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In 2016, when Zimbabwe was rocked by a summer of protests and a social movement gone viral, I argued in Foreign Affairs that the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) was unlikely to break ranks with President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). This prediction rested on two main observations: first, that the military shared strong ideological and social bonds with ZANU-PF party elites dating back to Zimbabwe’s liberation war; and second, that many military leaders were themselves deeply imbricated in ZANU-PF’s powerful patronage system.
In light of these facts, Zimbabwe’s recent military putsch is all the more remarkable. For the first time in the country’s 37 years of independence, the military has intervened directly in domestic politics against the wishes of the civilian head of state. The army’s seizure of power represents a break with the norm of civilian supremacy—encapsulated by the adage that “politics controls the gun”—that has existed within ZANU-PF since the organization’s origins in the 1960s, as a Maoist-inspired guerrilla movement fighting Ian Smith’s apartheid regime in Rhodesia. Even if ZNA soldiers return to their barracks tomorrow, the norm of civilian supremacy will have been irreparably damaged.
The ZNA putsch is a symptom of generational pressures that have been straining Zimbabwe’s political order for years.
What caused Zimbabwe’s military to finally turn on Mugabe? The immediate explanation is the escalation of internal competition within ZANU-PF over succession to the presidency. From a longer-term perspective, however, the ZNA putsch is a symptom of generational pressures that have been straining Zimbabwe’s political order for years. The perpetrators of the coup were liberation war veterans in the army who saw their own fading political relevance and so decided to cross the Rubicon in an effort to preserve their privileged national status. In doing so, they have steered Zimbabwean politics into uncharted terrain, filled with some hope but much more uncertainty.
The proximate cause of the November 15 coup was a tit-for-tat escalation of hostilities between the ZANU-PF faction close to the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe, and those loyal to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president. Competition between these factions centered on the question of who would succeed the 93-year-old Mugabe, whose health has rapidly deteriorated in recent years.
Grace, who until recently was not considered a serious political player, cultivated her power base among the youth and women’s wings of the ZANU-PF party. Many of those associated with her so-called G40 faction are career civilians and ZANU-PF partisans who are not old enough to have participated directly in the liberation war. Rather, the G40 faction saw itself as a younger, more educated, and tech-savvy generation of leaders who would bring Zimbabwe into the twenty-first century after Mugabe’s death.
Meanwhile Mnangagwa—a veteran liberation fighter and a former minister of state security—draws support primarily from an older generation of ZANU-PF militants. These include many of the top commanders of the ZNA, including the leader of the defense forces, General Constantino Chiwenga. For those in Mnangagwa’s Lacoste faction, direct experience in the liberation war is a sine qua non for any successor candidate. In the eyes of these veterans, Grace and the G40 faction represent a set of illegitimate usurpers who are conspiring to denigrate the role of the armed forces—in both Zimbabwe’s history and its future.
These factional divisions simmered below the surface for years but escalated rapidly in recent weeks when Mugabe fired a series of senior war veterans and then, on November 6, Mnangagwa himself. These firings are suspected to have been ordered at the instigation of Grace. If true, the first lady badly miscalculated. The purging of Mnangagwa was the final straw for Chiwenga and other ZNA leaders, who perceived a rapidly closing window to intervene and stop the G40’s internal takeover of the party.
In the bigger picture, the ZNA coup is a reaction against the demise of the civil-military quid pro quo that has been at the heart of Zimbabwe’s political order since 1980. Under this equilibrium, the state executive was controlled by the civilian branch of ZANU-PF, with the armed forces serving as the guarantor of ZANU-PF’s power. In return, the military was publicly venerated by the ideology of the ruling party and its commanders given lucrative landownership and positions within parastatal companies.
Yet the ideological and social bonds that glued the party together with the military have deteriorated over time. With Zimbabwe’s liberation war an increasingly distant memory, the rise of the G40 faction represented the specter of a generational shift in the ruling party. Younger ZANU-PF cadres did not participate directly in the liberation struggle and do not share the same bond with war veterans.
The rise of new ZANU-PF leaders, moreover, represented a potential threat to the financial interests of ZNA commanders. The state executive under Mugabe accumulated vast powers to distribute patronage resources, and the ascension of a new president without deep ties to the military could have meant that army leaders’ share of patronage resources would be renegotiated. Military commanders thus worried that their access to critical resources could disappear unless another war veteran took the reins of the presidency.
In sum, although the ZNA coup is a radical breach from Zimbabwe’s past, it is also a last-ditch effort by an aging generation of ZANU-PF militants to go back to the future and preserve the civil-military equilibrium of previous decades. Grace Mugabe’s ascension to power was anathema to ZNA commanders, not simply because of a personal animosity toward her but because it signaled a more fundamental step away from the party’s roots in the liberation struggle and the primacy of war veterans in the political-economic pecking order.
At the time of writing, Zimbabwe’s future is impossible to predict. The historical record of military coups as an instrument for democratization and positive political change does not inspire confidence. If a military junta emerges, it is unlikely to have any genuine interest in democracy or in creating a transitional regime that gives more power to opposition parties. ZNA generals will prefer to install a leader—either Mnangagwa or somebody else—who has liberation war credentials and who is willing to restore the historical special relationship between the armed forces and the ruling party.
The most important question now for the country’s stability is whether the junior officers and rank-and-file troops of the ZNA will continue to follow orders from their superiors if Mugabe or other party officials call on them to resist the putsch. Such a turn of events would put the cohesion of Zimbabwe’s post-liberation military to the test, under a level of pressure that no Zimbabwean soldier has seen in a generation.