Zimbabwe is under the control of the country’s military after troops, who are holding President Robert Mugabe under house arrest, seized the state broadcaster.
In what appeared to be a coup against the 93-year-old Mugabe – the world’s oldest head of state – the military was at pains to emphasise it had not staged a military takeover, but was instead starting a process to restore Zimbabwe’s democracy.
The military appears to have brought an end to Mugabe’s long, 37-year reign in what the army’s supporters praised as a ‘bloodless correction’.
Grace, his wife, is said to have fled to Namibia according to an opposition MP, though there has been no official confirmation of her whereabouts.
In his first contact with the outside world since the takeover, Mugabe spoke by telephone to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, and told him he was confined to his home but fine, the South African presidency said in a statement.
It is thought the dictator is hunkered down in the Blue House – one of his many properties – which is in the Borrowadale area of Harare, according to ENCA.
Mugabe is now likely to be forced to hand power to his sacked vice president in a few weeks to make today’s coup appear legal, experts have claimed.
His wife, dubbed Gucci Grace for her love of shopping, is believed to have fled to Namibia having been allowed to leave the country last night, opposition MP Eddie Cross told the BBC. Her location has not yet been confirmed.
Deposed vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, a veteran of Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation wars who was sacked by Mugabe earlier this month, is believed to have returned from exile.
The dismissal of Mnangagwa, nicknamed the Crocodile, had left Grace Mugabi, 52, in prime position to succeed her husband as the next president – a succession strongly opposed by senior ranks in the military.
Derek Matyszak, an analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said he believes the army will now be in negotiations with both Mugabe and Mnangagwa.
‘The easiest way to present a veneer of legality is that Mugabe reappoints Mnangagwa as vice president, briefly – Mugabe then retires.’ Under Zimbabwe’s constitution, the first vice president would automatically become acting president for 90 days.
South Africa and other neighbouring countries were sending in leaders to negotiate with Mugabe and the generals to encourage the transition.
The series of whiplash events followed Mugabe’s firing last week of his deputy, which appeared to position the first lady, Grace Mugabe, to replace Emmerson Mnangagwa as one of the country’s two vice presidents at a party conference next month.
But the 52-year-old first lady is unpopular among many Zimbabweans for her lavish spending on mansions, cars and jewels.
Last month she went to court to sue a diamond dealer for not supplying her with a 100-carat diamond she said she had paid for.
Grace Mugabe has been known as the leader of the G40, a group of Cabinet ministers and officials in their 40s and 50s who When Mr Mnangagwa was fired, the generals and war veterans felt they were being sidelined and took action to stop that, analysts say.
Zimbabwe may enter a period of negotiation to get Mugabe to step down voluntarily, said Piers Pigou, southern Africa consultant for the International Crisis Group, who also suggested Mnangagwa may be an interim leader.
‘Zimbabwe could have some kind of inclusive government and some kind of democratic process, possibly leading to elections,” Pigou said.
‘It’s clearly a coup d’etat, but typical of Zimbabwe, the military is trying to put a veneer of legality on the process. It is part of the theatre that Zimbabwe is so good at, to try to make things look orderly and democratic.
‘South Africa and other neighbouring countries may be brought in to help put some lipstick on the pig.’
The Zimbabwean general behind the coup may have travelled to China days before he sent his troops to Harare to seek permission to launch the takeover.
General Constantine Chiwenge, the head of the army, travelled to Beijing last week and held meetings with top brass from the Defence Ministry.
When he returned, he challenged Mugabe’s sacking of his vice president, which sparked the suspected coup.
The Chinese foreign ministry has insisted it was a ‘routine visit’, according to the Telegraph, though analysts have suggested China gave the rebellious army chief their blessing amid concerns the country is having a growing influence over Africa.
The EU called for a ‘peaceful resolution’ and described the crisis ‘a matter of concern’ for the bloc. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson appealed for ‘everybody to refrain from violence’.
‘We cannot tell how developments in Zimbabwe will play out in the days ahead and we do not know whether this marks the downfall of Mugabe or not,’ Mr Johnson told the British parliament.
Britain, Johnson said, had always wanted Zimbabwe’s citizens to be masters of their fate. He said Britain would do all it could to ensure that elections next year were free and fair.
‘We will do all we can, with our international partners, to ensure this provides a genuine opportunity for all Zimbabweans to decide their future.’
Soldiers stormed the headquarters of state broadcaster ZBC in the early hours of Wednesday, two members of staff and a human rights worker told Reuters, as staff complained they were manhandled by the military members.