Zimbabwe: the secrets behind Mugabe’s demise

Grace Mugabe is hardly ever seen leaving her private villa in Mount Pleasant, in the upscale suburb of Harare, where she has taken refuge with her daughter, Bona, after deserting the cursed Blue Roof mansion. The last time people saw her in public since the coup d’état of November 14, 2017 was just under two months ago, at the family funeral of her husband, Robert Mugabe.

After refusing an official state funeral and burial at the Capital’s Heroes’ Square for her husband, Grace led the funeral procession to Kutama Cemetery, where the father of independence was born 95 years earlier. “If she doesn’t come out anymore, it’s because she’s afraid of being stoned to death,” believes one of Zimbabwe’s many critics of Grace.

“Wrong,” retorts one of the few MPs who still dares to associate with her: “If she lives in a recluse, it is because she can no longer bear to feel the presence of those who betrayed her husband”.

Political life in Zimbabwe is similar to the plot of Game of Thrones, with spectacular outbursts of public anger by actors who accuse each other of the worst deeds.

In exchange for dropping legal proceedings against her – which was demanded by many Zimbabweans – Grace Mugabe agreed to remain silent and to withdraw from the world. The opaque elite who have governed this country for four decades stand united. When you can’t kill yourself, you make compromises.

Boeing shopping trip

Emmerson Mnangagwa and Robert Mugabe, November 1, 2017. Less than a week later, the vice president will be fired. © Xinhua/XINHUA-REA

The secret story of Grace’s rise  following Robert Mugabe’s fall is told by Zimbabwean journalist and writer Douglas Rogers in a detailed investigation published on the second anniversary of Operation Restore Legacy (Two Weeks in November, London, Short Books). It begins one day in the austral winter of 2014.

At an extraordinary meeting of the Zanu-PF Central Committee, President Mugabe announces his decision to appoint the first lady to head the female branch of the ruling party and her subsequent entry into the political bureau. Among Zanu-PF loyalists, many of whom were former liberation fighters, they’re aware of the influence that the former secretary has over the leader who is forty-one years her senior.

They’re also aware of her escapades. “Gucci Grace” has  a taste for luxury, an eruptive temperament and enjoys lavish shopping trips to London and Singapore aboard the presidential Boeing. Everyone fears and, silently, disapproves of her appointment.

The first lady acts like a second president. She summons ministers, attends hearings with a notebook in her hand, and appoints members of her own stable – the “Generation 40” (G40) – to head local federations. The group’s composed of ambitious politicians who were too young to have participated in the glorious “chimurenga” – the armed struggle.

It’s led by the Minister of Higher Education, Jonathan Moyo, an unscrupulous opportunist who, after being a fierce opponent of the regime, has turned into a zealous courtesan of the presidential couple. As head of the universities, he also ensured that Grace obtained a doctorate in sociology in record time: just three months.

Grace’s first target is a woman, who poses a major threat to her ambition of succeeding her husband.

Joice Mujuru is a decorated veteran, a minister since 1980, and Vice-President of the Republic for ten years. She’s the widow of General Solomon Mujuru, who died in 2011 during a suspicious fire on her farm. Her nickname during war was “Teurai Ropa” – the one who spills blood.  Joice enjoys undeniable legitimacy, to the point that many Zimbabweans see her as the natural heir to “Comrade Bob”.

After her appointment to political office, Grace launches a campaign against Joice Mujuru, calling her a “conspirator” who’s determined to avenge her husband’s death, and seize power. In December 2014, Mugabe gives in.

He dismisses Mujuru and  eight ministers deemed close to her. Her successor as vice-president is another veteran: Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. This will be Grace Mugabe’s second target.

Even more than Joice Mujuru, Mnangagwa is a respected personality among veterans and the leading figure of Zanu-PF’s so-called “Lacoste Group” – a reference to the crocodile-shaped logo of the famous French sportswear brand – which brings together the “liberators” of Zimbabwe. The guerrilla unit, he led, during the liberation struggle was called the “Crocodile Gang”. He was arrested by the police, tortured, and sentenced to ten years in prison for sabotage against Ian Smith’s government. Behind bars, he met Robert Mugabe. Since then, they have never left each other’s side.

North Korean advisors

For three decades, Mnangagwa executed the wishes of his leader without hesitation. As Minister of Security in 1983, he supervised the bloody “Gukurahundi” operation (“the rain that sweeps away garbage”) in Matabeleland, resulting in the deaths of 20,000 people in nine months.

In 1998, he was deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he coordinated the Zimbabwean contingent’s support for the Laurent-Désiré Kabila regime. It allows senior officers to enrich themselves through the trafficking of copper and diamonds. In both 2008 and 2013, as Minister of Defence, he played a key role in the post-election violence and repression that decimated the ranks of the opposition’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.

In December 2016, as Zimbabwe plunged further into economic and social turmoil, Zanu-PF nominated Comrade Bob, 92, as its 2018 presidential candidate. The plan devised by Grace and her G40 was simple: her husband, once re-elected, will resign in her favour. But first, she must be reappointed as vice-president.

In early 2017, as Grace prepares to take the old leader on an exhausting tour of pre-election meetings, she holds a secret meeting at the Blue Roof Manor. In his room upstairs, Robert Mugabe is asleep. In the living room downstairs, the G40 leaders gather around Grace as she explains why the Lacoste Group must be “neutralized” one by one, starting with Mnangagwa.

The two factions hold the same views, ideology, and vision.. Only the struggle for power matters. During campaign meetings Robert Mugabe falls asleep frequently as Grace and Mnangagwa challenge each other.

Arsenic poisoning?

In mid-August, a lunch is organized in the town of Gwanda on the sidelines of one of these gatherings. After consuming ice cream from Grace Mugabe’s dairy farm (seized about ten years earlier from a white owner), the vice-president collapses. He was evacuated to a hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mnangagwa and his entourage are convinced that Grace laced his food with arsenic. When asked about this accusation a few days later during a talk show on ZBC, Grace laughed, saying  “Why would I want to kill Mnangagwa? Who is Mnangagwa on this earth? Killing someone my husband made? It doesn’t make any sense!”.

In this hostile climate, the election campaign continues. At the beginning of October, the First Lady crosses the line: she attacks her rival directly, accusing him of fomenting a coup d’état. Standing with a microphone in her hand, dressed like a rock star, she screams: “Traitors and usurpers will be eliminated!”

Sitting to the right of the old chief, with his eyes half closed, Emmerson Mnangagwa did not react. He replies indirectly a month later, at a meeting in Bulawayo. As Grace gets up from her chair to deliver a new diatribe, the crowd, mostly made up of veterans, explodes in jeers while waving hundreds of toy crocodiles.

The message is very clear. Robert Mugabe, drawn from his sleep by the screams, immediately asks for the microphone. He lifts a boney finger and says,  “You insult and denigrate the first lady on behalf of Mnangagwa? All right. I’ll fire him”.On November 6, Mnangagwa was dismissed and excluded from the party. His personal guard is unarmed.

To escape imminent arrest, he takes flight.

At dawn on November 7, he leaves Harare in a convoy of three vehicles, heading southeast towards the Mozambican border. He puts on his wife’s king-size sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed safari hat. His three sons and a handful of bodyguards accompany him. When he arrives at the Mutare border crossing, police officers recognize him and draw their weapons, forcing the convoy to make a hasty U-turn. After a few kilometres, the three 4×4s take a side road and stop in front of an abandoned earthen hut. Mnangagwa and his eldest son, Junior get off and take shelter under the thatched roof, while the vehicles return to Harare.

At nightfall, they both walk along a smuggler’s trail that will take them to Mozambique. But police equipped with powerful flashlights and sniffer dogs are looking for them. Mnangagwa and Junior – who firmly holds his father’s Louis Vuitton bag containing US$8,000 in small bills – are forced to cross a swamp and crawl through the mud to escape them.

They meet a mystic  with amulets, who shows them the way and chases away evil spirits in exchange for a few greenbacks. Next, they stumble upon a garbage collector armed with a rusty AK47. They pay him $500 to leave them alone.

After 24 hours in the bush, they finally arrive in the Mozambican city of Manica, with sore feet and covered in mud. From there, they move to Maputo and Johannesburg, where a disparate group of Zimbabwean opponents take care of them. It’s a strange cocktail of war veterans, Zanu-PF elders, expropriated white farmers, and human rights activists, who help them.

Gun in hand

In Harare, the news of Mnangagwa’s escape is greeted with jubilation by Grace and the G40. “Finally rid of the Crocodile!” says Mugabe. His wife’s official appointment as vice-president is scheduled for 16 November. Euphoric, Grace makes preparations for a grand ceremony but nothing will go as planned.

Mnangagwa’s escape raises Robert Mugabe’s paranoia, who fears a coup d’état. The first on his list of suspects is none other than the Chief of the Army Staff, General Constantino Chiwenga, a relative of Mnangagwa with whom he served during Operation Gukurahundi. Mugabe orders his arrest as soon as he steps on the tarmac at Harare airport after returning from a working visit to China.

In the evening of November 12, a squadron of police officers waits for Chiwenga as he gets off the plane. But, the General is aware of the plan, and takes precautions. Members of the special forces are disguised as airport maintenance staff. They surround the police officers with their weapons drawn. The attempted arrest turns into a fiasco.

The next day, Chiwenga and – from South Africa – Mnangagwa rally most of the senior officers by telephone around Operation Restore Legacy, the code name for what was nothing more than a coup d’état. On the afternoon of November 14, the operation was launched, just as Robert Mugabe began to chair the Council of Ministers. On the agenda: the inauguration of the First Lady, scheduled for the next day.

It is 6pm when Robert and Grace Mugabe leave the palace. Army tanks have surrounded the barracks of the Presidential Guard, whose leader is secretly  aligned to the coup plotters. The couple still have no idea what is going on.

Their convoy heads to the Blue Roof mansion in the Borrowdale suburb. In addition to the 5-ton armoured Mercedes Pullman Guard, there are four other Mercedes filled with Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) secret service agents, six police Land Rovers and two trucks carrying 30 black hooded Presidential Guard personnel.

Standing in front of the Blue Roof entrance gate, three tanks and about a hundred soldiers are waiting for them in combat position. Police officers and CIO agents raise their arms and let themselves be disarmed, while the Presidential Guard watch the scene without moving. It was then that Robert and Grace Mugabe finally understood that a coup d’état had just overthrown them. They are silent. It was only later that night, when the sick old lion had gone to bed, that Grace burst into fury in her living room.

At the same time, the army is arresting the main leaders of the G40.

All were handcuffed without resistance, with the exception of the Minister of Finance, Ignatius Chombo, whose private guard resisted. Three security guards were shot dead by the military. They’ll be the only ones who die from Operation Restore Legacy. Jonathan Moyo has better luck. He manages to escape,taking refuge in the Blue Roof mansion, from where he negotiates his fate with the new authorities: exile in Nairobi in exchange for immunity.

On the morning of 21 November, Zimbabwean deputies, who were only yesterday zealous supporters of the “national hero”, vote to dismiss him. That same afternoon, Robert Mugabe resigns for a $10 million signing bonus, legal immunity, and a promise that the couple’s property would not be seized.

The next day, Emmerson Mnangagwa returns to Harare. His first gesture is to reward the three generals who ran the operation: Chiwenga was appointed Vice-President, Perence Shiri becomes Minister of Lands, and Sibusiso Moyo takes over as Minister of Foreign Affairs. In Zimbabwe, everything moves but nothing changes.

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