Mugabe’s last victory

How did the 93-year-old Zimbabwean leader manage to hold on to power, defying his generals and ruling party?

Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe defied expectations on November 19 and did not announce his resignation [Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo]

The world was glued to television screens last night and almost everyone was expecting one thing: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe‘s resignation. It never came.

He delivered a rambling speech that said nothing. By the time he mentioned he would preside over the ZANU-PF Congress, it was already clear that Mugabe was not going anywhere. Across the world, the reaction was one of shock and utter disbelief. So what was that all about? What had happened?

What was very clear was that Mugabe did not resign. Those who had taken out the champagne to celebrate the historic moment of his resignation, after 37 years in power, had to put it away and wait for another day. Mugabe, the old warhorse, had once again defied the odds and hung onto power. What had been built up as a landmark moment turned out to be a big anticlimax.

I spoke to many people in Zimbabwe afterwards. They were deflated and confused. It was a sombre mood all over the country. It reminded me of my experience on August 1, 2013, the day after the general elections which were preceded by high hopes and expectations across the country. We knew of ZANU-PF’s history of rigging elections, but somehow, there was a positive feeling that the sheer numbers would overwhelm the rigging system. We thought that, the next day, we would wake up to a new Zimbabwe.

But it all came crashing down, as it soon became clear that the rigging machinery had prevailed once again. As I drove around Harare, there was a melancholic cloud that hung across the capital city. Everyone was stunned and confused, asking what had happened. But nobody had answers. What was clear, though, was that the future was dark. And, true to that prediction, the years following that election have been years of darkness.

I do not think Mugabe will add another year to his rule. But he has successfully avoided defeat when everyone thought his end had arrived.


Today feels eerily like that. Many people are recovering from the shock of last night, as they try to come to terms with what did not happen. There is uncertainty, confusion and anxiety.

The problem is that the military generals tried to have their cake and eat it. They led a military operation against Mugabe’s government but did not want to call it a coup. They wanted to do something illegal while appearing to be within the boundaries of the law. They were trying to be careful, but in doing so, they showed their hand too soon.

Mugabe saw their weakness and he exploited it. He realised that they were not ready to finish the job by breaking the law. He realised he could use the law to hang on to his job.


Mugabe was emboldened when the Southern African Development Community (SADC) convened an emergency summit of its security organ, in the wake of the military intervention. He was given further confidence by the African Union, which reiterated its principle that it would not recognise an unlawful change of government.

With that backing, and the knowledge of the generals’ concern to create a veneer of legality for their actions, Mugabe was negotiating from a position of strength. And history shows that the 93-year-old president is a tough negotiator, who rarely gives in and makes sure he comes away the winner every time.

I do not think Mugabe will add another year to his rule. But he has successfully avoided defeat when everyone thought his end had arrived. I suspect it’s because he wants to be the master of his own exit, or, at least, to appear like he is in control.

In his speech, he said they had agreed that he would preside over his party’s Extraordinary Congress, which is set for early December. He probably wants to use that as a space to leave with dignity. He probably sees it as the grand stage for a respectable departure, which would not have been the case had he left last night.

For their part, if they gained his undertaking to depart at the Congress, the generals are probably content that they have achieved what they wanted all along. They would have preferred an immediate departure, but they will take his undertaking, as long as he can live by its terms.


In any event, they must be satisfied that it was their actions last week that prompted Mugabe’s eventual departure. In not taking drastic action, they were constrained not only by the law, but also by their respect for a man who has been their leader for more than 40 years.

They want him gone, but they also want to treat him with the respect that they, deep down, believe he deserves. Thus, if he has conceded to go at Congress or soon afterwards, then they are probably prepared to wait a little longer.

There is also an argument that the generals are aware that their military action spawned distinct, but related, political processes which could yield the same result. The first is the mass protests led by the ordinary people. They could lead to heavy pressure against Mugabe. The second is the party-led process of removal (impeachment) under the constitution.

On the same day that the generals were negotiating with Mugabe, the Central Committee of his party, its highest decision-making body between congresses, held a meeting to expel him. It also resolved to start the process of impeachment if he did not resign by midday on Monday. As I write, the deadline has expired and ZANU-PF has called its MPs to a caucus to prepare for the impeachment proceedings.

The success of impeachment proceedings depends on whether the authors of Mugabe’s removal can mobilise the numbers among ZANU-PF MPs, and, possibly, among the MPs of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) as well. An impeachment vote requires at least a two-thirds majority of the total membership of both Houses of Parliament. It is a high threshold.

There’s an argument that the impeachment process can be fast-tracked, but it does not take away Mugabe’s right to be heard. The committee that investigates Mugabe’s grounds of removal must presumably give him an audience. That could be humiliating enough for Mugabe, but it could also delay the process.

The prospect of being subjected to a “trial” by parliament might cause Mugabe to reconsider his options and throw in the towel. But he carries a stubborn streak, and, chances are, he will put up a fight before he goes down.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.