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Robert Mugabe Was A Ruthless Dictator, But Zimbabwe's Coup Is Anything But A People's Victory

The end of Mugabe's 37-year reign spells an uncertain future for Zimbabwe.

18/11/2017 5:46 PM AEDT | Updated 20/11/2017 9:58 AM AEDT
JEKESAI NJIKIZANA via Getty Images
To the Western world, Mugabe was an evil despot but the end of his reign heralds an uncertain future for Zimbabwe's 16 million people.

In a quasi-democratic state where citizens fear elections for the unrest and violence they bring, a largely peaceful overthrow of a ruthless dictator may seem like a promising move.

But the Zimbabwean military's efforts to overthrow President Robert Mugabe have more to do with maintaining the status quo of privileged elites than any push for a more equal, prosperous or less corrupt Zimbabwe.

And whatever the outcome of the coup, it's a power imbalance that's unlikely to substantially change.

As the military took over Zimbabwe's national broadcaster, airports and government buildings and placed Mugabe and wife Grace under house arrest on Wednesday, international watchers debated whether or not the actions amounted to a coup -- something the military itself denied.

And while their intent was certainly to unseat Mugabe, the military was telling the truth in one sense: they are not seeking to impose military rule on Zimbabwe -- or even to overthrow the ruling ZANU-PF party.

Instead, what has emerged in the days since the bold takeover shocked the world is a picture of internal party scuffling writ large, a once-powerful but now ailing dictator refusing to pass on the baton, and a military leadership out to protect its own power and ill-gotten riches.

Eager to maintain peace in the region, South Africa has taken an active diplomatic role in negotiating the transfer of power, and on Friday it emerged that Zimbabwe's most powerful ally, China, may even have played a role in bringing it about.

Yet the streets, even in the nation's capital Harare, remain free from protest, and locals continue about their daily lives.

It seems everyone concerned has had a hand in Wednesday's takeover, except for Zimbabweans themselves.

This high-level political wheeling and dealing is far removed from the lives of everyday Zimbabweans, who have been grappling with poverty, rampant inflation and mass unemployment since the country's economic collapse around the turn of the 21st century.

Even so, Zimbabweans have mobilised against the powers-that-be before.

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Mugabe appeared in public for the first time on Saturday since his house arrest, opening a university graduation ceremony.

In the 1990s, the country's economic crisis prompted widespread riots and strikes and 2007 saw large-scale protests against the brutal take-down of the opposition party and the arrest and torture of its leader, Morgan Tsbvangirai.

So why, when the country's future hangs in the balance, do the populous remain largely silent?

There is more to it than just fear of reprisal, according to international lawyer and Associate Professor, Joylon Ford.

Many are accepting of -- or at least ambivalent towards -- the coup, despite the uncertainty of the benefits it offers.

As well as being an international relations analyst at the Australian National University, Ford has a deeply personal connection to Zimbabwe. He was born and raised there and frequently returns to visit his parents.

"The way Mugabe is seen internationally is not necessarily the way he's seen inside the country," Ford explains.

Coming to power in a newly democratic Zimbabwe in 1980, Robert Mugabe was a war hero hailed for liberating his country from an oppressive colonial rule. Even Australia's Prime Minister at the time, Malcolm Fraser, was captivated by his vision and played a crucial role in helping propel him to power.

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters
Amidst political uncertainty, Zimbabweans are waiting in long queues to withdraw limited supplies of cash from banks in Harare.

Combined with his powerful charisma and deft political maneuvering, this legacy has helped maintain Mugabe through 37 years in power.

"There are some Zimbabweans who despise Mugabe but a lot respect him, even though they're tired of him and they don't approve of what he's done in ruling the country in the last decade," Ford explained.

"But the people do respect that he's the father of the country and he lead it to independence and out of colonial rule -- and it was a very successful country in the first two decades of his rule.

"He did a lot in terms of universal education and healthcare."

After decades of British rule, Mugabe's pro-native Zimbabwean policies gained widespread support. In the 1990s, he removed agricultural land from white owners and handed it back to black Zimbabweans -- a policy which continues to receive support, despite causing food production to fall by nearly half and ultimately contributing to the country's skyrocketing inflation and an unemployment rate of over 90 percent.

Only last year, Mugabe celebrated his 92nd birthday with a lavish $1 million birthday party, as the country contended with its worst drought in two decades and nearly three million Zimbabweans lacked access to sufficient food.

But even his lavish excesses and blatant corruption in the face of widespread economic hardship could not entirely overrule his popularity.

Instead, it is his much-younger wife Grace -- derogatively known as 'Gucci Grace' due to her love of shopping -- who has born the brunt of society's ill-will and anger.

But at 93 years of age, Mugabe's substantial intellectual powers are failing him. Recent years have seen increasingly embarrassing displays of his mental and physical frailty -- from falling asleep during official functions to unknowingly presenting the wrong speech to Parliament.

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters
Mugabe's 52-year-old wife, 'Gucci Grace', has become increasingly politically active in recent years.

Even his most stalwart supporters recognise his reign is coming to an end and the question became who would succeed him as President.

For decades, Mugabe has delayed naming a successor as a means to retain power.

"He has switched favour between different Vice Presidents; one is in favour for a few months and then is out of favour. He's toying with their emotions almost. That was has been his technique for a long time," Ford said.

But the tipping point came last week when Mugabe fired his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Up until a few months ago, Mnangagwa -- a former security chief and life-long Mugabe supporter -- was the generally accepted favourite to succeed the elderly ruler but last week Mugabe abruptly accused him of plotting to overthrow his rule.

And the person set to replace him -- and who analysts attribute with bringing about his dismissal -- was the despised 'Gucci Grace'.

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters
Grace Mugabe aspirations to succeed her husband as Zimbabwe's next President appear to be crumbling.

In recent years, the 52-year-old had gathered around her a clan of middle-aged political supporters, known as the 'G40', who now looked set to overthrow the old guard of war veterans who had held power since Zimbabwe's independence.

The military elite feared an overthrow of their control of Zimbabwe's lucrative diamond mines and even an end to their political impunity.

"The generals are powerful, but they are also threatened because some of them in the 1980s were involved in suppressing the country in a very violent way, so they fear facing accusations of genocide," explained Ford.

But for many Zimbabweans, even military rule appears preferable to Grace Mugabe succeeding her husband as President and dictator.

Politically, there are few alternatives. The opposition party have been weakened and sent into disarray by Mugabe since their coalition with the ruling Zanu party ended in 2013.

Moreover, the military are a comparatively benign -- albeit unknown -- force in the minds of many locals. It is the police who are the face of Zimbabwe's violent silencing of dissent, beatings and unexplained disappearances.

STR via Getty Images
Robert Mugabe remains a war hero in the minds of many Zimbabweans. In 1980, his black nationalist guerrillas of the Zimbabwean African Liberation Army freed the nation from colonial rule.

"The general public, most of them want stability and economic recovery and they seem to be more confident that the military will provide that," says Ford.

"The last thing they want is a royal family situation where Grace Mugabe is installed as leader."

However uncertain Zimbabweans may feel that a Emmerson Mnangagwa presidency will offer them greater political freedom or economic relief, it seems that, caught between a failing despot and an armed takeover, they are willing to let the chips fall where they may.

However the current stalemate plays out in the coming days and weeks, one thing has forever altered the course of Zimbabwean politics. The military has shown its might, and that's something neither Zimbabwe's people nor its politicians will be able to forget.

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