Living on a Prayer Rumours of a coup are the latest in a string of strange happenings in Harare

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Leslie Chimbama

WHEN Emmerson Mnangagwa returned to Zimbabwe after a brief exile on November 22, 2017, he was not only feted like a king but there was overwhelming consensus amongst Zimbabweans that their moment of redemption had finally arrived.

They had just witnessed one of the most extraordinary events in modern African history – the bloodless removal of a long-time ruler (Robert Mugabe) with military assistance in what was dubbed “Operation Restore Legacy”.

“The voice of the people is the voice of God,” said the newly invested President Mnangagwa on his triumphant return two weeks after Mugabe had unceremoniously sacked him as his vice-president.

Promises of a glittering future, jobs and an unfolding democracy were made on November 24, 2017 as Mnangagwa was inaugurated as Zimbabwe’s Head of State and Government.

Many were convinced that as the sun finally set on Mugabe’s sometimes erratic and sometimes heroic rule - which in its last days was blighted by his even more erratic wife, Grace - that President Mnangagwa was the right man for the job.

Revelling in local, regional and global goodwill, President Mnangagwa embarked on a whirlwind charm offensive that gave Zimbabweans something they had never seen before: economic diplomacy.

Investment pledges poured in from all over the globe, with the value reaching nearly US$20 billion in less than a year of President Mnangagwa’s rule.

Jobs, the reopening of democratic space, houses and world class healthcare were prominent in President Mnangagwa’s agenda.

International observers were, for the first time in nearly two decades, warmly welcomed to observe elections; roads were built and rebuilt; new mines were opened and moribund ones were revived.

Zimbabwe was on the cusp of a golden age.

But since President Mnangagwa won the July 30, 2018 elections with 50,67 percent of the vote, Zimbabwe has lurched from one problem to another.

The economy has taken a serious knock and Zimbabweans are failing to make ends meet.

As if that is not enough to keep Zimbabweans busy, fissures - reminiscent of Mugabe’s last days in power – are reported to have emerged in the ruling ZANU-PF.

And in denying that the security situation is on edge, Zimbabwe’s government officials could be inadvertently confirming that all is not rosy in Eden.

On June 10, 2020, many Zimbabweans were bemused to see their Home Affairs Minister, Kazembe Kazembe, going live on national television to say that the state would not tolerate “continued” rumours of a coup.

Bu to be frank, there really had been no rumours of a coup.

Flanked by the shiniest brass in the security sector and the top civilian authorities of the defence and intelligence briefs, Kazembe said: "The Government of the Republic of Zimbabwe has noted, with grave concern, a recent upsurge in rumours suggesting an imminent coup d'état in the country.

“Government would therefore like, through the agency of the Working Committee of the National Security Council (WCNSC) as convened here in terms of Section 209 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No.20) Act 2013, to unequivocally debunk and dismiss these rumours with the contempt they deserve.

"The purveyors of this false coup narrative claim that former members of the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) who fell by the wayside and largely went into self-imposed exile at the advent of the new dispensation in 2017, are coming together in a united front with some named senior government leaders, some members of the security forces of Zimbabwe and elements of the opposition formations.

"This is in a bid to taint the image of His Excellency the President, to undermine the legitimacy of Government and render the country ungovernable.

"They further claim that, once this contrived coup d'état is executed, they intend to establish a National Transitional Authority which will then govern Zimbabwe, minus ZANU-PF, for an unspecified period. Of course, nothing could be further from the true reality of Zimbabwe's security situation now and for the foreseeable future.

"Indeed both, claims of a military coup and a National Transitional Authority in the making, amount to mere agenda setting by merchant of discord amongst our people, with the support of their foreign handlers. They are completely unfounded.

"For the avoidance of doubt, there is no coup in the making, nor is there any form of Transitional Authority or Inclusive Government that is contemplated by the New Dispensation, except in the fertile imagination of the purveyors of this false narrative."

But as noted above, there really had been no rumours of a coup in Zimbabwe. Indeed, most Zimbabweans’ reaction to the statement was along the lines of: “Why deny a rumour that has not been rumoured?”

So the question begs: what prompted Kazembe’s statement?

 

Rough Ride

It has been no garden stroll for the Mnangagwa administration in recent months.

The global COVID-19 outbreak has largely spared Zimbabwe in terms of mortality statistics, but its impact on economic activity has been as harsh as everywhere else in the world.

And even without Coronavirus to contend with, the economy was already on shaky ground.

Inflation is spiralling, the cost of living is surging and incomes are stagnant, and in some cases totally eroded by an untamed foreign currency black market.

Fuel shortages have been going on for what now seems to be an eternity, healthcare is beyond the reach of many and even dying has become too expensive for most as the premiums on funeral policies rise.

In the midst of these social and economic challenges, political trials have arisen to pile the pressure on the administration.

On May 13, 2020, the police said they had arrested opposition members Joanna Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova for holding an illegal demonstration in a high-density suburb of Harare.  The next day, the police turned around and denied they had arrested the trio.

The three women allege they were abducted, sexually harassed and tortured.

That incident sparked a nasty exchange between Harare and Western countries – countries that Harare has been trying to mend relations with under President Mnangagwa’s engagement and re-engagement foreign policy thrust.

The United Nations, too, weighed, also more or less saying Zimbabwe must put its house in order and live up to internationally acceptable standards of political engagement as well as its own promises to change the way the authorities handle opposition.

While that issue was still raging, another diplomatic stand-off exploded as the United States branded Zimbabwe a “foreign adversary” of Washington.

US President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, openly labelled Zimbabwe among a group of foreign adversaries who were “using” the protests against the killing of George Floyd to “interfere” in that country’s internal affairs.

(On a side note, it was good for Uncle Sam to taste his own medicine. He is, after all, the biggest meddler in the internal affairs of other nations!)

Zimbabwe was threatened with a “proportional response” for allegedly encouraging Americans to confront their government over the Floyd killing.

On May 31, 202, Robert O’Brien appeared on ABC and was asked to respond to a tweet by Marco Rubio, the acting chair of the US senate intelligence committee, in which he raised concern over “heavy social media activity” by Zimbabwe, China and Russia.

O’Brien responded: “I want to tell our foreign adversaries, whether it’s a Zimbabwe or a China, that the difference between us and you is that that officer who killed George Floyd, he’ll be investigated, prosecuted, and he’ll receive a fair trial.

“Rubio is 100% that our foreign adversaries are going to try to sow discord, and we’re not going to let that happen.

“There’ll be a response and it’ll be proportional, but this is not something that our adversaries are going to get away with for free.”

Zimbabwe did not take this lying down.

The next day, Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Sibusiso Moyo summoned US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Brian Nichols.

“Zimbabwe is not and never has been an adversary of the United States of America,” Minister Moyo told Nichols. “Even in the face of repeated interference in our own internal affairs, Zimbabwe has been unwavering in its support for Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter which expressly urges all member states to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of other states.”

But true to form, the US attacked Zimbabwe, accusing it of committing crimes that are at Washington’s doorstep right now.

After that meeting, Ambassador Nichols issued a statement accusing Zimbabwe's government of “state-sponsored violence against peaceful protesters, civil society, labour leaders and members of the opposition”.

 

A country on edge

In the international scheme of things, it matters little whether Zimbabwe or the US is right in this stand-off.

The reality is the US is an adversary that Zimbabwe cannot afford to poke in the eye at a time President Mnangagwa has to contend with an economy in urgent need of attention.

Inflation figures released last week put the annual figure at 785,55 percent in May, up from 765,57 percent in April.

A combination of poor economic performance on the domestic front and international pressure on the foreign policy front does not bode well.

Add to the cocktail Coronavirus, an emerging scandal surrounding how a shady businessman close to the Mnangagwa family may have fleeced millions earmarked for the COVID-19 response, and Minister Kazembe’s “continued coup rumours” statement, you have the ingredients for a country on edge.

One of President Mnangagwa’s responses to this heady mix that has been poured into his political chalice is to pray before taking a sip of the cocktail.

Last Monday, President Mnangagwa called for a National Day of Prayer and Fasting to help set Zimbabwe back on track.

Divine intervention may well be in order.

And so too is a return to the lofty ideals that marked the first days of President Mnangagwa’s love affair with Zimbabwe.

 

Leslie Chimbama is the pseudonym of an international relations expert based in Harare, Zimbabwe

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