In late July, 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe — the oldest serving head of state in the world — alleged that military involvement in his party’s struggle over who will succeed him amounted to “a coup.”
Referring to indications that military leaders are actively supporting Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa in the struggle, Mugabe said, “The military has no right … to be interfering with the political processes.”
According to two commonly cited coup databases, no credible military coup or attempt has been launched in Zimbabwe, though that hasn’t stopped Mugabe from making allegations that allow him to purge perceived rivals.
Research that I conducted in 2014 and 2015 in the capital city of Harare suggests that as long as Mugabe remains alive and in control, a military coup in Zimbabwe remains unlikely. Here’s why.
Zimbabwe’s security sector serves the president.
The conventional narrative on Zimbabwe tends to overemphasize the strength of the security sector in the country’s politics. Zimbabwe’s military has actually long been subservient to Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party.
Mugabe himself said as much last week, underscoring that he and his party have maintained civilian control of the military based on “the principle that politics shall always lead the gun and not the gun politics.”
In the dozens of interviews I conducted with Zimbabwean politicians from the ruling party, ZANU-PF, as well as from opposition parties, I found that the civil-military relationship in Zimbabwe has been mutually beneficial. These interviews also showed that while the military maintains political influence, Mugabe has always remained in supreme command.
Welshman Ncube, former deputy prime minister for the opposition, told me that he was surprised by how many people are deceived on this point. He said, “No one has ever been in charge of ZANU-PF other than Mugabe … It’s a big chessboard, whether you are army, military, police, Mugabe is the chess player. Don’t be fooled.”
These findings are consistent with earlier research by Blessing Miles Tendi, a scholar at Oxford University. Tendi asserts that Mugabe has maintained civilian control over the military through shared ideology, patronage, and the formal and informal power he gets from his position as commander in chief and being the most senior remaining figure from Zimbabwe’s nationalist liberation struggle.
The military shares the president’s ideology.
Mugabe and the senior echelons of Zimbabwe’s military share a nationalist liberation ideology wrought during the fight for independence from white rule during the 1960s and 1970s. Mugabe and ZANU-PF have carefully maintained and updated this ideology to fit changes in the political climate.
In 2000, ZANU-PF faced its first real political threat in the rise of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party. In response, ZANU-PF linked resistance to imperialism in the 19th century to the war of liberation in the 1970s and the expropriation of white-owned land in the early 2000s to reward war veterans. This updated ideology promotes a view of Zimbabwe’s politics as a struggle between revolutionary “patriots” (liberation war veterans) and “sellouts” (the opposition).
This ideology continues to run deep in the senior levels of Zimbabwe’s military. It is the glue that binds Mugabe to his generals and thereby lessens the likelihood of a military coup as long as Mugabe is president.
Supporting Mugabe and ZANU-PF has paid off for many senior security officials.
As a reward for their loyalty, Mugabe has given security sector officials high-level positions throughout the state and party. Mugabe also granted the military and other security sector officials access to lucrative, illicit sources of revenue, such as the Marange diamond fields.
Since 2006, the military and police have enriched themselves through illegal mining and trading, while in the process being implicated in widespread human rights abuses. This wealth has further bound the military to Mugabe.
Mugabe’s position as commander in chief and the respect for chain of command in Zimbabwe bolster his control.
As argued by Tendi, Mugabe maintains effective control over the military through his powers as commander in chief. Zimbabwe stringently adheres to the chain of command, which grew out of ZANU-PF practices during the liberation war.
Mugabe has the power to hire and fire his service chiefs, who serve on one-year contracts. This balance of power in Zimbabwe has proved strikingly resilient, remaining intact through independence and up to the present, despite recent emerging splits in Zimbabwe’s security apparatus.
Patrick Chinamasa, a veteran ZANU-PF official who is currently the finance minister, when asked if the military has ever been in control in Zimbabwe, told me: “That is not true, that is the perception but is not true.”
If Mugabe dies or leaves office, the risk of a coup increases.
Of course the security sector is not a monolithic actor and divides exist. Indeed, just last week police and soldiers clashed in Harare.
The findings presented here suggest that despite Mugabe’s complaints, as long as he remains alive and firmly in power, a military coup will remain an unlikely event in Zimbabwe.
If Mugabe dies in office or passes the reins to a successor, however, the chances of a coup could increase significantly, especially if the winning candidate does not enjoy support from the military, such as his wife Grace.
In this scenario, with Mugabe no longer on the scene, Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantine Chiwenga or others may choose to step in and install Mnangagwa, a fellow liberation war veteran, or another leader who will secure their interests.
Alexander Noyes is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.