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Zimbabwe in Limbo as Military Seizes Control & Places President Mugabe Under House Arrest

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In Zimbabwe, longtime leader Robert Mugabe remains under house arrest and is reportedly refusing to resign as president after the country’s military seized Parliament, courts, government offices and the main airport in the capital, Harare. Mugabe has held power since Zimbabwe declared independence from the United Kingdom 37 years ago. We go to Johannesburg, South Africa, to speak with Knox Chitiyo of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, who just returned from neighboring Zimbabwe. We are also joined by Nigerian environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey, director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, and Jocelyn Alexander, professor at Oxford University and author of “The Unsettled Land: State-making & the Politics of Land in Zimbabwe, 1893-2003.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re broadcasting live today from the U.N. climate summit here in Bonn, Germany. We begin today’s show with Zimbabwe, where longtime leader Robert Mugabe remains under house arrest and is reportedly refusing to resign as president, after Zimbabwe’s military seized Parliament, courts, government offices and the main airport in the capital, Harare. The apparent coup came a week after President Mugabe ousted his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who fled the country only to return Wednesday. The military says it has appointed him as interim president. Residents in Harare reported an uneasy calm today after Tuesday night’s apparent military coup, which saw armored vehicles rumble through the streets, with explosions and heavy gunfire reported in Harare’s northern suburbs, where a number of government officials live. This is Major General S.B. Moyo speaking Wednesday morning on Zimbabwean state television after Mugabe’s arrest.

MAJOR GEN. SIBUSISO BUSI MOYO: [Mugabe and his family are safe] and sound, and their security is guaranteed. 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Mugabe has held power since Zimbabwe declared independence from the United Kingdom 37 years ago. The 93-year-old leader was working to hand over power to his wife, 52-year-old Grace Mugabe. There are conflicting accounts about her location, with some reports suggesting she fled to Namibia, while others report she’s under house arrest in Zimbabwe.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Here in Bonn, Germany, we’re joined by Nnimmo Bassey, Nigerian environmental activist, director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation. And in Oxford, in Britain, we’re joined by Jocelyn Alexander. She’s professor at Oxford University, author of The Unsettled Land: The Politics of Land & State-making in Zimbabwe, 1893-2003.

Well, Professor, we’re going to take this right through to today, 2017. Can you explain what you understand is taking place in Zimbabwe right now?

JOCELYN ALEXANDER: Yeah, I can try, though there’s a great deal of confusion still about what’s happening. As far as I understand it, there’s a process of negotiation that’s going on amongst the main players, and including emissaries from SADC—that is the regional group—and from South Africa. So, all sides are trying to reach some kind of agreement. And they’ve been negotiating, I understand, since yesterday and 'til late last night, and they are resuming again today, to try to come to some kind of agreement. But, of course, the positions are, to some extent, irreconcilable, and there is some question about whether Mugabe will be willing to step down and under what conditions, and then, of course, what kind of a regime will take over in his place. So that's very much an ongoing set of negotiations, and I think the shape of it is not yet clear.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Alexander, can you tell us why you think that Mugabe took this step now of sacking his vice president nine days ago?

JOCELYN ALEXANDER: Yeah. Emmerson Mnangagwa is a formidable political actor, and I think Mugabe felt that he was impatient to take power. And he wasn’t willing to tolerate the kind of maneuverings that Mnangagwa and, maybe more so, some of his allies were undertaking. And so he moved against him, much as he moved against his predecessor, Joice Mujuru, who was kicked out of office a few years earlier under similar circumstances. So, Mugabe has acted to prevent anyone from assuming any path to power while he’s still in office.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, can you give us the history of all of these power centers in Zimbabwe? Right? You have Grace Mugabe, the wife. You have the new president—and what their relationship is, as well as the person you just talked about?

JOCELYN ALEXANDER: I think there are a great many centers of power in Zimbabwe, and it’s a very complicated system to fully understand. A lot of the portrayal has seen this as a question of the military versus Mugabe. But the military is, of course, itself, not united. Part of the military remains loyal to Mugabe. I think there was quite a difference in the tone and demands and context provided in the two statements that came on Monday and then on early Wednesday morning, first from Constantine Chiwenga, the chief of the defense forces, and then from Sibusiso Moyo, who is a major general in the military. They elaborated different kinds of complaints, and they justified their intervention in quite different ways, which may or may not indicate that there is a division even among those who would like to remove Mugabe. Chiwenga is obviously very closely allied to Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has a very powerful position within ZANU-PF, the political party. And to some extent, you can see Chiwenga’s actions as trying to aid the ascent of a friendly part of ZANU-PF, from his point of view. And he may harbor, of course, political ambitions, as well. I think there’s a different view from within the military that can be seen as a kind of professional objection to what they’re seeing as abuses of the Zimbabwean state and abuses of the Zimbabwean economy in terms of corruption and patronage. So, there are different agendas even within the military, that haven’t really come out into the light of day yet, and I think we may see that play out in the next few days.

But the intensity of the negotiations at the moment are about how Mugabe might leave. And I think there are a number of key players involved in that process. Of course, they are also consulting members of the opposition movement. There are very many—very many different parties who make up the opposition. The most significant is led by Morgan Tsvangirai, who in fact beat Mugabe in an election in 2008 but was not allowed to assume power. And he remains probably the leader of the most significant, in electoral terms, opposition party. But there are other smaller parties that are also part of these negotiations and making demands. They have different kinds of links to South Africa and other regional players. So it’s a very complex picture, and I think it would be rash to jump to conclusions, at this point, about what the outcome is going to be.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Dr. Knox Chitiyo, associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, who is currently in South Africa but just returned from Zimbabwe as all of this was unfolding. Can you describe what the atmosphere was like? And your thoughts right now on what’s happening in neighboring Zimbabwe?

KNOX CHITIYO: Thank you. Hello.

Yes, I was in Harare yesterday. I was there for some days. Look, it was surprisingly restrained. There was obviously a public anxiety about what was happening, about what people were hearing and seeing, because, of course, Harare has always been rumor central. You know, there’s always rumors going around, and people communicate by social media, so there was a lot of false news that was going on, which raised public anxiety.

But on the ground, certainly in Harare, we didn’t see—because I was there, obviously, on family—you know, to see family. We didn’t see a massive presence of soldiers. Yes, there were soldiers at strategic locations. And certain roads, particularly those which gave access to State House roads, had been cordoned off, and the airport and so on and so forth. But you didn’t see hundreds and hundreds of soldiers milling around on the street. You didn’t see harassment of civilians. So, in some ways, it’s been a very surprisingly restrained and almost polite military-guided transition.

The other surprising thing is that there’s a tacit public acceptance. I would hesitate to use the word “endorsement” of what’s going on, because, clearly, this is not a democratic transition in the normal sense of the word. But, you know, when you talk to people about—Zimbabwe is now—Zimbabwe’s economy has reached such a low point, and the levels of suffering and impoverishment and the issues are so broad, that people are saying—you know, in Tswana, people have been saying, “[speaking Tswana],” which means, you know, “If it has to be done this way, so be it. Let’s get closure.” People want closure on this. People have this sense of ongoing chaos and so on and so forth, so people just want closure. They don’t necessarily want it to be handled through the military, but want closure and a sense that we’re entering a new period where people can believe government—there is likely to be some new government coming in—can engage on the economy. The priority for people at home, what people are saying, is the economy. The economy, the economy, jobs, food, and a sense, you know, of movement on the economy [inaudible].

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Knox Chitiyo, you are in South Africa now. Can you hear us, Dr. Chitiyo?

KNOX CHITIYO: Yes, I can hear you. Yes, I can hear you now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yes. So, you were just in Zimbabwe. You’re in South Africa now. And as we speak, South African ministers are meeting with people in Zimbabwe in an attempt to resolve this crisis. Can you tell us historically what the role of South Africa in Zimbabwe has been?

KNOX CHITIYO: It’s been a very close role. I mean, historically—and I don’t want to delve too far into the history. Zimbabwe and South Africa have been both competitors and collaborators in the region at points in, you know, the history of the past hundred years. You know, South Africa has always been the regional hegemony, the acknowledged hegemony. But Zimbabwe, at times, has been one of—you know, it’s kind of the number two in the region. So, it’s a very close relationship, sometimes contested. But we saw, you know, during the 2000s, South Africa played a very strong role in terms of mediating a dispute between ZANU-PF and the opposition. They were the guarantors, along with SADC, of the government of national unity and the GPA.

And South Africa now is coming on board again, because there’s obvious anxiety within the region that, you know, this needs to be a negotiated transfer—what nobody wants is for this process of [inaudible] to become very messy, especially violent. I think nobody wants that, particularly within the region, particularly in Zimbabwe. So that’s why we’re seeing South Africa stepping in again. After the GNU, there was a certain level of Zimbabwe fatigue within the region and within South Africa, because, of course, South Africa has got its own issues going. But what’s happening now is too important and too critical for South Africa and the region not to step in, because it has regional implications for South Africa and the region. There’s millions of Zimbabweans here in South Africa and in the region, so it has a massive regional implication.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Nnimmo Bassey into this conversation, not a Zimbabwean, but from Nigeria, though this certainly involves the whole continent. Nnimmo, you’re an environmental activist, but you’re here in Bonn, Germany. You hear that there has been a coup in Zimbabwe, though the government is now trying to say it’s not a coup, it’s a correction. So, your thoughts, as a longtime African leader?

NNIMMO BASSEY: Oh, it’s absolutely a coup. There is no difference between what is going on in Zimbabwe and what we normally see as coup. I live in Nigeria over a period of 30 years of military rule, and there were changes by military coup, military officers overthrowing each other. And you could see the same kind of trademark, the same kind of things happening. The president, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is in detention, in house arrest. And that is a coup. That doesn’t happen in any other condition. But I think the military in Zimbabwe are being very careful in handling the situation. And this may help also in the resolution of what is going on. What we’ve seen are the military and the leading political—the leading political party in Zimbabwe have been working hand in hand, right from independence, right from 1980. So, Mugabe has worked with the military. They helped to prop him up. They helped him in 1980, when the opposition defeated him in 2008, when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change actually defeated him in the presidential election. So the military has been there to prop him up. Now, looks like the military thought maybe they may lose out in the end, and they decided to take him out in this way.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mugabe wasn’t always known, though, or recognized as a military dictator or dictator at all, because, of course, he helped lead the fight against the British in colonial Rhodesia.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So could you tell us a little bit about the transition that occurred over these decades? That was in 1980, and now it’s 2017.

NNIMMO BASSEY: Well, Mugabe stood out as a leader of the guerrilla movement in then-Rhodesia against the minority government that was in power. And then, of course, he’s not—nobody sees him as a military dictator, because he was always a civilian, more or less. But he had the military machine behind him. And I think that is what really made this Zimbabwe situation different from what we’ve seen in other African countries. And so, over the years, from when he took over as prime minister, became president, and got to the point where the succession—the time for succession became so clear. After he had been in power for so long, people were really—I think the Zimbabweans actually needed change. But they couldn’t find the space through the ballot box, which is very unfortunate. And the military is now exploiting, exploiting that gap. And I think the military is opportunistic. I’m hoping that people can take up what has gone on now and change the situation of citizens, a very good statement from civil society saying, “Well, you know, the military has done this, but the democratic principles must be followed. The constitution must not be subverted.” But, you know, it’s a very difficult balancing game, what is going on now.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Jocelyn Alexander, would you agree with Nnimmo Bassey on this issue of a correction, as the military is trying to put it, or a coup?

JOCELYN ALEXANDER: I think, by any definition, it is a coup. You know, it’s very interesting that they’re trying to tell tell a story about it in which it’s something different. But it’s not unlike, you know, the so-called guardian coups in West Africa, where you have people coming in and saying, “The politicians have got a bit out of control. They’re overly corrupt. They’re overly abusive. We’re just trying to fix the situation so that we could get back on the right track.” But obviously it’s unconstitutional. Obviously it’s illegal. Obviously it’s not a democratic process. So, I think, you know, by any other name, it’s a coup. So that’s—you know, I think it’s important, though, that they’re trying to portray it as something else. And I think that’s actually one of the things which is going to constrain them.

And I hope my colleague Knox Chitiyo is correct that we will avoid any kind of open conflict and this will be resolved through negotiation. The pressure on them to do that is that the government that comes in needs to have some kind of legitimacy. So, the only way it can do that is if there is a negotiated agreement, there’s some kind of terms on which Mugabe will step down that will allow for a government that’s more inclusive and that is not run by the military. And, in fact, I don’t think the military has the stomach for any kind of direct government. They very much want to hand back over to politicians.

But the complication here is that some of the military, at any rate, is very much on the side of a particular faction in the ruling party, led, of course, by Emmerson Mnangagwa. Emmerson Mnangagwa is a divisive figure. So, he’s not someone who’s going to easily unite the party behind him. He’s not someone who’s going to easily unite all of the security forces behind him. And, of course, this is a large military with various different branches that have different kinds of loyalties. So that’s something which raises a real challenge.

But I would very much like to back up what Dr. Chitiyo was saying about the kind of public reaction, which was also fascinating because it has been entirely passive. There’s been no one in the street. There’s been no celebration, but there’s been no objection. None of the parties’ youth leagues have come out. You know, there’s been no expressions of joy or of anger over what’s happening. There’s this sense of everybody waiting. And, I mean, I’ve heard from very many people that they’re happy about the change. And I think there is this extraordinary sense of Zimbabwe having been stuck in this place for a very long time and unable to get out of it, really since the—you know, very markedly since the 2008 election, but even earlier than that, that, you know, change was necessary, and it was being blocked, and it was being blocked by Robert Mugabe. So, the idea that that might be something that shifts now has caused a kind of euphoria, I think, a kind of optimism about what might be possible.

And I just—I don’t want to be, you know, overly negative, but I think that there needs to be a lot of care in thinking about what direction Zimbabwe is going in now, what kind of deals are being made, how this government really is going to be held accountable, who it actually represents, you know, what kind of stability we’re talking about in the end. So all of those things, I think, remain to be resolved or even really—I don’t think we really know the shape of it yet.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, we will certainly continue to cover this. We want to thank Oxford professor Jocelyn Alexander, speaking to us from Oxford; Dr. Knox Chitiyo of Chatham House, Zimbabwe, and just left Zimbabwe, speaking to us from Johannesburg; and Nnimmo Bassey, Health of Mother Earth Foundation.

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