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Zimbabwe's Mugabe Out Of Power For First Time Since 1980s As Military Takes Control

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe speaks at a rally in Harare on July 27, 2016.
AFP/Getty Images
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe speaks at a rally in Harare on July 27, 2016.

President Robert Mugabe and his family are "safe and sound," according to Zimbabwe's military — but his decades in power are seemingly at an end, after Mugabe, 93, was forcefully pushed aside. Both the ruling party and the military insist there was no coup.

"We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice," the Zimbabwe Defense Forces said on Wednesday, adding, "As soon as we have accomplished our mission we expect that the situation will return to normalcy."

But it will be a new normal for Zimbabwe, which has been led by Mugabe since the 1980s.

The dramatic shift comes a week after Mugabe fired longtime Vice President (and military veteran) Emmerson Mnangagwa, accusing him of disloyalty. That seemed to be the last straw for the military, which sent armored vehicles and soldiers on street patrols in the capital. As we reported, "Soldiers reportedly took control of the headquarters of the national broadcaster, ZBC, with an army spokesman saying on air, 'this is not a military takeover.' "

On Wednesday morning, an account purporting to belong to the ruling ZANU-PF party tweeted that Mnangagwa has now returned to lead the party:

"Last night the first family was detained and are safe, both for the constitution and the sanity of the nation this was necessary. Neither Zimbabwe nor ZANU are owned by Mugabe and his wife. Today begins a fresh new era and comrade Mnangagwa will help us achieve a better Zimbabwe."

Both the ouster and the presence of heavy military vehicles on the streets of Harare fueled talk of a coup in Zimbabwe — which in turn fueled denials by the military and ruling party.

"Contrary to international reports, the gallant Zimbabwean Army has not staged a COUP," the ZANU PF party's youth league said on Twitter, in a message retweeted by the main party. It added, "There is n COUP in Zimbabwe. Neither is there crisis. The army is simply effecting a National Democratic Project and it's doing so with peaceful aplomb."

The African Union is calling on all sides to respect Zimbabwe's democracy and human rights, as well as its socioeconomic development. African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat "is closely following the developments in Zimbabwe," the organization said.

A public schism had formed between Mugabe and Mnangagwa at least as early as the summer of 2016, when veterans of Zimbabwe's war of liberation withdrew their support for Mugabe. In a letter explaining that move, the veterans cited widespread corruption and mismanagement in the government, stating, "This rot needs to be uprooted, and right now."

The schism resulted in two camps forming — one loyal to Mnangagwa and another loyal to Mugabe's wife, Grace, NPR's Merrit Kennedy reported.

Many saw Mnangagwa's removal "as a prelude to Mugabe promoting the politically ambitious but controversial first lady to one of two vice presidential posts," NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and Scott Neuman reported earlier Wednesday.

When Mugabe fired his deputy Mnangagwa, it triggered a stern warning from the military.

As NPR's Eyder Peralta reports for our Newscast unit from Kenya, the military said that if a purge of revolutionary fighters continued, it would take action:

"Last night, the military did. Armored vehicles moved through the streets of the capital Harare and this morning state TV aired an address by Major General Sibusiso Moyo.

"He says Mugabe is safe, but the military wants to end the quote purging.

" 'We are against that act of injustice and we intend to protect every one of you against that,' Moyo said."

Mugabe's five-year term in office was meant to run into 2018; new elections had been expected to be held next summer.

Mugabe became Zimbabwe's prime minister in 1980 and assumed the president's office in 1987, after the exit of Zimbabwe's first president, Canaan Banana.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.