Can There Be a Good Coup? A Word of Caution to Zimbabwe

Published on 21st November 2017

The Zimbabwe armed forces, known for their unwavering loyalty to the regime of revolutionary leader, President Robert Mugabe intervened in the country’s political space last week. Though Zimbabwe’s defence chiefs avoided characterizing their intrusive act, as a coup, the act had all the hall marks of a coup. A coup d’ etat may be described as a sudden, violent and illegal seizure of state power by military forces from the civilian political class.

As we watch the unfolding political situation in Zimbabwe, what lessons in civil-military relations drawn from other African countries, might be relevant for the Zimbabwe scenario’? Indeed, we should ask ourselves; can there be a good coup?

Lessons from Unstable Civil-Military Relations in Africa

The first lesson is that it is the missteps or bad governance of civilian political elites that invites the military to intervene in the political space of a democratic polity. In Zimbabwe, it was the violent contestation for power between two factions within ruling ZANU-PF that caused institutional paralysis of the state. The high stakes game revolved around succession to aging revolutionary leader Robert Mugabe. His youthful wife, Grace  Mugabe with the steely determination and iron will of Lady Macbeth, was riveted with the goal of succeeding her husband. On the other hand another faction, led by long serving ZANU-PF cadre Emmerson Mnangagwa sought to block Mrs Mugabe from the ultimate reward. Succession contests in Guinea Conakry and Cote d’Ivoire following deaths of long ruling African statesmen (Sekou Toure & Felix Houphouet Boigney) triggered civil military instability in both countries.  

The second lesson to learn is that military forces who constitutionally exercise monopoly over the means of violence, may stage a coup in order to block a candidate they do not favour from assuming the Presidency. The rhetoric of Zimbabwe’s Generals whilst pronouncing their loyalty to Commander in Chief Robert Mugabe, menacingly stated that their mission was to neutralize criminal elements that had entrenched themselves around the Presidency.  Were the Generals fearful that under Commander in Chief Grace Mugabe, their privileges and entitlements might be clipped?

The third lesson is that when the soldiers take over, they are greeted with warmth and good will by citizens who yearn for salutary change. However, whilst thousands of Zimbabweans poured into the streets of Harare to applaud their patriotic defence forces, they were oblivious to the fact that the rhetoric of Zimbabwe’s men and women in uniform was reminiscent of the bold but vacuous declarations of coup conspirators elsewhere in Africa. All over Africa, since the post independence era of the 1960s, soldiers claimed they were the custodians of the national interest and they formed high sounding Military Committees such as Supreme Council for National Redemption etc. Sadly we now know that military coups were total and unmitigated disasters in Africa. Nigeria’s former UN Ambassador, Ambassador Major General Joseph N. Garba, one of the major figures that toppled the military government of General Yakubu Gowon in 1975, characterized the consequences of military rule for Nigeria as disastrous.  He wrote that he was so ashamed of his army uniform that he preferred to wear civilian clothes in public and would put on his uniform in Dodan Barracks, Army Headquarters

The fourth lesson is that countries that experience coups for whatever reason, seldom revert to stability in civil-military relations in the short and medium term.  A successful coup, as Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Ethiopia, Congo Brazzaville, Central African Republic, etc experienced in the 1960s/1970s   may trigger counter-coups. A coup in Zimbabwe may bring into focus the ethnic fault line between Ndebele and Shona speaking officers. Might such a fault-line not trigger a counter coup on the part of officers who feel they are being marginalized on ethnic lines?  What about the matter of the alleged massacres perpetrated by the fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the early 1980s? If the ghosts of that tragic episode in Zimbabwe’s history resurface, old wounds could be re-opened with ghastly consequences

Conclusion: There can be No Good Coup

All things considered, there is no such thing as a good coup. All coups are masterminded by conspiratorial military cabals who mask their own predatory political ambitions under the rhetoric of defending the supreme national interest etc.  Empirical evidence points out that Coups not only cause prolonged civil-military instability but are seriously detrimental to economic growth and balanced sustainable development.

By Dr. Njunga Michael Mulikita

Dean; School of Social Sciences, Mulungushi University, Zambia. 

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