After 37 years of absolute power, the reign of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was last evening coming to a close as the military walked into the executive space he has ruled with impunity.
While the military said this was not a coup, and that President Mugabe and his family were safe, some news agencies reported that the lavish first lady, Grace, was in Namibia. South African President Jacob Zuma said the family was under “house arrest” in Harare.
Wherever the first family was holed, the move appeared to partly resolve the bitter succession wars that were threatening to tear the country apart as factions within the ruling Zanu-PF started fighting ahead of a delegates conference in December.
The return of former Zimbabwean Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was reported to have landed at Manyame Airforce Base “to take control of the country’s government”, marked another twist in the coarse politics of this southern Africa nation.
Unlike Grace, Mr Mnangagwa has the backing of the army and news agencies reported that there was “a lot of talking going on”, with the army discussing the formation of a transitional government after Mugabe steps down.
But the entry of the military — and their measured statements after they seized the national television station and announced that they were acting against “criminals” surrounding the 93-year-old president — added confusion on the fate of President Mugabe, who by last evening was still under house arrest.
The military spokesman, Major General Sibusiso Moyo, said in a televised statement that they “are only targeting criminals around (President Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice”.
The fall of Mugabe — if he does — is going to mark the end of an era marked by a revolution, a tumultuous reign, a malcontent nation, and a widening gap between his autocratic grip and democracy.
In between was his wife Grace, 52, his former secretary-turned first lady and the person he was grooming to take over power, to the chagrin of veterans who fought the guerilla war in the 1970s.
After this war ended the era of Ian Smith, once the symbol of white rule in Africa, Mugabe became the darling of Western countries until 2000, when his government introduced a controversial land reform programme that led to squatters invading and seizing the majority of white-owned farms across the country.
The violent seizures saw Western donors impose sanctions on Zimbabwe, leading to the collapse of the economy and the currency.
The country was forced to abandon its currency in 2009 after a period of hyperinflation that saw the price of a loaf of bread rise above 10 million Zimbabwean dollars.
It was these seizures that saw Mugabe’s aides became wealthy after they were given large chunks of land, and most of these are senior military officers and government officials who are being targeted for removal by a younger generation.
The head of the Defence Forces had a day earlier warned that “the current purging, which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background, must stop forthwith”.
“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” warned the military boss.
That at the tail-end of his presidency Mr Mugabe had become a prisoner of his own past — the veterans and the Young Turks, locally known as G40 and who support the candidature of Grace — was no longer in doubt.
To the veteran freedom fighters, some of whom have controlled politics and business, Mugabe was their liberation hero, while to the young Generation 40, a group of young renegades in the ruling Zanu-PF, the President was their erratic leader.
To the West, Mugabe was the provocative and defiant African dictator who oversaw the collapse of one of Africa’s strongest economies.
Zimbabwe has been on a political rollercoaster ever since the ouster of Mr Mnangagwa, a man who has a strong following in Zimbabwe’s powerful military and among war veterans who fought in the liberation struggle.
His recent firing was the climax of power-play within Zanu-PF on who would succeed Mr Mugabe, currently the world’s oldest president.
His ouster seemed to leave Grace as the potential successor and she had told a public rally that Mnangagwa should leave Zanu-PF before the party’s extraordinary congress in December.
Three years ago, Grace — known in Zimbabwe for her extravagant purchases of properties — engineered the firing of liberation war heroine Joice Mujuru, 62, as vice-president and later had her kicked out of Zanu-PF.
Ms Mujuru left to form her won People’s Rainbow Coalition (PRC), and although she was accused of plotting to topple Mugabe and being corrupt, she was never convicted and is still a decorated veteran.
The fall of Mujuru, the first woman commander in the war of independence, saw the elevation of Grace Mugabe as the head the ruling party’s women’s league, and the first lady then turned her wrath on Mr Mnangagwa, a long-time ally of the president and who was seen as a potential candidate for the presidency.
The president accused his former deputy of plotting to take over power through “witchcraft”.
Mr Mnangagwa left the country after threats to his life, and his return, with the support of the military turns tables on the G40 group, which has, besides Grace Mugabe, some two radicals — Mr Saviour Kasukuwere, the youthful minister for local government, and his friend Jonathan Moyo, once the Ford Foundation director based in Nairobi, and now minister for Higher Education.