Zimbabwe’s military took control of the southern African country in the early hours Wednesday morning with a televised announcement saying it was “not a military takeover.”
Despite the assurances, the events bore all the hallmarks of a coup, with military vehicles stationed around the capital, Harare, the army taking over the television station and a uniformed general issuing a statement.
The move by army commander Constantino Chiwenga came as the struggle over who will succeed the country’s 93-year-old leader, President Robert Mugabe, came to a head. Mugabe has ruled since he led the country to independence from white minority rule in 1980.
“We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” said the statement ready by Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo. “We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country.”
The fate of Mugabe and his wife, Grace, who increasingly looked set to succeeed him, was unclear but they appear to be in military custody as there has been no word from them.
The statement said “their security is guaranteed.”
Overnight, witnesses reported tanks and soldiers moving around the city along with sounds of gunfire and explosions. By morning, soldiers controlled major intersections near government buildings, but otherwise the streets appeared to be calm.
Zimbabawe’s political crisis reached a boiling point last week with the dismissal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, clearing the way for Mugabe’s wife to succeed him.
The move exacerbated divisions in the ruling ZANU-PF party, where the youth faction is firmly on Grace’s side.
Mnangagwa, who has fled to neighboring South Africa, has strong support with the military, however, and on Monday army head Chiwenga threatened to “step in” to stop the purge of Mnangagwa’s supporters.
Once a wealthy breadbasket for the whole region, Zimbabwe’s economy and especially the prosperous agriculture sector has suffered in recent years. The currency has collapsed and at one point the country was experiencing devastating hyperinflation.