the capital and reports of explosions and gunfire.
After securing control of the state broadcaster, a military spokesman, Major General SB Moyo made a televised announcement early on Wednesday saying President Robert Mugabe and his family were “safe and sound and their security is guaranteed”.
He said the army was targeting “criminals around” Mugabe, who were “committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in order to bring them to justice”.
Insisting this was not a military takeover, Moyo said “as soon as they are done the situation will come to normalcy”.
“We urge you to remain calm and limit unnecessary movement. However, we encourage those who are employed and those with essential business in the city to continue their normal activities as usual,” he said.
Moyo said the army had acted because the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation had been ordered not to broadcast a statement from the military on Monday and “the situation in our country has moved to another level”.
Cancelling all leave for members of the military, he urged the security forces to “cooperate for the good of our country”. He warned “any provocation will be met with an appropriate response”.
Following the speech, Zimbabwe’s military detained finance minister Ignatius Chombo. Chombo was a leading member of the so-called ‘G40’ faction of the ruling Zanu-PF party, led by Mugabe’s wife Grace, that had been vying to succeed the 93-year-old president.
The military statement followed hours of chaos in Harare, with witnesses reporting a number of loud explosions and armed forces assaulting passers-by.