15/11/2017 15:56 SAST | Updated 15/11/2017 15:56 SAST

Zimbabwe Is Looking Like A Classic Example Of A Coup d’État

Zimbabwe's precarious situation is dramatic for the whole SADC region.

Jekesai Njikizana/ Getty Images
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.

What we've seen in Zimbabwe in the past couple of hours is really the classic example of a coup that we've seen elsewhere on the African continent, with the army stepping in, taking over the broadcaster, making statements, ministers being arrested and so forth. Usually, the airports and the line borders are closed as well during a coup.

We have now heard that there is a military presence at the airport, but so far, it looks as if the borders haven't been closed. So it's difficult to say whether this is in actual fact a full military takeover of the state in Zimbabwe.

What we do know is that some ministers have reportedly been arrested -- those close to Grace Mugabe (of the so-called G40 group). A statement from General Moyo on state television spoke of "criminal elements" that are "launching a purge" within government and the party.

Our suspicion is that he is referring to those behind Grace Mugabe who effected the ousting of the Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, because that is where this all started. The events we have seen in the past few hours are a direct result of the sacking of Mnangagwa, and the reaction from the military on Monday, when they actually warned Mugabe to change course. Whether Mnangagwa is directly behind this coup is not clear -- but it is in any event a demonstration of loyalty to him by the top echelons of the military.

What will happen now is unclear, because if the military takes over power and ousts President Mugabe, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), South Africa and the African Union will not accept such a military regime. What we should see is a transition period, or a period of uncertainty -- perhaps a comeback of Mnangagwa on 12 December, when Zanu-PF has their annual congress.

There are elections planned for next year, so there are already processes in place that could lead to a peaceful transition to a civilian government. At this point, we don't know exactly where Robert Mugabe is -- or whether he is actually still running the country, rather than his wife, as many Zimbabweans suspect.

The economy of Zimbabwe has imploded in the past couple of years, and this, combined with the uncertainty, could make it much worse in the short term.

Zimbabwe's precarious situation is dramatic for the whole region, as the SADC is hardly familiar with coups d'état; the nearest thing in recent years was the unconstitutional change of government in Madagascar in 2009. Compare the region to West Africa -- where until a couple of years ago, coups were a common occurrence in many countries. So a military takeover within the SADC would be an historic first.

If Zimbabwe has succumbed to a coup, Zimbabweans in exile –– who up till now have wanted to go home –– may not want to return to a nation wracked with violence and military conflict.

It could be that sections of the police or army will back Mugabe, which could lead to violence on the streets, which could prompt more Zimbabweans to leave. Many citizens have already left Zimbabwe because of economic hardship, so I don't think we will see an outpouring of another 10,000 Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa, unless there is major violence.

The economy of Zimbabwe has imploded in the past couple of years, and this, combined with the uncertainty, could make it much worse in the short term. However, the region has been on edge when it comes to Zimbabwe. We have all been waiting to see what is going to happen, as the situation was completely untenable -- a president who will turn 94 in February running the country.

Everybody is eager to see some kind of quick solution, because for a long time now, we have been very anxious as to how this is all going to play out. We have a situation where at the upcoming Zanu-PF congress, this intervention by the military could lead to pressure on Mugabe to allow the election of a new leader of the party.

At the moment, the strongest contender is Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is still in his 70s. There's also Grace Mugabe, who seems to be the target of these moves by the military. If Mnangagwa triumphs, she will then be ousted or sidelined.

Of course, there is the opposition Movement for Democratic Change as well, although it is quite divided and weakened at present. One would hope that there will be a democratic election in 2018 -- in which the opposition would at least have a fair chance to compete for power.

Liesl Louw-Voudran is a Senior Research Consultant with the Peace and Security Research Programme of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS)

* This article was transcribed from an interview with HuffPost SA.