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.
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 ZNA putsch is a symptom of generational pressures that have been straining Zimbabwe’s political order for years.
The proximate cause
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