HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s military seized power early on Wednesday saying it was targeting “criminals” around President Robert Mugabe, the only ruler the country has known in its 37 years of independence.
Soldiers seized the state broadcaster. Armoured vehicles blocked roads to the main government offices, parliament and the courts in central Harare, while taxis ferried commuters to work nearby. The atmosphere in the capital remained calm.
The military said Mugabe and his family were safe. Mugabe himself spoke by telephone to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, and told him he was confined to his home but fine, the South African presidency said in a statement.
It was not clear whether the apparent military coup would bring a formal end to Mugabe’s rule; the main goal of the generals appears to be preventing Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife Grace from succeeding him.
But whether or not he remains in office, it is likely to mark the end of the total dominance of the country by Mugabe, the last of Africa’s generation of state founders still in power.
Mugabe, still seen by many Africans as an anti-colonial hero, is reviled in the West as a despot whose disastrous handling of the economy and willingness to resort to violence to maintain power destroyed one of Africa’s most promising states.
He plunged Zimbabwe into a fresh political crisis last week by firing his vice president and presumed successor. The generals believed that move was aimed at clearing a path for Grace Mugabe to take over and announced on Monday they were prepared to “step in” if purges of their allies did not end.
“We are only targeting criminals around him (Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” Major General SB Moyo, Chief of Staff Logistics, said on television.
“As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.”
Whatever the final outcome, the events could signal a once-in-a-generation change for the southern African nation, once one of the continent’s most prosperous, reduced to poverty by an economic crisis Mugabe’s opponents have long blamed on him.
Even many of Mugabe’s most loyal supporters over the decades had come to oppose the rise of his wife, who courted the powerful youth wing of the ruling party but alienated the military, led by Mugabe’s former guerrilla comrades from the 1970s independence struggle.
“This is a correction of a state that was careening off the cliff,” Chris Mutsvangwa, the leader of the liberation war veterans, told Reuters. “It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife.”
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change called for a peaceful return to constitutional democracy, adding it hoped the military intervention would lead to the “establishment of a stable, democratic and progressive nation state”.
Zuma - speaking on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) - expressed hope there would be no unconstitutional changes of government in Zimbabwe as that would be contrary to both SADC and African Union positions.
Zuma urged Zimbabwe’s government and the military “to resolve the political impasse amicably”.
Zimbabwe’s economic decline over the past two decades has been a drag on the southern African region. Millions of economic refugees have streamed out of the country, mostly to neighbouring South Africa.
Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, a leading member of the ruling ZANU-PF party’s ‘G40’ faction, led by Grace Mugabe, had been detained by the military, a government source said.
Soldiers deployed across Harare on Tuesday and seized the state broadcaster after ZANU-PF accused the head of the military of treason, prompting speculation of a coup.
Just 24 hours after military chief General Constantino Chiwenga threatened to intervene to end a purge of his allies in ZANU-PF, a Reuters reporter saw armoured personnel carriers on main roads around the capital.
Aggressive soldiers told passing cars to keep moving through the darkness. “Don’t try anything funny. Just go,” one barked at Reuters on Harare Drive.
Two hours later, soldiers overran the headquarters of the ZBC, the state broadcaster, a Mugabe mouthpiece, and ordered staff to leave. Several ZBC workers were manhandled, two members of staff and a human rights activist said.
Shortly afterwards, three explosions rocked the centre of the capital, Reuters witnesses said.
The United States and Britain advised their citizens in Harare to stay indoors because of “political uncertainty.”
The southern African nation had been on edge since Monday when Chiwenga, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, said he was prepared to “step in” to end a purge of supporters of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president sacked last week.
In the last year, a chronic absence of dollars has led to long queues outside banks and an economic and financial collapse that many fear will rival the meltdown of 2007-2008, when inflation topped out at 500 billion percent.
Imported goods are running out and economists say that, by some measures, inflation is now at 50 percent a month.
According to a trove of intelligence documents reviewed by Reuters this year, Mnangagwa has been planning to revitalise the economy by bringing back thousands of white farmers kicked off their land nearly two decades ago and patching up relations with the World Bank and IMF.
Additional reporting by Ed Cropley, James Macharia, Joe Brock and Alexander Winning in Johannesburg; Writing by James Macharia and Ed Cropley; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Peter Graff