In Depth

Zimbabwe coup: a catalyst for change in Africa?

Mugabe’s overthrow may be beginning of the end for dictatorships

Africa is a continent fused by coup d’etats - more than 200 since the post-independence era of the 1960s, many of which have led to seismic changes of government.

Nigeria alone has had at least eight attempted military takeovers. Burkina Faso has endured ten coups. But the military overthrow of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and the ousting of Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh in January, signal a shift in tactics that could have profound implications for Africa’s lingering despots.

Although troops have been stationed outside Zimbabwe’s parliament, and Mugabe effectively placed under house arrest, there has been no violence on the streets of the capital, Harare. Operation Restore Legacy was a master stroke of clever planning, allowing Zimbabwe’s plotters to neatly avoid outside intervention or regional sanctions.

“Whatever one might think of coups in principle, one would have to concede that this one was artfully contrived and executed. With minimal bloodshed and destruction, it removed a major impediment to Zimbabwe’s development,” says African think tank the Institute for Security Studies

Some commentators believe it also signals a new era for Africa’s aging dictators.

Gilles Yabi, director of Wathi, a think tank based in Dakar, told the AFP news agency that Mugabe’s fall could make it clear to other autocrats that “it may be better to go voluntarily”.

The future of Africa

In addition to the end of Mugabe’s 37-year reign, and of Jammeh’s 22-year stranglehold over the Gambia, a third African strongmen also stepped down this year: Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who controlled Angola for 38 years.

The regime change has shifted Africa’s political landscape and “collectively sends a message to the citizens living under other strongmen and long-time leaders, that change is possible”, Quartz says.

Possible, perhaps, but slow in coming. Paul Biya, for example, has ruled Cameroon for 35 years, while Yoweri Museveni has been president of Uganda for 31 years. Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has clung to power longer, even, than Mugabe - 38 years.

And, like Mugabe, many of Africa’s ageing leaders have used their decades of control to consolidate influence and wealth at the expense of their country. Some have installed family members to ensure the dynasty continues - but could their days be numbered?

“The leaders of Gabon and Togo, who both succeeded fathers who had ruled for long stretches, may well be looking over their shoulders following the tumultuous events in Zimbabwe,” reports AFP.

Togo’s government, led by President Faure Gnassingbe, has been the target of weekly street protests and violence that has resulted in the deaths of at least 16 people since August.

Other African countries have agitated for change more quietly, by uprooting ruling families from their ranks. One of the first decisions taken by newly installed Angolan President Joao Lourenco was to fire Isabel dos Sontas - daughter of former president Jose Eduardo dos Santos - who was heading the Sonangol state oil company.

But change takes time and sustained effort. According to a HuffPost article last year, social and economic changes in Africa - including the growth of the middle class, better education opportunities, and increased foreign investment - have led to a steady decline in the number of coups on the continent.

“The emergence of a growing culture of the rule of law, constitutionalism and the democratic dispensation has largely taken away the appetite for coups,” Zambian diplomat Anderson Chibwa told the magazine New African in 2015.

The more things change...

Zimbabwe might be a catalyst for change, but it might also prove to be an isolated incident.

Mugabe crossed a red line by firing his vice president and trying to bequeath power to his wife, provoking armed intervention. Zimbabweans backed the miltary’s actions - celebrating in the streets when Mugabe finally resigned - but change is not always for the better.

Zimbabwe swears in its new leader, interim president Emmerson Mnangagwa, on Friday. The former intelligence chief - known as The Crocodile for his savvy survival instincts - has vowed to lead the nation into a “new and unfolding democracy”, but Mnangagwa is taking on the role as an appointed leader. Elections aren’t due to take place until 2018, and Mnangagwa avoided any mention of them in a speech this week, CNN says.

“For many, the joyous end of Mugabe’s reign is tempered with apprehension,” the news website reports. “Mnanagagwa served as Mugabe’s right-hand man for his entire career. And to many Zimbabweans, he is more feared than the leader he replaces.”

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