By Norbert Mao

Semantics aside veteran Zimbabwean president Robert Gabriel Mugabe has been ousted from power. He may be in office but he is certainly not in power. General Constantine Chiwenga and his colleagues in the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) are insisting that this is not a coup d’etat. The dictionary definition of a coup d’etat is “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics in particular the violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group.” This definition is on all fours with what happened in Zimbabwe last Wednesday morning. It was sudden, decisive and has irreversibly altered the dynamics of power in that country.

Here in Uganda the news evoked an ironic response. Henry Oryem Okello Minister of State for Foreign Affairs made a statement that the Zimbabwe army should respect the constitution. How can people who don’t respect the constitution advise anyone to respect the constitution? Here in Uganda they are bleeding the national treasury dry and clobbering any dissenting voice to remove the presidential age limit from the constitution but they have the shameless temerity to tell the ZDF not to violate the constitution.

The powers that be in our blessed republic are putting on a brave face claiming that nothing like what happened in Zimbabwe can happen here. Maybe. Maybe not. Over the years Museveni has managed to marginalize the bush war veterans leaving them with nothing but symbolic power. He has elevated younger officers who revere him and made them dominant and fiercely loyal to him and only him. He has also put the Special Forces Command in charge of roughly 100 kilometer radius of Kampala. The regular soldiers are not capable of massing in the city.

The South African Development Cooperation(SADC) region has been relatively stable in the last three decades with the exception of General Lekhanya’s coup in Lesotho. Of all places, Zimbabwe is not the place anyone expected tanks to roll on the streets. There may be no blood on the streets but whatever has happened has left the civilian elite aghast.

Prof. Ndebesa, a Makerere don, quipped that the military takeover in Zimbabwe is not a wind of change but a change of wind. Like the age old English royal obituary the king is dead, long live the king! It is a change of guard. Mugabe was no longer serving the interests of the powerful elite coalition that has buttressed his regime for almost four decades. He became dispensable and expendable.

The masterminds of the overthrow had concluded that their commander in chief was being derailed and that the core tenets of the revolution that brought ZANU-PF into power were being subverted by a rival group within the party. That is the group characterized by the army as “criminals” around President Mugabe.

The puppet show going on may continue for a little while but at the end of the day there has to be a government. And that government will come after the so called G40 that Grace Mugabe led has been purged. Without saying so directly, the army is on a mission to cleanse the party. In fact they consider themselves part and parcel of ZANU-PF which is a guardian party for the revolution that ousted Ian Smith’s white minority government. This is a palace coup. An internal cleansing process.

The most difficult battle however is now internal. The army has only saved Mugabe from himself. ZANU-PF has to do a lot of soul searching. The party has to reclaim its historical mission. The extent to which the army can contribute to this process is yet to be seen.

It was Thucydides who wrote that “of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most”. So far the ZDF has exercised tremendous restraint and the dividend has been that the people, wearied by decades of abuse and misrule, have been calm.

No one knows what is going on behind the closed doors but for once even the wily Mugabe’s bag of tricks may be empty. He has a choice either to climb out of a ground floor window or be thrown out from a tenth floor window. The army is reluctant to take the second option and prefer to coax him slowly much like exorcising a ghost. They don’t want his blood on their hands. Mugabe remains a powerful symbol of Zimbabwe. It is his wife who is seen as the femme fatale in this tragicomedy – a mysterious, charming and seductive woman who lures men into compromising and dangerous situations.