Coup d’etat? Or an anti-crime campaign? An illegal act of regime change or merely a temporary and pre-emptive military intervention within the parameters of the constitution?
The rhetoric used in the media to describe the present impasse in Zimbabwe says more about the partisan sympathies of the observer than they say about the reality. The one thing that is certain, however, is whatever the terms used, what is happening has nothing to do with democracy.
The empty streets of Harare tell the true story. There are no jubilant crowds celebrating the exit His Excellency, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe.
The lack of reaction does not stem from love for the man. He is despised by most Zimbabweans and even those who retain respect for the role that he played in the liberation of the country, concede that the 93-year-old leader, teetering at the edge of senility, is well-past his sell-by date.
It is similarly telling that there are no angry crowds taking to the streets in support of the House of Mugabe. As the last stridently pro-Mugabe group, the war veterans, admitted when it turned against the president last year: “There’s nothing to bribe us with any more. The economy is finished.”
There is even less enthusiasm for the president’s anointed heir, his 53-year-old wife. Widely derided as Gucci Grace for her spending splurges while her country heads for economic Ground Zero, her support within Zanu-PF appears to have evaporated.
Zimbabweans are muted in their reaction to the dramatic events of the past week because they see the ousting of the Mugabes and the imminent return of fired Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa to the centre of the political stage for what it is. It is simply the transfer of power from the Mugabe faction of Zanu-PF, which has been running Zimbabwe into the ground for 37 years, to a different predatory faction, that of Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa’s gang – known as the Lacoste group, after the crocodile emblem of the brand, which chimes with Mnangagwa’s nickname, accorded for more sinister reasons, as “The Crocodile” – will likely be amenable to the changes necessary to resuscitate Zimbabwe’s economy. For this reason, the Lacostes are preferred by many of the international players in this drama, including in the Southern African Development Community and the African Union, to Grace Mugabe’s Generation 40 faction.
But Mnangagwa, who it was generally assumed would be Mugabe’s successor until Mugabe pandered to the pressures of his ambitious wife to fire him, is no democrat. He shares with Bob a bloody history of murder, plunder and the infliction of terror upon the country’s ordinary people.
He and Mugabe share responsibility for the Matabeleland massacres, which saw between 10,000 and 20,000 supporters of the Ndebele political house killed. And it is Mnangagwa who was entrusted with the election rigging necessary to keep Zanu-PF, with all the violence and skulduggery that entailed.
The AU and SADC have in recent years tried, with varying degrees of success, to wean African states of their penchant for military coups. Although AU armed intervention in support of Mugabe against a coup is not going to happen, it would speed diplomatic recognition if the transition between the Zanu-PF factions could be dressed up to make it more palatable in legal terms.
Hence the overtures opposition parties, the hints of a multiparty interim administration, followed by truly democratic elections, under international supervision. After almost 40 years of disaster, the destruction of one of Africa’s most promising national states, it is a seductive siren song.
Zimbabwean opposition politicians should remember that they have been there before. There is a direct line between today’s “soft coup” and the 2008 betrayal of democracy which resulted from the “quiet diplomacy” South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki.
At the time, Mbeki, the man lauded by George W Bush as the United States’ “point man on Zimbabwe”, leant over backwards to placate Mugabe. At the cost of democracy, SA turned a blind eye to Mugabe’s violence against the opposition and the cooking of the election results.
Zimbabwe’s opposition, a decade later, is in a parlous state. It is divided and its unending bickering among itself has disillusioned voters. The opposition parties also now confront as foe a military that no longer nominally on the sidelines, but is a direct participant.
As Mugabe vacillates about taking the exit package being offered him, it is clear that opposition politicians are champing at the bit to participate in the restructuring that will follow. As any peasant could tell them, be careful about following a crocodile into murky water.
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