When troops placed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe under house arrest Wednesday in what appeared to be a military coup, it wasn’t just the possible unseating of the country’s long-time president. It was the political unraveling of a man who had, in many ways, often seemed to be Zimbabwe personified – in both its brightest days and its most troubled.
By the time tanks rolled into Harare the day before, Mr. Mugabe had presided over nearly four tumultuous decades of Zimbabwean history. His time in office stretched from the country’s early years as the international poster-child for the hopeful possibilities of African independence to its slow-motion economic collapse at the turn of the 21st century. That longevity earned him a dubious distinction – the last remaining independence-era president still in power in Africa.
But on Wednesday, Mugabe’s legacy was suddenly thrown against a stark new backdrop. As the military patrolled the streets of the capital, Zimbabwean Army officer Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo assured citizens that the military was not staging a coup, simply “targeting criminals.” But semantics aside, the set up was a familiar one: Mr. Moyo had made his announcement after seizing control of the state broadcaster, and tanks idled near important government buildings.
However the military takeover ultimately plays out, it marks an abrupt chapter break in the history of a country where, until two days ago, the president’s 37-year rule seemed almost entirely unshakable.
For Mugabe’s supporters, after all, he was a living icon, a man “who stood for the economic empowerment of the Zimbabwean people, [giving] land to the black majority who had lost it to colonialists,” says Fortune Mloyi, a supporter of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) who asked to be identified by a pseudonym because of the current political uncertainty. “It is a legacy that many other African countries are still trying to follow.”
'The greatest leader'
Mugabe’s rule, indeed, began with almost unimaginable promise.
Just after midnight on April 18, 1980, at a soccer stadium in Harare, Mugabe and thousands of other onlookers watched as a cadre of white soldiers dressed in the scarlet uniforms of the colonial government marched lockstep with the camouflage-clad guerrilla fighters they had spent more than a decade locked in a brutal civil war against. Then the two groups stopped, pivoted, and in unison saluted the flag of their newly independent black nation.
“If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you,” promised Mugabe, a bespectacled intellectual and former guerrilla leader – and now the prime minister of the minutes-old country. “Oppression and racism are inequities that must never again find scope in our political and social system.”
It seemed to many the beginning of a new era, a remarkable rewrite of an earlier generation of African independence struggles, which had seen white settlers flee en masse the day a black government took the reins. And few doubted that the man at the podium was the right person for the job.
Mugabe’s “intellect and vision has no obvious equal among the continent’s leaders,” effused The New York Times at the time, and his country was “the linchpin of peace and the model of racial harmony” for the region.
“The way he transformed the country’s education by providing free and compulsory primary education to all, the way he led an agricultural revolution, and the way he negotiated peace around the world made us believe we had the greatest leader we could ever get,” says Simba Makoni, who in the years after independence was a rising star in ZANU–PF.
During, the first decade of Zimbabwe’s independence, the country’s rates of infant mortality and malnutrition plummeted, while literacy and life expectancy shot up. In the 1980s, Mugabe’s government resettled about half a million people on land it bought from willing white farmers, a project The Economist would later call “perhaps the most successful aid programme in Africa.”
But even then, the cracks were beginning to show.
An unimaginable departure
As Zimbabwe found itself celebrated around the world for its progress in health, development, and racial reconciliation, the country’s Army was carrying out a brutal campaign against the president’s political rivals. Between 1983 and 1987, as many as 20,000 people – many connected only loosely, if at all, to the Zimbabwe African People's Union opposition party – were murdered across southern Zimbabwe by Mugabe’s notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in an operation that became known as Gukurahundi, or “the rain that washes away the chaff.”
“He carried some wartime grudges for the rest of his life,” says Mr. Makoni, who later became finance minister. “He thought he was surrounded by enemies, especially among fellow liberation war fighters.” And so, he says, it became increasingly difficult for him to imagine anyone else taking over his party and his country – and increasingly it became difficult for other Zimbabweans to imagine it, either.
“We have lived with this guy for all of our lives,” says Mavuso Tshabalala, who was 3 years old when Mugabe came to power and remembers no other president.
That has meant that even as Zimbabwe has slid into startling economic collapse in recent years, few could imagine it would mean regime change. In late 2008, hyperinflation in the country reached a darkly comical 79.6 billion percent as the country scrambled to print enough one hundred trillion notes. Between 2000 and 2015, the economy halved, and emigration escalated. Today, estimates place the number of Zimbabweans living abroad as high as 3 million in a population of 14 million.
Civil servants frequently go unpaid, currency values are sharply different on the black and legal markets, and there are so few formal jobs that as much as 95 percent of the working population does so informally.
“Whether educated or not, we all have been reduced to [street] vendors, that is if you chose the route of staying in the country,” says Jackie Manemo, who is trained as a scientist but now sells clothing she buys from South African shops at a markup in the central Zimbabwean city of Kwekwe.
Still, few in Zimbabwe expected the events of recent days. Even last week, when the president abruptly fired his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a longtime ally and fellow liberation fighter, few predicted Mugabe was on his way out. Instead, it looked like he had simply cleared the way for a dynastic succession – the most likely new vice president being his own wife.
“We knew that the military had sympathies towards [Mr. Mnangagwa] and that they wouldn’t take too kindly to his ouster, however, the manner and speed with which this was all undertaken took us by surprise,” says Maggie Mzumara, a Harare-based political analyst.
And that surprise, she says, brought with it hope, but also profound uncertainty. There has, after all, never been a Zimbabwe without Robert Mugabe.
“It is good news that he is finally leaving us, but my worry is on who is next and what his stance will be towards the people of Zimbabwe,” says Mr. Tshabalala. “People have suffered enough.”