HARARE — Military leaders in the impoverished southern Africa nation of Zimbabwe have staged an apparent coup, placing veteran President Robert Mugabe under house arrest and deploying tanks to the streets of the capital, Harare.
The President of neighboring South Africa, Jacob Zuma, said 93-year-old Mugabe — the world’s longest living leader — was unable to leave his home. Troops were reportedly stationed at the country’s parliament and presidential palace.
In a dramatic televised statement in the early hours of Wednesday morning, an army spokesman denied that a military takeover was underway.
But the situation bore all the hallmarks of a coup: The army was in control of the state TV in Harare, there was a significant military presence at the international airport, and Mugabe’s whereabouts were unknown for hours.
The intervention came after weeks of political turmoil, in which Mugabe sacked his powerful Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who enjoyed wide support in the military and was tipped to become the next leader. The move fueled speculation Mugabe would try to install his wife, Grace, to succeed him.
Military in charge: The military announced on state television station ZBC at 4 a.m. that it was conducting an operation to target “criminals” close to the President who were causing “social and economic suffering.”
President’s location: The military said Mugabe and his family were “safe.” South Africa’s Zuma later said Mugabe had been confined to his home, but was feeling “fine.”
Situation on streets: The streets of the capital were reportedly quiet but lines were seen outside banks. CNN saw army checkpoints at key locations.
The first signs that a military intervention was underway came Tuesday afternoon as tanks were seen near the capital.
The situation escalated with the early morning announcement, when Maj. Gen. S.B. Moyo addressed the country on state TV, vehemently denying the operation was a coup.
“To both our people and the world beyond our borders, we wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover of government,” he said.
“As soon as we accomplish our mission we expect situation to return to normalcy.”
Moyo told members of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces that all leave was canceled and soldiers were expected to return to their barracks immediately. He urged Zimbabwe’s other security services to cooperate for “the good of our country.”
Moyo said that the security of Mugabe and his family was “guaranteed” and said the president was safe, but gave no information of his whereabouts.
South African president Jacob Zuma later said he had spoken with Mugabe by phone and that the veteran politician was confined to his home but feeling “fine.”
There were reports Wednesday that officials were being arrested.
Military secures key sites
CNN journalists in Harare saw soldiers securing the Robert Mugabe International Airport and checking vehicles and IDs. The military has set up several checkpoints around the capital, and witnesses said they saw soldiers at the presidential palace and parliament.
So far the atmosphere in the capital has been peaceful.
A resident, who wished not to be named for security reasons, described the city as “very quiet,” though shops were open and buses and taxis appeared to be running normally.
“Many people have just stayed home,” she said.
The resident added that there was a sense of “excitement in the air” and that social media was humming over what might be happening.
But there also appeared to be some nervousness. Photographs showed long lines at ATMs and at banks.
President Zuma of South Africa called on Zimbabwe’s Defense Forces to show restraint, adding that he hoped they “will not move and do more damage.”
“I am hoping that the situation is going to be controlled so peace and stability comes back to Zimbabwe.”
But in Zimbabwe, political figures once loyal to Mugabe are beginning to turn away from him.
In a statement praising the military, Chris Mutsvanga, who heads the influential Zimbabwe War Veterans’ Association, called the move a “bloodless coup.”
“We salute the patriotic and gallant forces of the Zimbabwe for once again coming to the decisive rescue of the nation,” the statement said.
“The populace has long suffered under a self saving dictatorship that had become an oligarch with dynastic delusions.”
Mutsvanga is an ally of the deposed Vice President, but his veterans’ group has historically been loyal to Mugabe. It has, however, been fiercely critical of Grace Mugabe, who is 52 and does not have any connection to Zimbabwe’s independence campaign.
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980. He was the country’s first prime minister and later became president, and has dominated Zimbabwean politics ever since.
He was initially revered, but Mugabe later began to consolidate power with a combination of brutality and bribery.
The tactic has been effective. Mugabe remains the only leader many in the country have ever known, and once infamously claimed that “only god” could remove him from office. He had planned to contest the 2018 election.
Mugabe’s critics say the President’s rule has pushed the country into poverty. Zimbabwe was once agriculturally rich and came to be known as the bread basket of Africa. But after a program of land seizures from white farmers, agricultural output plummeted and inflation soared.
‘Gucci Grace’ controversy
Speculation that Mugabe would attempt to promote his wife to role of president had prompted widespread discontent among formerly loyalist supporters.
Grace Mugabe has drawn the ire of Zimbabweans for being out of touch. She’s been nicknamed “Gucci Grace” for her exorbitant shopping sprees abroad, trips which stand in stark contrast to the lives of those hit hard by the country’s massive inflation and debt burdens.
Robert Mugabe has faced similar accusations, facing criticism for throwing a lavish birthday party last year in a region hit by food shortages and drought. But until this week had succeeded in holding off all challenges to his leadership.