The dictator of Zimbabwe was ousted in a coup overnight and no one really knows what's next

After nearly 40 years as Zimbabwe’s leader, President Robert Mugabe appears to have lost his grip on power.

Early Nov. 15, the country’s military drove tanks into the capital, Harare, and seized control of the state broadcaster, ZBC. A senior officer of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces denied that a coup was in progress and said Mugabe, 93, was “safe and sound.”

Later Nov. 15, South African President Jacob Zuma said in a statement that he had spoken to Mugabe and that Mugabe was unharmed and under house arrest. The Guardian’s Jason Burke reported that Mugabe would step down on Nov. 17.

Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, who was contending for leadership of the ruling ZANU-PF party, has fled to Namibia, The Guardian reported, citing opposition sources. The first lady has long been seen as Robert Mugabe’s chosen successor.

Robert and Grace Mugabe, 2013, in Harare, Zimbabwe (Photo from Wikimedia Commons user DandjkRoberts)

Robert and Grace Mugabe, 2013, in Harare, Zimbabwe (Photo from Wikimedia Commons user DandjkRoberts)

Mugabe’s reported removal from power is surely welcome news to his critics in a country that saw its economy collapse into a hyperinflationary spell in 2008 as Mugabe implemented price controls and printed large amounts of money, leading to a multibillion-percent inflation rate.

The human-rights group Amnesty International has also accused Mugabe and his government of repressing political expression, arbitrarily arresting activists and others, carrying out “torture and extrajudicial executions,” and fomenting mass political violence.

So what’s next?

The military’s denying a coup implies Zimbabwe’s next leader won’t be a general.

Related: Turkish President Erdogan holds on to power as military coup fails

South Africa’s Independent Online reports that Emmerson Mnangagwa, whom Mugabe dismissed as vice president last week, is en route to Harare to take control of the country’s government.

Mnangagwa has the support of both the military and the wider population, according to BMI Research.

The firm says there are three possible outcomes that could play out over the coming months:

  1. “Mugabe resigns and is replaced by Mnangagwa before year-end.”
  2. “Mnangagwa selected to run as ZANU-PF party leader in 2018 election.”
  3. “Mnangagwa established as constitutional successor in the event of Mugabe’s death.”
Robert Mugabe and Grace Mugabe at a Politburo meeting. Grace was previously thought to be the successor to the Presidency. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons user Brainy263)

Robert Mugabe and Grace Mugabe at a Politburo meeting. Grace was previously thought to be the successor to the Presidency. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons user Brainy263)

The economic impact

It is likely to take years to reverse the damage caused by Mugabe’s economic policies.

“It was the 10th-largest economy in the region in the late 1990s,” said William Jackson, the senior emerging-markets economist at Capital Economics. “But its performance has been significantly worse than many of its peers. For example, in 1998, Zimbabwe’s economy was roughly the same size as that of Angola, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. Now, those economies are three to seven times larger than Zimbabwe.”

Additionally, Mugabe’s policies have caused public external debt — most of which is already in arrears — to balloon to more than 40% of gross domestic product, the International Monetary Fund says.

Zimbabwean inflation ran rampant during the presidency of Robert Mugabe, leading to the printing of a one-hundred trillion ZWD note. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Zimbabwean inflation ran rampant during the presidency of Robert Mugabe, leading to the printing of a one-hundred trillion ZWD note. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s unclear what would happen if Zimbabweans fled to other parts of the region.

“There is already a large Zimbabwean diaspora in South Africa — the UN estimates there are around 500,000 Zimbabweans living there, although unofficial estimates suggest that it could be closer to 3 million,” Jackson wrote. “If refugee inflows did pick up again, there would be a fiscal cost to the South African government, and it could lead to social strains in an economy already struggling with very high unemployment.”

Members of the ZANU-PF party and the opposition weren’t immediately available for comment.

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