Zimbabwe: Looks Like a Coup, Sounds Like a Coup - But Its Not a Coup!
Armoured personal carriers on the streets. Checkpoints. Uniformed men reading the news on state-owned TV. Government buildings under military guard. And a sitting president under house arrest.
But its not a coup. It's a "correction." A "hybrid coup."
Thats how the military and various party leaders in Zimbabwe have spun the past 48 hours in what is nothing less than a dizzy pace of developments that started Tuesday afternoon in Harare. The military operation was foreshadowed by a stern warning by the chief of defence to the Zimbabwean leadership not to take things too far.
But now the message looks like it was a warning to one of Africa's longest-serving autocrats, President Robert Mugabe, to indeed - not to carry things too far after signalling that his wife, Grace, could succeed him.
What's happening in Zimbabwe appears to be a tipping point: a message from the generals to 93-year-old Mugabe, his wife and inner circle that enough is enough. Don't mess with us, especially those who gave or risked their lives in the liberation struggle against white minority rule.
As the days pass, and as Mugabe's hold on power appears increasingly tenuous, the hope is that a peaceful, bloodless transition will occur. But the road ahead is pockmarked with political landmines, especially with so many parties and people vying for influence.
Significantly, the return of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was Prime Minister from 2009-2013, and was robbed of the presidential post in 2008, could morph into a standoff with the generals - and with Mugabe's former Vice-President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was ousted last week.
On Thursday, Tsvangirai called for Mugabe to step down: "In the interest of the people of Zimbabwe Mr Mugabe must resign," he said.
As of 18:00GMT Thursday, Mugabe was reported to be refusing to step-down and remains confined in his lavish compound. He has been filmed with visiting South African envoys and army chief Gen Constantino Chiwenga. The whereabouts of his wife is unknown (some reports indicated that Grace, a former secretary in the government typing pool, may have fled to Namibia).
One South African analyst, with strong ties to Zimbabwe, described what is happening in the country as "small town, elite politics."
Meanwhile, in the background, Zimbabwe's neighbours and patrons, led by South Africa, are jockeying for influence. The disgraced South African President, Jacob Zuma, has appealed for calm and has sent envoys to Harare to monitor the situation. Zuma, who's been clinging to office amid a slew of corruption allegations, has hosted Mugabe and other African pariahs such as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
South Africa has been hosting millions of Zimbabwean migrants ever since the economy tanked in 2008. It is currently chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The African Union (AU) is also watching the developments carefully. The organization is against violent overthrow in its member states and this could be why military leaders are so reluctant to brand their actions as a coup.
Earlier, African Union urged "all stakeholders to address the current situation in accordance with the Constitution of Zimbabwe and the relevant instruments of the African Union."
But having sensed a whiff of change in the air, opposition leaders such as Tsvangirai, might not be inclined to wait for next year's elections for Mugabe to step down. "There is a long line of dictators who have refused to go peacefully – and the people have removed them violently," Tsvangirai famously said.
If Mnangagwa (also known as "the crocodile") replaces Mugabe little could change as he has proven to be a divisive figure and, like his former boss, has close ties to the military.
One likely scenario is that, under pressure from SADC and other international interests, the military agrees to install a transitionary authority that would pave the way to free and fair elections in the New Year.
An enormous and legitimate fear is that the only part of the economy not on life support - tourism - may be harmed if the situation gets out of control. In 2015, tourism contributed between 5-10 percent of GDP, generated 2-million tourist arrivals and almost $1-billion in tourism receipts. As we saw in Egypt after the military takeover, instability can cause massive, long-term damage to the tourism industry.
Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe, once a breadbasket of Africa, has sunk into a horrific economic abyss. In 1981, shortly after he became president, the then-Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere famously told Mugabe: "You have inherited a jewel in Africa, don't tarnish it."
Alongside the economic collapse, ordinary people have suffered immensely. Maternal mortality is actually increasing in Mugabe’s 37-year rule over Zimbabwe, and life expectancy is lower than it was in the 1980s. On the Human Development Index, Zimbabwe is raked 156 out of 187. UNICEF says that at least 1-million food insecure households are at high risk of exhausting their food stocks between January and March of next year.