On Tuesday, a military coup in Zimbabwe led to the house arrest of President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, removing from power Africa’s oldest head of state and one of its worst. This was no popular uprising against tyranny, however. Rather, it was a palace coup within the ruling ZANU-PF party. The next leader of Zimbabwe, probably former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa or one of his proxies, is likely to continue Mugabe’s tyranny, though perhaps with less of a personal touch.

Mugabe is the only president Zimbabwe has ever known since the end of white minority rule in 1980. After independence, politics was organized around ethnic rivalries; Mugabe was associated with the Shona ethnic group, the opposition with the Ndebele. Ownership of productive land remained dominated by a tiny white minority. Although Mugabe was praised by the outside world during the first decade of his rule for pursuing racial reconciliation with the white minority, he also systematically destroyed the political power of his rivals, committing gross human rights violations and stirring up ethnic conflict in the process.

The year 1993 marked a turning point in Zimbabwe’s history. In the face of growing political opposition, which he claimed was financed by whites, Mugabe encouraged military veterans to forcefully seize white-owned land without compensation. This movement destroyed any remaining respect for the rule of law and thoroughly weakened the country’s democratic institutions. Mugabe gained the love and admiration of the rural masses, but earned the opprobrium of the West.

After laying waste to agriculture, Mugabe’s economic policies—often incoherent applications of Marxism-Leninism—subsequently degraded other sectors of what had once been a flourishing economy. At times, near-famine conditions prevailed, and hyperinflation became so pervasive that at one point Zimbabwe adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency. Many Zimbabweans fled the country as economic refugees and spread across Africa. Vast swaths of the country’s economy, notably diamond production, fell under the control of Chinese companies and Zimbabwean politicians connected to Mugabe. China has since become Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner and an assiduous supporter of the regime (and along with South Africa may have given its blessing to the recent coup). Beginning in 2001, the United States and United Kingdom imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe for Mugabe’s violation of human rights and the rule of law, while the dictator’s rhetoric and policy became progressively more anti-Western.

Elections continued to be held throughout his tenure, however, and as opposition to his rule grew, Mugabe increasingly resorted to violence and intimidation to maintain his stranglehold on power. He enriched individual military leaders in return for their support, over time surrounding himself with a loyal military cabal. The president, military figures, and their clients organized and transformed the ruling ZANU-PF and largely eliminated other parties. Mugabe, now 93, became an ever more arbitrary tyrant as he aged, and had in recent years become dependent on his wife, Grace, who is 40 years his junior. The military intervention on the night of November 14-15 was, more than anything, a palace coup within ZANU-PF targeting Grace.

Robert Mugabe during an SADC summit meeting in Johannesburg, August 2008.
Robert Mugabe during an SADC summit meeting in Johannesburg, August 2008.
Mike Hutchings / Reuters

The ZANU-PF has always been prone to factions based on personality; recently, it has been dominated by two. The first faction, and the one that perpetrated the coup, is close to Mnangagwa (who was removed from the vice presidency on November 6) and includes current and former military leaders involved in the overthrow of white minority rule in 1980. The rival faction, known as the G-40, is led by Grace, and is younger and more civilian in character. Most of its members did not participate in the war of independence. Grace, for example, was only 15 when white rule ended. Both Grace and Mnangagwa have sinister reputations, and there are no significant policy differences between the two factions. The only issue between them was who would succeed Mugabe when he died or was incapacitated.

Mugabe’s decision to fire Mnangagwa signaled that he was siding with his wife. The military then moved to counteract this, justifying their actions as targeting the “criminals around Mugabe.” They have not indicated any intent to change Mugabe’s political and economic system, nor have they removed him from the presidency. Groups that were props of the Mugabe regime, such as the War Veterans League and the ZANU-PF Youth League, are supporting the coup, although the latter did not do so until its leader was imprisoned. The coup may have been successful from the perspective of its perpetrators, but it is divorced from the cares and concerns of the Zimbabwean people, who will likely see no change in their day-to-day lives.

There is no indication either from Mnangagwa or the military as to who will now become chief of state, leaving Zimbabwe’s future unclear. Credible rumors suggest that negotiations are underway within ZANU-PF on a transition government. Potentially complicating things, over the last year a street opposition movement led by Christian preachers has been organizing demonstrations against the regime. Mugabe’s response had been to arrest them, and these arrests will likely continue with or without Mugabe. Yet the very fact that Mugabe has been deposed, even if by a palace coup, may allow for more popular opposition groups to form. If so, they will be a challenge to Mugabe’s successors. Meaningful change could come via a transition government, but profound changes to Zimbabwe’s political and economic system are more likely to come from the streets than from within ZANU-PF.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JOHN CAMPBELL, the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York.
  • More By John Campbell