President Robert Mugabe inspecting an honor guard at a Heroes Day event held at National Heroes Acre in Zimbabwe in August. Credit Jekesai Njikizana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
HARARE, Zimbabwe — The rapid fall of Zimbabwe’s president, whose legendary guile and ruthlessness helped him outmaneuver countless adversaries over nearly four decades, probably has surprised no one more than Robert Mugabe himself.
For years, he was so confident of his safety — and his potency — that he took monthlong vacations away from Zimbabwe after Christmas, never facing any threat during his long, predictable absences. Even at 93, his tight grip on the country’s ruling party and his control over the military made his power seem impervious to question.
But in just a matter of days, Mr. Mugabe, who ruled his nation since independence in 1980, was largely stripped of his authority, even as he still clung to the presidency.
In a much-anticipated speech on Sunday night, Mr. Mugabe, instead of announcing his resignation as most of the country had expected, stunned Zimbabwe by refusing to say he was stepping down. While he conceded that his country was “going through a difficult patch,” he gave no sign that he recognized, or accepted, how severely the ground had shifted under him in such a short time.
Earlier in the day, the governing ZANU-PF party, over which he had always exercised total domination, expelled Mr. Mugabe as leader, with cheers and dancing erupting after the vote. He was given a deadline of noon on Monday to resign or face impeachment by Parliament.
But in his speech, Mr. Mugabe even declared that he would preside over his governing party’s congress in a few weeks. After 37 years in control of the nation, he was refusing to let go easily.
A Fateful Firing
The chain of events leading to Mr. Mugabe’s downfall started on Nov. 6, when he fired his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a close ally of the military, and then tried to arrest the nation’s top military commander a few days later. Mr. Mugabe had finally come down against the military and its political allies in a long-running feud inside the governing party.
“He crossed the red line, and we couldn’t allow that to continue,” said Douglas Mahiya, a leader of the war veterans’ association, a group that has acted as the military’s proxy in the country’s political battles while allowing uniformed generals to remain publicly neutral.
A few hours after he was fired, Mr. Mnangagwa, fearing arrest, fled with a son into neighboring Mozambique, where he has strong military ties. He eventually made his way to South Africa, allies said.
July Moyo, a close ally of Mr. Mnangagwa, said the vice president had prepared himself for the possibility of being fired. “He accepted that things can turn very bad, so he had conditioned himself,” Mr. Moyo said.
Several hours before the vice president escaped to Mozambique, Christopher Mutsvangwa, the head of the war veterans’ association and one of Mr. Mnangagwa’s closest allies, had boarded a plane to South Africa.
Over the following days, Mr. Mutsvangwa met with South African intelligence officers, he said, warning them of a possible military intervention in Zimbabwe. He said he had tried to persuade South African officials not to describe any intervention as a “coup” — an important concession to get from South Africa, the regional power.
Though this account could not be verified with South African officials on Sunday, the South African government did not mention the word “coup” in its official statement after the military intervention occurred on Wednesday.
“I knew that the way they were driving, the military, inevitably, there would be one at one stage or another,” Mr. Mutsvangwa said, referring to a military intervention.
While Mr. Mutsvangwa worked on South African officials, Zimbabwe’s longtime top military commander, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, was in China on an official trip. He was tipped off while abroad that Mr. Mugabe had ordered him arrested upon his return home, according to several people close to the military. The police were going to grab the general as soon as his plane touched down, on Nov. 12.
But as General Chiwenga prepared to land, soldiers loyal to him infiltrated the airport. His troops — wearing the uniforms of baggage handlers — surprised and quickly overwhelmed the police. Before departing, the general is said to have told the police officers that he would “deal” with their commander, a Mugabe loyalist.
Within just a couple of days, tanks had rumbled into the capital and soldiers had effectively deposed Mr. Mugabe.
My dear dear friend…..farewell.