Special Report: Zimbabwe - Widespread Civil Unrest Unlikely in the Near Term

Thursday Nov. 16, 2017

Special Report: Zimbabwe - Widespread Civil Unrest Unlikely in the Near Term

Zimbabwe Military Intervention

The Nov. 14-15 military takeover of Zimbabwe, set in motion by President Robert Mugabe's Nov. 6 decision to sack Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and purge his supporters from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), is unlikely to result in widespread violence in the near term. Potential opponents of the military remain disoriented by the rapidity of its seizure of power. Furthermore, a longstanding prioritization of government spending on the military will likely contribute to command-and-control cohesion, and inhibit the emergence of effective renegade units. Authorities are likely to keep airports and international borders open, in part to show "normalcy," but also to prevent the intensification of widespread essential goods shortages. Nonetheless, in the longer term, political uncertainty could prompt panic buying and withdrawals of savings, and consequent food and cash shortages could lead to protests and increased criminal activity.

The armed forces deployed across the country are officially arresting "criminals" linked to the government of President Robert Mugabe, who remains under house arrest at his Blue House residence in Harare. Soldiers have set up roadblocks on major thoroughfares to direct traffic, conduct random vehicle searches, and perform identity checks. Authorities could impose additional restrictions, including curfews, with little warning.

Key Judgments

  • Military personnel will likely remain deployed near sensitive locations, including government buildings, international airports, and critical infrastructure.
  • International travel - by air and land - will remain possible but likely be subjected to significant disruptions due to heightened security measures.
  • Any interruption of commercial activity, particularly cross-border trade, could exacerbate existing socioeconomic concerns inside Zimbabwe.
  • Leaders of neighboring countries will likely seek a relatively rapid transition back to civilian political power to prevent a state collapse that could trigger a potential refugee crisis.

Potential Opposition to Military Takeover in Disarray amid Rapid Intervention

ZANU-PF factions loyal to President Mugabe threatened to resist military interference in politics Nov. 13, after Zimbabwe's army chief, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, criticized Mnangagwa's sacking; however, the rapid execution of the intervention suggests a carefully planned operation that took Mugabe loyalists largely by surprise. Key members of the ZANU-PF government, such as Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, are in military custody, and the armed forces are reportedly hunting for other key government and party members. Exchanges of gunfire reportedly occurred when soldiers surrounded the Blue House early Nov. 15, and one of Chombo's bodyguards was reportedly killed. Security conditions have since stabilized, and the immediate shock of the intervention will likely focus Mugabe's supporters on self-preservation rather than organizing any effective opposition.

Airports and Borders Remain Open, but Disruptions Likely

The military's search for fugitive members of the ZANU-PF will likely result in significant transportation disruptions at border checkpoints and airports. Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport (HRE) remains open, but intermittent delays and cancellations are possible; the military has set up checkpoints near HRE, and soldiers are searching vehicles. Comparable security measures and disruptions can be expected at Bulawayo's Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport (BUQ) and Victoria Falls Airport (VFA). Similarly, roadblocks and searches near international border crossings will likely cause significant delays in immigration and customs processing. However, the crossings will likely remain open to ensure the flow of imports necessary to sustain security operations and minimize social unrest, especially since transport and commercial disruptions caused by the intervention are likely to exacerbate existing shortages of cash and basic goods. Panic buying is possible if Zimbabweans come to doubt the military's ability to guarantee access to essential goods at affordable prices; bank customers formed long lines to withdraw savings, and drivers queued up at gas stations Nov. 15. Military leaders are likely conscious of the lessons learned in June and July of 2016 - when restrictions on imports triggered significant unrest by undermining Zimbabwe's informal economy.

Possible Endgame for Mugabe

Efforts appear to be underway to force President Mugabe's resignation to avoid potential clashes between his supporters and the military. The Chairman of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), South African President Jacob Zuma, plans to send an envoy to Zimbabwe to seek a political settlement to the crisis. Zimbabwe's neighbors have a vested interest in preventing the already economically fragile country from collapsing and producing regional instability. Mugabe makes frequent trips to Singapore to receive medical care for a seemingly severe but undisclosed illness, and the country is rumored to be a potential refuge for the president. There are plausible rumors that Chiwenga may become acting premier while talks take place between Mnangagwa and other political leaders.

Although the SADC will likely seek a rapid transition to a new government, Zimbabwe's political stability depends upon successfully reconciling competing factions within the ZANU-PF. The current political crisis stems from a thinly veiled succession battle between first lady Grace Mugabe and Mnangagwa. The first lady has steadily amassed power and sought to attract the support of younger ZANU-PF cadres under the "Generation 40" (G40) banner. Mnangagwa, meanwhile, is supported by the military and an older generation more closely linked to the 1970s liberation movement. A severe decline in economic conditions, notably government access to foreign currency, has increased factional competition for opportunities to appropriate state resources. Mnangagwa's removal likely triggered concerns among senior military figures that Grace Mugabe would prioritize her clique over their needs, motivating their intervention.


Mnangagwa's history of prioritizing the security sector, notably the military, appears to have translated into personal loyalty to him over President Mugabe - who became Zimbabwe's first prime minister upon independence from white minority rule in 1980 and has been president since 1987. The intervention is rumored to have been planned several years in advance, to be deployed in case the military's influence over the country was ever threatened. In the immediate short term, this loyalty will likely guarantee cohesion among the armed forces. Although the relatively less well-paid civilian police are perceived to be aligned with President Mugabe, they have become increasingly dependent on petty bribery rather than the state for income, decreasing the likelihood they will violently resist the intervention. The military is certain to prioritize a return to normalcy and the maintenance of security while seeking legitimacy for Mugabe's ousting through engagement with the SADC.


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