HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s military took control of the country early Wednesday and detained its longtime leader, President Robert Mugabe, capping a political showdown over Mugabe’s apparent attempts to install his wife as his successor.
In a televised announcement after armored vehicles and troops rolled into the capital, Harare, a general insisted that it was “not a military takeover.”
Despite the assurances, the events bore all the hallmarks of a coup. Military vehicles were stationed around parts of the city, the army took over the television station and a uniformed general issued a statement warning that “criminals” in Mugabe’s regime were being targeted.
Army Gen. Constantino Chiwenga made the move as a struggle over who will succeed the country’s increasingly frail 93-year-old leader came to a head. Mugabe has ruled since he led the country to independence from white-minority rule in 1980.
Mugabe is one of the oldest and longest-ruling leaders to come out of Africa’s struggle against colonialism and the emergence of new nations across the continent. His rule, however, has also become increasingly erratic, and he is blamed by many for devastating the once-prosperous former British colony.
“We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” said the statement read by Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo. “We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country.”
The fate of Mugabe and his wife, 52-year-old Grace Mugabe, who increasingly looked set to succeed him, was unclear. But they appeared to be in military custody.
“Mugabe and his family are safe and sound, and their security is guaranteed,” said Moyo. An armored vehicle blocked the road in front of Mugabe’s offices as a large number of soldiers milled around.
South African President Jacob Zuma, who is sending high-level envoys to Harare, said he spoke to Mugabe and that he is “fine” — albeit confined to his home.
But the military remained tight-lipped about further details on Mugabe, his wife or other members of his party who have been arrested.
“We are not saying these names now,” said Overson Mugwisi, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe Defense Forces. At least one senior official, Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, was taken from his home by soldiers, according to one of his aides. Gunfire was exchanged between the troops and the minister’s security guards.
World leaders said they were monitoring the situation, with British Prime Minister Theresa May calling it “fluid.” Her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, added that “nobody wants simply to see the transition from one unelected tyrant to a next.”
For decades, Mugabe boosted a reputation as an unwavering critic of many Western policies and international institutions. His supporters further hailed him for moves such as dismantling white-owned estates and other holdings.
Yet he also was reviled as a despot who brutally crushed dissent and allowed the once-envied country to sink into a cycle of deepening poverty and stratospheric inflation.
Overnight, witnesses reported armored vehicles and soldiers moving around the city along with sounds of gunfire and explosions. By morning, soldiers in armored vehicles controlled major intersections near government buildings.
On the streets of Harare, the news of the military takeover appeared to be greeted with cautious optimism after years of increasingly unsteady rule by Mugabe.
“We are happy that we are going to have another leader,” said a man in Harare’s Chitungwiza neighborhood who gave his name as Yemurai. “Even if it’s going to be another dictator, we accept a new one. Look, we are jobless, hungry and poverty stricken. All we want is something different.” Like most people interviewed, he declined to be identified by his full name.
“This is a disaster,” said Baxon, from the Glen View area. “Solving one problem by creating another. We don’t want another war, but it seems we are headed that way. We have heard there are people in the army not in agreement with what Chiwenga did.”
But there were mounting signs that Mugabe’s former allies were quickly turning against him.
Victor Matemadanda, secretary general of the powerful War Veterans Association, thanked Chiwenga for intervening and said Mugabe should be dismissed.
“We will be recalling President Robert Mugabe as the first secretary of the party and the head of state for the crimes he has committed,” he said in a fiery news conference.
In Harare’s central business district, residents said all seemed normal. Itinerant vendors took advantage of the many closed businesses to sell their wares at intersections.
Police and plainclothes agents normally stationed around the parliament building could be seen sitting on the ground, apparently under watch by armed soldiers.
Across the country, Zimbabweans exchanged frantic text messages asking for updates, debating whether Mugabe had finally been toppled.
Political analyst Mike Mavura said it was important for the military to say this was not a coup for reasons of international legitimacy.
“We are not in the 1960s and 1970s anymore, when coups in Africa were left, right and center — I think they are trying very hard to appear progressive,” he said. “However, of interest to democracy, the elections scheduled for next year, will they take place?”
Zimbabwe’s political crisis reached a boiling point last week with the dismissal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, clearing the way for Mugabe’s wife, also a vice president, to succeed him.
Mugabe told supporters he had dismissed Mnangagwa for disloyalty and disrespect, as well as using witchcraft to take power.
The move exacerbated divisions in the ZANU-PF party, where the youth faction is firmly on Grace Mugabe’s side, while many older veterans of the struggle against white rule look to Mnangagwa. As a former defense minister, Mnangagwa has strong support with the military.
At one point last month, Grace Mugabe even warned that supporters of Mnangagwa were planning their own coup. He later fled to South Africa.
Political commentator Maxwell Saungweme said by phone that the military will probably try to pressure Mugabe to step down in favor of Mnangagwa as acting president.
“But this plan may not pan out as Mugabe might resist this. So the whole thing may be messy,” he warned.
Didymus Mutasa, a former presidential affairs minister who was fired by Mugabe in 2014, said he hoped that the military takeover would “help us start on a democratic process.”
Zimbabwe was once a wealthy breadbasket for the whole region, but its economy and especially the prosperous agriculture sector have suffered in recent years. The currency has collapsed, and at one point the country was experiencing devastating hyperinflation with denominations of the Zimbabwe dollar counted in the trillions.
Meanwhile, Mugabe was seen as being increasingly under the influence of his wife, who was also known as “Gucci Grace” for the rumored extravagance of her foreign shopping trips.
In recent weeks, there have been signs of an increased sensitivity to criticism. Four people were detained for booing Grace Mugabe at a rally, and an American woman was arrested for allegedly tweeting insulting comments about Mugabe.
Grace Mugabe was also sought by South African authorities in August after a local model accused her of assault and battery.
Schemm reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.