Zimbabwe’s military revealed Wednesday that it had in effect taken control of the country, moving to end a political crisis on a chaotic night that saw explosions and gunfire erupting in the capital, Harare.
The military said in a statement that President Robert Mugabe remained president and commander in chief of the armed forces but that “criminals” around him would be prosecuted.
“To both our people and the world beyond our borders, we wish to make this abundantly clear this is not a military takeover of government,” said the statement, read on-air by a military officer.
“Comrade R.G. Mugabe and his family are safe and sound, and their security is guaranteed,” the statement said. “We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country to bring them to justice.”
The army, urging people to remain calm and avoid unnecessary movement, said it was attempting “to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country.” The U.S. Embassy warned Americans in Zimbabwe to remain indoors. The State Department said it was monitoring developments and urged the nation’s leaders to resolve their differences peacefully.
The military action targets a faction of the governing party, ZANU-PF, that is allied with Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, who recently made an audacious grab for power, saying that she was ready to take over his job.
For months, the party has wrangled over who will succeed Mugabe. Last week the president dismissed his vice president and presumed successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has close ties to the military and security services. Mnangagwa had fallen foul of Grace Mugabe, who compared him to a snake and called for him to be crushed.
The succession battle has intensified amid speculation that the 93-year-old president may die in office. He has held the job since 1987 and has said he plans to run for another term in elections scheduled for next year.
The dismissal of Mnangagwa triggered unhappiness among many generals, but what outraged military leaders were the efforts of the faction allied with Grace Mugabe to oust dozens of people associated with Mnangagwa.
Flanked by 90 military officers, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, the head of the armed forces, warned Monday that the military would intervene if the purge continued.
“The current purging, which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background, must stop forthwith,” he said. “It is our strong and deeply considered position that if drastic action is not taken immediately, our beloved country Zimbabwe will definitely be headed to becoming a neo-colony again.”
It was the first time the military, which has kept Mugabe in power for years, defied him, making clear it was not willing to accept Grace Mugabe as vice president.
That spurred the party to accuse Chiwenga of treason and inciting an insurrection.
Grace Mugabe and some allies, including government ministers Jonathan Moyo and Saviour Kasukuwere, are seen as unacceptable to some sections of the military because, unlike Mnangagwa and Mugabe, they played no part in the country’s liberation war four decades ago to end white minority rule.
The ministers are part of a faction called G40, a reference to the fact that they are younger than the generation of liberation fighters. Speculation grew early Wednesday that Moyo and Kasukuwere could face arrest in coming days.
After Mugabe sacked him, Mnangagwa reportedly fled the country, saying his life had been threatened. His whereabouts are unknown.
His dismissal by Mugabe came days after Grace Mugabe launched a fierce tirade against Mnangagwa at a church service, calling for him to be expelled. She was enraged after being booed earlier at a rally in the southern city of Bulawayo and blamed Mnangagwa for the incident.
Tension rose in Zimbabwe on Tuesday as rumors of a coup spread and social media postings showed soldiers and several tanks on the streets in the capital during the day.
"We are wondering where this is all going. Whatever happens, we just hope that it will not affect us and our children," said Richard Mutedzi, 29, in central Harare.
Mugabe appeared in public to reassure Zimbabweans that he was still in charge.
Moyo, the higher education minister, tweeted a copy of the ZANU-PF statement accusing Chiwenga of treason with the comment, “ZANU_PF has spoken!”
In addition to violating Zimbabwe’s constitution, a coup would attract strong condemnation from the African Union and the regional leadership body, the Southern African Development Community. Allies of Mnangagwa suggested on Twitter that the takeover would be “bloodless” and was designed to lead to elections and a new government.
As turmoil unfolded, the only person in the ruling party to address journalists was Kudzanai Chipanga, the leader of the youth wing of ZANU-PF, who warned the military to stay out of politics and said the youth wing was ready to die for Mugabe.
Piers Pigou, an analyst on Zimbabwe, said the confrontation between Mugabe and Chiwenga was an indicator of the country’s fragility as the succession crisis unfolds.
“It’s a very direct challenge and does significantly up the ante now,” Pigou said, referring to Chiwenga’s statement. “How Mugabe reacts is now going to be pivotal.”
Analyst and blogger Alex T. Magaisa wrote Monday that Mugabe’s authority over the military had never been tested this way.