This is the end of an era.
For Zimbabwe, the enforced departure of Robert Mugabe from State House is an event as momentous, in its own way, as the country’s liberation from colonial rule.
Mugabe’s decades-long tenure as president shaped every facet of Zimbabwean society. He created an entire country in his own dysfunctional image. Just as we now divide Zimbabwe’s recent history into pre- and post-independence, we will also speak of before and after the fall of Mugabe as distinct epochs.
And just as it is difficult to imagine a Zimbabwe without Mugabe in charge, it is difficult to imagine an Africa without him on the continental stage.
He was the most charismatic and influential of that ever-diminishing band of old-school liberation leaders-turned-autocrats who once dominated the continent’s corridors of power.
To understand Mugabe the leader, one must temper one’s view of him through the lens of a complex human who had the opportunity to lead on the right side of history but somehow could not.
We should not fall into the temptation of focusing solely on what he did in later, turbulent years. His contributions to the people of Zimbabwe — and the rest of Africa — cannot be discounted.
To many of us, Mugabe stood as a testament to following through on post-colonial promises of decolonisation and standing up against predatory Western governments and white minority rule. He did great things, but was eminently fallible.
With him gone, we can dare to dream that dictators and presidents-for-life are mere relics of Africa’s past, and not its future. But as much as we may celebrate Mugabe’s fall from grace, we must be equally concerned with how that fall was achieved.
This is not a revolution. It is a not an Arab Spring-style people’s rebellion, even if few Zimbabweans will truly mourn Mugabe’s exit.
It is a military coup.
The architects of that coup dispute that description, but their actions speak louder than words: in seizing the state broadcaster and placing the head of state under house arrest, they implemented an almost textbook example of the form.
The military are unlikely guardians of Zimbabwe’s democracy. For decades, the top brass enabled the worst excesses of Mugabe’s regime. In some cases — such as at the Marange diamond fields — they have actively profited from their connections to the ruling elite.
It is telling that their intervention came not in support of the Zimbabwean people, who have long suffered under Mugabe’s misrule, but instead in response to the firing last week of vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa.
They intervened not for the greater good of Zimbabwe, but to save one of their own— and, undoubtedly, to safeguard their own interests in the process. In the process, for better or worse, they have toppled Zimbabwe’s constitutional order.
They have also set a dangerous precedent for the future. Part of the reason the African Union takes such a strong rhetorical line against military coups is that it is easy for one military coup to lead to another. If the army becomes accustomed to overthrowing heads of states it does not like, then what democracy can be safe?
In forcing Mugabe out — he has now vacated the presidency — the generals involved have removed one major threat to Zimbabwe’s future.
But in doing so, they have created another one. As tempting as it must be, Zimbabweans cannot let down their guard just yet.