Is Zimbabwe's Coup Part of China's Grab for Africa?

In Harare I was told, a decade ago, that having fought off white minority rule, Zimbabwe was in danger of becoming a 'Chinese colony'. The intimate ties between post-coup leaders and Beijing may mean those fears are becoming reality

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An old torn election sticker, with a portrait of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Harare, Nov. 19 2017. Zimbabwe's ruling party Central Committee begun removing Mugabe as party leader and replacing him with recently fired Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa
An old torn election sticker showing Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, Harare, Nov. 19 2017. Zimbabwe's ruling party began replacing Mugabe with recently fired Vice President, Emmerson MnangagwaCredit: /AP

October 2006. Harare, Zimbabwe.

The jacarandas were in full bloom. Deep purple hues dotted the blazing African sun on my way to the Heroes Acre, Zimbabwe’s national monument for its war heroes. My driver, a stout man in his mid-forties, looked at me through the rearview mirror and started a conversation abruptly.

"You know Sir, all this talk of democracy and freedom, it’s a smokescreen. Earlier we were ruled by the whites. Now we are a Chinese colony."

A man watches the televised state address by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe in Mbare, Harare on November 19, 2017Credit: ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP

The Heroes Acre on the outskirts of Harare, where the country’s freedom fighters are buried, stands as an awkward metaphor. Pointing out to the statues, he cringed.

"You see these statues? Our leaders wanted to build a memorial for the freedom fighters. They contracted it out to the Koreans. Look at them now, our heroes look Chinese."

Over the years, I kept in touch with him. Last week, hearing of the coup, I called him to find out about the situation on the ground.

"Ah, Mr Rao! We are having a bit of a situation today, stage-managed from Beijing...even a military coup cannot be managed without the blessings of the Chinese overlords, you see," he laughed.

Indeed, a few days before the coup, General Chiwenga, head of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) arrived in Beijing to meet two of China's most powerful men - Gen Li Zuocheng, chief of the joint staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and China’s defense minister, Gen Chang Wanquan.

Chiwenga thanked them for their "longtime, selfless help" and reiterated that Zimbabwe was "willing to deepen exchanges and cooperation in all fields with China to promote the rapid development of bilateral state and military relations between the two countries."

The context in which this visit happened gives it extraordinary significance, occurring just days before the military overturned the political fortunes of those who ruled Zimbabwe with an iron grip for nearly four decades.

China is Zimbabwe's largest investor and trading partner and has invested heavily in the country's mineral resources, particularly the diamond mining industry. In 2016, Harare enforced an indigenization law that sought to reduce foreign ownership of Zimbabwean businesses - leaving many Chinese investors concerned.

People walk past a wall with a graffiti reading "We want garwe" ['crocodile', in the Shona language), referring to sacked vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, on November 15, 2017 in Harare, ZimbabweCredit: STRINGER/AFP

Just a few days before Chiwenga’s visit to China, Mugabe sacked Emmerson Mnangagwa as Zimbabwe’s Vice-President and expelled him from his party, Zanu-PF. This was seen as Mugabe's attempt to make way for his wife, 53-year-old Grace Mugabe, to take control of the party and become President.

Emmerson fled Zimbabwe and vowed revenge.

75-year-old Emmerson, once Mugabe’s assistant and bodyguard, earned the nickname 'Crocodile' for his ruthlessness. Having fought in the guerilla war during the 1970s against white minority rule, he is seen as a war veteran. He is known to be a close ally and friend of General Chiwenga and is said to enjoy Beijing's support.

This was not the first time Emmerson was seen as a potential challenge to Mugabe. In 2005 Mugabe chose Joyce Mujuru, wife of army general Solomon Mujuru, as the vice-president of Zimbabwe, demoting Emmerson to an insignificant role.

Then, as now, it was seen as a move to curtail Emmerson’s political ambitions. The logic was that Solomon Mujuru, who had a considerable influence with the army, would counter Emmerson’s ambitions to take over from Mugabe.

I got firsthand insight into the political infighting in Zanu-PF's top ranks from George Charamba, Mugabe’s press secretary. When I asked George about Emerson, he grumbled, "The crocodile can try all he wants. But even he knows he won’t get far. Because the old man (Mugabe) is a master at taming crocodiles."

Demonstrators call for the ouster of President Robert Mugabe, placed under house arrest by Zimbabwe's generals, including Constantino Chiwenga, on poster left. Nov. 18, 2017Credit: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

This coup is not a recent development. It has been brewing for well over a decade.

In 2006, when I interviewed Joyce Mujuru, one of the acting vice-presidents, she sang Mugabe's praises. When I asked her about the economic crisis, she casually breezed over the question: "You know who is playing all that? It’s the British! You know, for a nation such as Zimbabwe, it is not something that is extraordinarily, or amiss."

Off-camera, she conceded she has one complaint - Grace Mugabe. "She is a disgrace and the old man is in her grip," she said. As an afterthought, she added, "This country needs a change. It needs a compassionate leader."

That evening, Professor Sam Moyo, an expert on land reform in Southern Africa, asked me to join him for a drink at the Meikles hotel. I went along.

As the evening progressed, we were joined by a man with bloodshot eyes. His name was Ncube. Reticent at first, Ncube started sharing his opinions freely after four pegs of single malt whiskey. "The old man is too concerned with his own legacy," he said. "Emmerson Mnangagwa is the only person capable of taking control. He is the spymaster with the credentials of a war veteran... strong ties to the army and the backing of the Chinese."

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe delivers his speech during a live broadcast at State House in Harare, Sunday, Nov, 19, 2017Credit: /AP

The Mujurus, he said, were just co-existing. Joyce would never be accepted as the presidential candidate in Zanu-PF because she was a woman. Most importantly, the Chinese would not support her. They want someone they trust.

A few days later, I saw Ncube at a Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe meeting. This time, he was sober, wearing an army uniform. We exchanged an awkward smile. Partially acknowledging it, he walked away. I never saw him again.

In March 2007, I went to Zimbabwe again, this time to speak to members of the opposition, busy with their own political infighting. I met ProfessorArthur Mutambara, an Oxford-educated political activist, at an undisclosed location. He made a passionate plea on video:

"Mugabe has become a tyrant, a dictator who is demonizing and violating the rights of Africans in Zimbabwe. It has become the negation of the liberation war. It has become the negation of freedom and justice for our people...We want change in Zimbabwe. And I’m prepared to work under anybody or any political party that can transform our country from poverty to prosperity... if that requires that I become President to achieve that result, so be it."

Newspapers at a news stand in Harare, Zimbabwe Monday, Nov. 20, 2017Credit: Ben Curtis/AP

After my interviews, I left Zimbabwe. In June, I read reports of a failed coup attempt in which several soldiers were arrested. Joyce Mujuru’s husband Solomon was reportedly put under house arrest. Joyce Mujuru was removed from her post. The leaders of the coup were arrested and charged with treason. Some of them were army generals. One of them was named Ben Ncube, the spokesman of the Zimbabwe National Army.

In 2008, inflation shot up to 89.7 sextillion percent. After a bitter electoral battle marred by violence, opposition leaders, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutumbara joined hands with Robert Mugabe, assuming power as the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, respectively.

A decade later, in 2017, history repeats itself, like a political thriller. This time, the coup has been successful. As the army took control, Mugabe’s entre' as the Prime-Minister has ended in an exit in disgrace. Mnangagwa is in control of Zanu-PF. Grace Mugabe has been expelled from the party, with reports suggesting that she fled Zimbabwe.

Many Zimbabweans have taken to the streets, dancing and celebrating Mugabe’s downfall. But my driver sneers cynically.

"Mugabe is out, Mnangagwa is in. He got his revenge. It's an internal power struggle. We will celebrate today, repent tomorrow. And China will continue to control us, remotely." 

That begs the question: Was Zimbabwe's coup 'Made in China'?

A Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and an alumnus of the London School of Economics, Shrenik Rao is a digital entrepreneur and filmmaker. Rao revived the Madras Courier, a 232-year-old newspaper, as a digital publication of which he is the Editor-in-Chief. Twitter: @ShrenikRao

This article has been co-published with the Madras Courier