A coup or no a coup?
That is the question presently doing the rounds among Zimbabweans following a bizarre press conference in Harare today at which the National Security Council issued a statement denying rumours of a military coup. The statement, entitled “concerning widespread rumours of an imminent coup d'etat in Zimbabwe”, said the government had noted "a recent upsurge in rumours suggesting an imminent military coup d'etat in the country". The government said it wanted to " unequivocally debunk and dismiss these rumours with the comet they deserve". The statement did not blame anyone in particular apart from a so-called "purveyors" of the rumours. .
The claims were perplexing because there was no evidence before the statement of the so-called “widespread rumours of an imminent coup”. Besides, the mere fact that the national security organ convened a press conference to deny a mere rumour was rather odd. Even if there was a rumour of a coup, it wouldn’t have been the first time that such a rumour had done the rounds in Zimbabwe. But the security agency had never felt compelled to publicly deny it, let alone convene a press conference at the seat of government. Now, there wasn’t even a “widespread rumour” but they still came out to deny it. It took many people by surprise and left tongues wagging.
When they deny, it’s probably true
One theory is that the statement is an admission that there is or was a coup brewing. Observant Zimbabweans who are used to their government’s ways say whenever it denies something, it’s usually because it’s true. This, they have learnt from experience. If they are denying something, it's because they want to cover up. Why, many have asked, would the national security agency come out to deny rumours of a coup, especially when the claim that the rumour is “widespread” is patently false?
Many Zimbabweans on social media attest to hearing of the rumour for the first time when the Home Affairs’ Minister read the statement today and social media is natural habitat for purveyors of such rumours. They had no idea there was such a rumour. How did it escape them? Now, instead of beieving their government, they are busy trying to find out what's really happening in the barracks.
According to this view, the statement betrays the government’s fears of a coup. If so, the regime is describing the intelligence it has gathered as “rumours”. The government has reason to be scared of a coup. After all, it is the product of a coup and it knows that a coup begets a coup. The terrible performance of the regime, the increasingly fragile economic situation and the widespread levels of corruption have raised the levels of poverty and desperation and danger across the country. There has indeed been talk of a National Transitional Authority but this is hardly new. It’s a concept that has been discussed since during the days of Robert Mugabe.
If there is no coup, the government is responding to real threats of one from disgruntled juniors. Perceptive observers warned after the coup that toppled Mugabe in November 2017 that the new regime would always be haunted by the ghost of the coup. The military elites may have enjoyed the spoils of that power heist, but juniors have seen their lives worsen just like the rest of the citizens. They have nothing to show for their efforts, while the political elites and their children have amassed great amounts of wealth through corruption. After the last coup, we warned that soldiers who had tasted power through a coup now had a precedent to grab power by the gun. If the regime is indeed, facing a coup threat, it is having a dose of its own medicine.
The regime has over-relied on the apparatus of force to thwart citizens since it came into power. However, over-dependence on soldiers has a boomerang effect. By relying on the apparatus of violence to enforce his rule, the ruler creates a moral hazard because the soldiers become emboldened by their ability to use force as an acceptable way to take power. Therefore, while the use of force may be useful to the authoritarian ruler, it is also a threat to his rule because the soldiers can turn against him. The government may deny it, but the threat of a coup remains an ever-present danger. The present rulers set the dangerou precedent and they cannot be shocked it is comes back to bite them.
Another theory is that the denial of a rumour is part of a strategy of deception, creating a false scenario as a diversion or simply to forewarn perceived enemies. It is based on the thinking that if you fear something might happen, you create an imaginary scenario to pre-empt the actual events. If anyone was minded to plan a coup, they would think their plot is already known. According to this view, the regime is manufacturing rumours of a coup to deceive enemies. It's part of the performative aspects of power.
The strategy of deception is also useful as a diversion from the multiple crises that the regime is facing on the social and economic fronts. This view is that the press statement is nothing but a side-show generated by the regime to draw public attention from its failures. Suddenly everybody is discussing the coup. The issue of rampant corruption which has been exposed at the very heart of the government is sidelined. In this regard, the denial is also part of performative aspects of power - actors on the stage, creating side shows and keeping the audience occupied.
As a strategy, deception is also designed to generate sympathy for the ruler. Authoritarian rulers know they are cast as villains, and they prefer to create an image of victimhood to generate sympathy and support. Critics point to incidents around President Mnangagwa, even from his days as a Minister, such as the car accident, cyanide smeared at his office, alleged ice-cream poisoning, and the bombing at a campaign rally in Bulawayo.
Surprisingly for a man of his stature and significance, none of these plots has ever been resolved. Little has been heard of the outcome of investigations, leaving critics wondering if they are internally generated. In this case, the rumours of a coup are being blamed on multiple parties, including the opposition party, foreign diplomatic missions, the media, and even religious leaders. The statement casts him as a victim of various machinations.
Justifying authoritarian clampdown
The third theory, also based on the view that the coup rumours are deliberately manufactured, is that they serve the purpose of creating justification of a clampdown on the opposition. This has happened before in the 1980s when the ZANU PF regime used the pretext of dissidents in the Matebeleland and the Midlands provinces to launch Gukurahundi. At least 20000 people are estimated to have been killed during Gukurahundi. Hundreds of leaders and members of the main opposition party at the time, ZAPU were detained. Mnangagwa was the State Security tzar during that period.
In this case, the false coup narrative has been attributed to a wide array of parties, including the opposition which is already under siege from the regime and associated parties. The announcement of a false coup narrative may be designed to set the agenda for a major assault on the opposition. The statement mentioned the MDC Deputy Chairperson, Job Sikhala and former ZANU PF Minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, coupled with a stern warning concerning the deployment of “the long arm of the law”. It also mentioned Pastor Talent Chiwenga, who has been highly critical of the regime.
A foreseeable outcome of this statement is there will soon be several high-profile arrests and detentions for politically-related offences. The statements against foreign missions and references to non-interference are meant to discourage negative commentary, particularly by Western countries when the clampdown intensifies. Already, the three MDC Alliance politicians who were abducted and tortured have been arrested on grounds that they allegedly faked their abductions. SADC and the international community will have to watch closely events in Zimbabwe henceforth, as the heavy clampdown may just about to get worse. As already mentioned, Zimbabwe has been on this path before, with omnous outcomes.
What would be the end game of the clampdown?
It would be to annihilate the opposition, as was the case in the 1980s when Dr Joshua Nkomo’s PF ZAPU was forced into capitulation by the use of egregious violence and imprisonment of opposition leaders. Nkomo was forced to negotiate from a position of weakness, with ZANU PF holding all the aces in terms of power. It resulted in a Government of National Unity following the swallowing of PF ZAPU by ZANU PF. The current ZANU PF has tried all means to destroy the MDC Alliance but to no avail. Any clampdown and arrests of opposition leaders under the pretext of fomenting rumours of a could be designed to achieve a similar end. ZANU PF knows it has neither clue nor instrument to revive the economy on its own. If the opposition must be forced into a union, it will start with an extensive clampdown.
The press conference came as a surprise, as did the denials of rumours of a coup. Zimbabweans joke that it's not the first time that their government has denied a coup while one was under way. That is what happened in November 2017. The latest statement betrays a government that is growing increasingly paranoid in light of the deteriorating economic situation which has run out of control. They are seeing and fearing shadows. The anger among the people is rising and the government is growing uncomfortable.
The Mnangagwa regime likes to point to enemies, but it only has itself to blame. It had so much goodwill when it started, but it spurned all the opportunities. Now it is living in fear of a coup, real or perceived. After grabbing power througha coup, it was always going to live in constant fear of a coup. While the government accuses the so-called rumour-mongers of agenda-setting, that is precisely what it is doing with this press statement. The National Security Council would have done a lot of scenario-planning before the statement. Now, it is probably trying to steer events towards a preferred scenario.