Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

After 37 years in power, Robert Mugabe’s presence at the top of Zimbabwe’s politics seemed immutable. But the conclusion of that run after a coup this week ends up revealing a few surprises about political power, militaries, and democracy. Today, I’ll relay my conversations with coup experts and Zimbabwean political scientists. And I’ll share excerpts of a story from The Atlantic’s archives that puts Mugabe’s story in context.


If you’ve heard that there was a coup in Zimbabwe, you might be surprised to open the website of a state-owned newspaper today to see President Robert Mugabe, smiling and shaking hands with the head of the military whose tanks had rolled into Harare not long before. You might expect the two to be shooting at each other, not shaking hands. But that image, and the rather unconventional transfer of power it represents, tells us a lot about what happens when democracy itself is more an aspiration than a reality.

Military coups are on the decline worldwide, and are notably rare in southern Africa. But they are likely in countries that share two factors, said Naunihal Singh, a professor at the Naval War College who wrote a recent book on the logic of coups. “Poor countries are more likely to have coup attempts, and countries that are neither dictatorships or democracies.” With those underlying conditions met, the specific trigger in Zimbabwe was the intensifying fight to succeed Mugabe. “If there’s going to be succession, you no longer have a ruler in place,” said Singh. “The question of who’s going to be next naturally pulls military actors in if they’ve got preferences. And in this case, they’ve got very strong preferences.”

But the military’s involvement represents an intervention in favor of one anti-democratic outcome over another. Mugabe, now 93, had said he was planning to run again in next year’s election, having repeatedly outmaneuvered and outgunned the main democratic opposition. He has made his incredible longevity into a joke, telling reporters after he was rumored to be dead last year, “It's true I was dead. I resurrected as I always do.” Jokes notwithstanding, his age made it inevitable that he would be replaced sooner rather than later.

Over the last few weeks, Mugabe seemed to be maneuvering to put his wife, Grace Mugabe, in place to succeed him, at the expense of a military-aligned rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was fired last week. “The problem is that whoever’s in power has a good deal of say about the conditions of the election,” said Singh. “If there were, in fact, independent electoral authorities, elections were free and fair, perhaps things would have been different.” Instead, Mugabe’s political rivals had good reason to worry about being shut out of the election process.

The officials who seized power were careful to say that they were not targeting Mugabe, who they stressed was safe, but were rather aiming at other unspecified criminal elements. “This is not a military takeover,” a general announced on television. For Chipo Dendere, a political scientist who has studied Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, there was no doubt what had happened. The military had seized power, even if Mugabe officially remained president. “The challenge for the military is getting Robert Mugabe out of this alive,” said Dendere. “They all better hope that he doesn’t die of a heart attack.” He is still revered for his role in liberating Zimbabwe, and the new leaders need legitimacy. The coup “was as nice as coups can go,” Dendere said wryly.

What happened this week was a “guardian coup,” she said. Rather than an outside force knocking over the government, one faction of the power structure—the military—took control from another temporarily. “This isn’t about national politics. This is very much internal ZANU-PF politics,” she said. “What makes the Zimbabwean situation different is that there are not two different groups that are armed. It’s just one group that has control of weaponry,” she said.

That lined up with Singh’s research. Despite stereotypes, “coups tend to be bloodless or have relatively little bloodshed,” he said. “When forces do clash, they do so with a good deal of delicacy. They’ll fire in the air over each other, they’ll try to avoid hurting each other.” That goes particularly for President Mugabe. “Part of having control is getting Robert Mugabe to say that ‘I’m leaving’ on his own volition,” said Dendere. And that calls for smiling photo-ops. Mugabe’s legacy gives him some ability to resist efforts to go into exile. But if he does, said Dendere, “it doesn’t mean that we’d get conflict. It just means that the impasse would go on for a long time.”

But the bloodlessness of the transfer of power doesn’t make what’s happening any more democratically legitimate. When autocracy looms, it’s easy to look at military officials as guardians of stability. In the U.S., the idea that former generals like chief of staff John Kelly are playing the “adults in the room” for an erratic president plays that same role. But in the U.S., as in Zimbabwe, the ultimate source of legitimacy is clear. As Dendere put it, after the coup, if the country’s new leaders want to set it on a sustainable path, “they just need to follow the constitution.”


Zimbabwe’s crisis has been a long time coming. In 2003, Samantha Power reported “How to Kill a Country” for The Atlantic. Power won the Pulitzer Prize that year and went on to serve as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. More than a decade later, her story about Mugabe’s misrule still rings true. Here are excerpts from her reporting.

It’s easy to think of Mugabe today as a venal autocrat. But he stands for something in the country’s history—and he fought against real racism. In 2003, Power found Ian Douglas Smith, the leader who led the country’s white minority to declare independence from British rule in 1965, still living in the capital, Harare:

Largely ignored since independence, [Smith] seems to have found in the blind bungling of Robert Mugabe's regime a grim redemption for white rule. "You can't imagine how many people come up to me and say, 'We didn't agree with you back then. We thought you were too rigid and inflexible. But now we see you were right. You were so right: They were not fit to govern.'"

The "they," of course, is the black majority.

Smith had drawn the wrong conclusions about race, Power wrote, but Mugabe had certainly mismanaged the country. The white minority had accumulated huge tracts of farmland over the decades, and there was a widely acknowledged need for some kind of redistribution of that land. But Mugabe chose a policy that seemed motivated less by justice than by revenge.

Mugabe decided on what he called "fast-track land reform" only in February of 2000, after he got shocking results in a constitutional referendum: Though he controlled the media, the schools, the police, and the army, voters rejected a constitution he put forth to increase his power even further. A new movement was afoot in Zimbabwe: The Movement for Democratic Change—a coalition of civic groups, labor unions, constitutional reformers, and heretofore marginal opposition parties. Mugabe blamed the whites and their farm workers (who, although they together made up only 15 percent of the electorate, were enough to tip the scales) for the growth of the MDC—and for his humiliating rebuff.

So he played the race card and the land card. "If white settlers just took the land from us without paying for it," the president declared, "we can, in a similar way, just take it from them without paying for it.”...

The tragedy of Mugabe's approach is that it has harmed those whom a well-ordered, selective redistribution program could and should have helped. Generally the farms have not been given to black farm managers or farm workers… In fact, the beneficiaries of the land seizures are, with few exceptions, ruling-party officials and friends of the President's.

Commercial agriculture collapsed. The economic chaos led to democratic upheaval. The country voted rejected a proposed constitution—and Mugabe himself.

In March [2002], although the ruling party beat and tortured opponents, controlled media coverage of the campaign, and posted its armed watchdogs at election booths, the voters turned up—and by all unofficial accounts elected Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of the Movement for Democratic Change, to replace Mugabe as president.

But “Mugabe rigged the results,” wrote Power. Still, Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, showed the tenacity that would later lead him to win a seat as prime minister in a power-sharing government with Mugabe. “Mugabe underestimated the people and overestimated his invincibility,” he told Power.

Mugabe’s actions then may have empowered the military and the war veterans who have been instrumental in this week’s coup. “In August of 1998 Robert Mugabe sent 11,000 soldiers—a third of his army—into the most menacing country in Africa: the Congo.” The decision made a few of Mugabe’s allies rich from plundering Congo’s natural resources, but it was hardly a military success.  

The war was extremely unpopular at home. As casualties mounted, some army officers grew restless and began plotting a coup, which was foiled in its planning stages. Mugabe dismissed his critics as "black white men wearing the master's cap." But it was harder for him to ignore the outrage of one of his key constituencies: the veterans of the 1970s liberation war, who saw fortunes being made in the Congo and began clamoring for the compensation Mugabe had promised them for their sacrifices. Mugabe thought he might placate the war veterans by offering up the white farms, but in the end, although the vets were the ones who expelled the white farmers, it is the country's elites who got the farms. Zimbabwe's troops are thought to have withdrawn from the Congo in September of [2002], but the consequences of the war are more durable. In addition to unleashing the war veterans as a powerful political force, the Congo war consumed vast sums of money that would have been better spent on medicine for the country's dying people.

You can read Power’s story in full on our website.


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