Zimbabwe on edge after army chief threatens to end Mugabe’s ‘purging’
Army chief Constantino Chiwenga accused of treasonable conduct
Zimbabwe’s ruling party said on Tuesday it would never give in to military pressure and accused the head of the armed forces of treasonable conduct after armoured vehicles were seen heading towards the capital Harare.
The city was calm but the country has been on edge since Monday when Constantino Chiwenga, Commander of Zimbabwe Defence Forces, said he was prepared to “step in” to end a purge of supporters of a sacked vice president.
That unprecedented statement represented a sharp escalation of a rumbling political struggle over who will succeed President Robert Mugabe, 93, who has been in power since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980.
Mugabe chaired a weekly cabinet meeting in the capital on Tuesday. Afterwards, the ruling party, ZANU-PF, said it stood by the “primacy of politics over the gun” and accused Chiwenga of trying to disturb the country’s peace and stability.
Mugabe fired Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa last week. The veteran of the country’s 1970s liberation war was popular with the military and had been seen as a likely successor to Mugabe.
The army views his removal as part of a purge of independence-era figures to pave the way for Mugabe to hand power to his wife Grace Mugabe.
At least four tanks and other military vehicles were seen heading towards the Zimbabwe capital Harare on Tuesday, witnesses said. One of the tanks, which was pointed in the direction of the capital, had come off its tracks. Soldiers on the scene refused to talk.
Mnangagwa’s downfall appears to pave the way for Mugabe’s wife Grace to succeed the 93-year-old president, the only leader Zimbabwe has known in 37 years of independence.
Grace Mugabe, 52, has developed a strong following in the powerful youth wing of the ruling ZANU-PF party.
Her rise has brought her into conflict with the independence-era war veterans, who once enjoyed a privileged role in the ruling party under Mugabe, but who have increasingly been banished from senior government and party roles in recent years.
“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that, when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” Chiwenga said in a statement read to reporters at a news conference packed with top brass on Monday. “The current purging … targeting members of the party with a liberation background must stop forthwith.”
A strong denunciation from the ruling party youth wing on Tuesday signalled that Grace Mugabe’s supporters were prepared to defend her.
“We will not fold out hands to allow a creature of the constitution to subvert the very constitution which establishes it,” said Kudzai Chipanga, who leads the ZANU-PF Youth League, said at the party’s headquarters in Harare. “Defending the revolution and our leader and president is an ideal we live for and if need be it is a principle we are prepared to die for.”
The rising political tension in the southern African country comes at a time when it is struggling to pay for imports due to a dollar crunch, which has also caused acute cash shortages.
Zimbabwe’s state media refrained from publishing Chiwenga’s statement. The Herald newspaper, which had initially posted some of Chiwenga’s comments on its official Twitter page on Monday, deleted the posts without explanation.
While Mugabe’s rule has been anchored by support from the military, the ageing leader does not tolerate public challenges.
As Mugabe has systematically dismissed veterans of the liberation struggle from party posts, the top echelons of ZANU-PF are now stacked with officials who did not fight in the independence war.
Mugabe could for the first time go into next year’s elections without the active support of the military. War veterans broke ranks with him in 2016 and have vowed to form a broad front with the opposition to challenge his long rule.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse