16/11/2017 6:17 AM AEDT | Updated 16/11/2017 6:24 AM AEDT

What You Need To Know About The Crisis In Zimbabwe

Zimbabweans who tuned into their state television channel in the early hours of Wednesday found that an army general, clad in military camouflage, had replaced their usual programming.

Meanwhile, tanks surrounded government buildings on the streets of the country's capital, Harare, and Zimbabwe's long-ruling president, Robert Mugabe, was nowhere to be seen.

There is extreme uncertainty in Zimbabwe right now over what resembles a military coup, a takeover that could mark the end of Mugabe's 37-year authoritarian grip over the country.

Here's what we know so far about this developing situation.

- via Getty Images
A man walks past a tank stationed at an intersection in Harare as Zimbabwean soldiers regulate traffic on Nov. 15, 2017.

Is there a coup happening in Zimbabwe?

Despite the army's show of force and apparent takeover of state television, military officials have so far denied they are attempting to depose Mugabe. On state television, army spokesman Maj. Gen. SB Moyo said, "We wish to make this abundantly clear: This is not a military takeover of government."

Instead, the army claims that it has temporarily seized control in order to remove "criminals" surrounding Mugabe and "pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation."

But the situation in Zimbabwe certainly seems to have most of the elements of a coup. Military vehicles are occupying key parts of the capital; the state broadcaster appears under military control; and Mugabe has spent hours detained in his home with no direct word from him or his politically powerful wife, Grace Mugabe.

South African President Jacob Zuma's office said in a statement Wednesday that Zuma had talked to Mugabe, and the Zimbabwean ruler was "confined to his home but said that he was fine."

Mugabe has been the leader of Zimbabwe since 1980, when he helped the country gain independence after a long struggle against colonial rule. Throughout his presidency, 93-year-old Mugabe has held on to power through crackdowns on opposition and dissent. Even as Zimbabwe's economy collapsed in the past decade and Mugabe drew harsh international condemnation, he found ways to remain in control.

In recent years, Mugabe's advanced age and mental lapses have grown increasingly apparent. He often sleeps through public events, has been oblivious while delivering the wrong speech to Parliament and seemed unfit for even basic ceremonial duties.

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters
President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace Mugabe, attend a rally of his ruling ZANU-PF party in Harare on Nov. 8.

How did this start?

The current crisis stems from a political shake-up earlier this month, but the roots of it go back much further.

On Nov. 6, Mugabe decided to fire Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The move caused unrest in the president's ruling ZANU-PF party and the army. Mnangagwa has support among the military and was seen as a potential successor to Mugabe when the president likely dies in office.

As Mugabe's health noticeably deteriorated in the past year, the question of who will succeed his rule has become more pressing. This has led to a heated standoff between Grace Mugabe and Mnangagwa, which even included the first lady having to publicly deny that she attempted to poison her rival after he became ill last month.

Mnangagwa's ouster seems to have been a catalyst for these longstanding tensions to boil over, as it appeared that Grace Mugabe ― whose political capital has grown in the past few years ― had won out and positioned herself as a top contender for the presidency after her husband's death.

But amid the ouster of Mnangagwa and the subsequent purge of his allies from government offices, the military decided this week that it would assert its power. On Monday, a military general issued a statement threatening to step in if the purges didn't stop. The army then took action on Tuesday night, and now appears to be in control.

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters
Military vehicles and soldiers patrol the streets in Harare on Nov. 15.

What happens next?

It's unclear. There's still a ton of uncertainty about the military's intentions. Even the locations of key players in the crisis aren't known for sure, as unconfirmed reports place Grace Mugabe in Namibia.

There has been no sign of violence so far in the military action, and there have not been public demonstrations either in favor of it or against it. Foreign officials and regional leaders have called for calm and the country to avoid conflict, saying they are closely monitoring the situation.

Embassies in Zimbabwe, including the United Kingdom and United States, have issued statements instructing their citizens in the country to shelter in place and monitor the news for updates.

Although the situation is still unfolding, there is a strong possibility that this is the beginning of the end for Mugabe's rule and his status as the world's oldest serving president.

More On This Topic