A month before former President Robert Mugabe’s inglorious exit, his wife stunned Zimbabweans when she dared soldiers to shoot her.
By Charlse Laiton
Grace Mugabe was complaining about alleged pressure from the army for her ageing husband to hand over power to then vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Three weeks after the 93-year-old ruler was forced to relinquish power and as the dust settles after a dramatic transition that saw Mnangagwa taking over from his mentor, questions are now being asked how Mugabe failed to read the writing on the wall.
On November 15, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces announced that they had taken over government and eventually squeezed the Zanu PF leader out of power.
Grace was defiant to the end after pushing for Mnangagwa’s dismissal as vice-president, a move that seemed to infuriate the military.
The former Zanu PF women’s league boss first accused the military of plotting against her husband at a rally in Chiweshe where she also had a go at the new president.
University of Zimbabwe (UZ) political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure said although Mugabe was a shrewd politician, he did not foresee a military takeover.
“I have always referred to him as a Machiavellian political operator, who understands the logic of power and I think power tends to intoxicate its holder,” he said.
“I think he had become so arrogant that he did not appreciate that the pillar of the military also has its sensitivity and interests that were being harmed by the manner in which it was being ridiculed in public by the former first lady.”
Masunungure said Grace pushed the generals to the edge with her abrasive approach to politics and her unbridled ambition.
The former typist enjoyed the backing of a Zanu PF faction known as G40 and towards her last days the group was pushing for the annihilation of the Lacoste faction linked to Mnangagwa.
“I think the former first lady was not very diplomatic in the manner in which she articulated her interests and ambitions,” Masunungure added.
“It is her intemperate language and gestures of not being sensitive to the nature of the security forces and their interests, and that the military, is particularly a sensitive institution.
“It is a pillar of support anywhere else but here it was particularly in respect of the Mugabe regime and what she was doing was to erode the confidence of the military and within it, the army.”
Mugabe had always relied on the military for political survival, but the arrival of his 52-year-old wife on the political scene in 2014 changed the dynamics.
Grace appeared to be determined to succeed her husband but the push was bound to rub Mugabe’s backers in the military the wrong way.
Masunungure said it was possible that the generals reached out to Mugabe to rein in his wife, but the veteran ruler could not do anything because of his advanced age.
“As I understand it, the security forces did express their anxiety about the manner in which the former first lady was addressing the military and the security chiefs, particularly those in the army and within it, General Constantino Chiwenga,” the academic said.
“She could have expressed her concerns, if she had any, to her husband who was the president but she managed to alienate a critical cog of the Mugabe regime and when you do that the wheels tend to come off as they did in mid-November this year.”
Mugabe could have also seen that a coup was imminent but was still not able to tame his wife, Masunungure said.
“You should also appreciate and acknowledge that the former president is of an advanced age and advanced fragility health-wise so his mental and physical stamina are increasingly diminished and as a result he may not have had enough control as he previously had even within his own household, including controlling his wife,” he said.
“He failed to rein in his wife to ensure that she did not act beyond the constitutional and legal confines of her role.
“She did not have any constitutionally defined roles except that on the title ‘first lady’ and beyond that, she had no official government or constitutional role to play in the governmental affairs of this country.”
Masunungure said Grace had also alienated influential people in Zanu PF, creating a fertile ground for a popular uprising against the world’s then oldest leader.
“She alienated many, not just in the military but in the party. The manner in which she ridiculed, humiliated and embarrassed many of the seniors in the party, including some old enough to be her father or grandfather.”
“I think she did things in the wrong way. She was not as political as she ought to be.”
Former Industry minister Welshman Ncube said Mugabe and Grace were so naïve to the extent that they failed to read the signs that the security forces were being pushed to the edge.
“The G40 cabal saw the coup coming including Grace, the military themselves always warned, you recall General Chiwenga actually at one point, three or so months ago claimed that the gun always leads politics and Mugabe replied that politics has always led the gun in Zanu PF,” the MDC leader said.
“You will also recall Jonathan Moyo’s presentation to the politburo about state capture, that all state institutions and most state institutions, including the military had been captured to overthrow Mugabe.
“We just didn’t believe it, but, clearly given the manner in which the coup was executed there can be no doubt that it was planned a long time ago.
“If you go back and read Moyo’s presentation and you read President’s Emerson Mnangagwa’s rebuttal, you will see that everything Moyo said was correct and if you today read what President Mnangagwa said in rebuttal [it has] turned out to be false.
“So it’s not just that Grace said it, the whole of G40 saw it, not actually did they see it, but the army itself didn’t hide its determination to intervene in this thing. So it was always out there.”
Ncube said Mugabe may have failed to forestall the coup because he strongly believed that the military would never turn against him.
“Personally, I think 37 years in power and being a strong man and your word being literally the word, you tend not to believe anyone would dare,” he added.
“I think that it was his undoing. he just thought they wouldn’t dare and after the coup, he still didn’t think that they would disobey him when he said, ‘fine, let’s go to the Zanu PF congress and do this’, up to the very last minute he still thought that he had authority.”
However, Maxwell Saungweme, a political commentator believes Mugabe and Grace were so out of touch with reality that they thought they were indispensable.
“Grace might have seen a coup coming and chided people about it but she, like Mugabe was out of touch with reality and thought the mysticism, mystery and myth around the name ‘Mugabe’ and its supposed power was too potent for any of those that were subordinate to Mugabe to turn against him,” he said.
“It happens when one gets drunk with power and fame, a spirit of invincibility engulfs you to the extent that you are larger than life and not even a disease can afflict you.
“This is the mirage, the chimera the Mugabes believed so much that they detached themselves from reality. Yes, you only had to be blind to think all was okay.
“Even a naïve and unsophisticated mind like Grace’s could discern that.”
United Kingdom (UK) based political analyst, Gladys Hlatshwayo, echoed Saungweme’s sentiments saying the army takeover had become inevitable after Mnangagwa’s expulsion from government and Zanu PF last month.
Human Rights watch southern Africa director Dewa Mavhinga said the Zimbabwean security forces were too involved in politics, hence a coup was always a possibility.
“But perhaps the mistake they made was to assume that firing Mnangagwa would stop the generals, and that, as Grace often wrongly said, Sadc and the AU (African Union) would not accept an unconstitutional change of government,” he said.
“As it turned out, no one was prepared to defend Mugabe and the generals made the coup look like it was not a coup, rendering outside intervention pointless.
“Also Mugabe may have overestimated the power of his patronage over the generals and underestimated the business and political ties between Mnangagwa and the generals.
“Again Mugabe underestimated the patriarchal disdain and opposition to Grace Mugabe taking over; perhaps if another candidate had been put forward, resistance would not have occurred, while Mugabe was around. But Grace was vile and made enemies left, right, and centre.”
Mugabe told a South African delegation sent by President Jacob Zuma to mediate between the former president and the generals that he never expected the military to turn against him because he gave them land.