Political turmoil escalated in Zimbabwe as the military took control of the African country and seized its leader President Robert Mugabe early on Wednesday but claimed it was “not a military takeover”.
Despite the statement, the events bore all the hallmarks of a coup, with military vehicles stationed around the capital Harare, the Army seizing the state broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp (ZBC) and a uniformed general issuing a statement.
After taking over ZBC, two uniformed officers said in a terse pre-dawn announcement that “the situation in our country has moved to another level”.
While denying that the military had seized power, they said Mugabe and his family “are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed”, the BBC reported.
“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,” said the main speaker, identified as Major General S.B. Moyo, the Army’s Chief of Staff.
General Moyo warned that “any provocation will be met with an appropriate response”. There was no further clarification of the whereabouts or status of Mugabe, 93, who is the only leader Zimbabwe has known since independence in 1980, CNN reported.
South African President Jacob Zuma said he had spoken to Mugabe who had indicated that he “was confined to his home but said that he was fine”.
The early morning broadcast interruption came less than 48 hours after Army commander Constantino Chiwenga warned in a press conference that “when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in”.
In response, Mugabe’s ruling party Zanu-PF accused Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct”.
Witnesses reported tanks and soldiers moving around the city overnight along with sounds of gunfire and explosions. By morning, soldiers in armoured vehicles controlled major intersections near government buildings. But otherwise the streets appeared to be calm.
Local media reported that several members of the Zanu-PF party had been detained by the military, including cabinet ministers.
The party’s Twitter account, which had been largely silent for more than a month, exploded in a string of tweets maintaining that there was no coup but just the Army rescuing the nation from having its Constitution undermined.
“Zimbabwe is open for business. There was no coup, but a bloodless peaceful transition,” said one tweet.
Zimbabwe’s political crisis reached a boiling point last week with the dismissal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, clearing the way for Mugabe’s wife Grace to succeed him.
Mugabe told supporters he had dismissed Mnangagwa for disloyalty and disrespect as well as using witchcraft to take power.
The move exacerbated divisions in the ruling party, where the youth faction is firmly on Grace’s side, while the older veterans of the struggle against white rule look to Mnangagwa.
Grace later warned that supporters of Mnangagwa were planning a coup. Uncertainty over the political situation grew overnight. Foreign embassies warned their citizens to stay indoors.