Zimbabwe was on edge on Tuesday as armoured vehicles were seen outside the capital a day after the army commander threatened to “step in” to calm political tensions over President Robert Mugabe’s firing of his deputy.
Witnesses said several tanks and armoured personnel carriers with soldiers were seen moving on the outskirts of Harare after the army warned it could intervene over a purge of ruling party officials.
“I saw a long convoy of military vehicles, including tanks, about an hour ago. I don’t know where they were heading,” a female fruit seller near Westgate shopping centre, about 10 km from central Harare, told AFP.
The Associated Press reported three armoured personnel carriers with soldiers were seen moving in a convoy on a road heading toward an army barracks just outside the capital.
While it is routine for armoured vehicles to move along that route, the timing heightened unease in the southern African country that for the first time is seeing an open rift between the military and 93-year-old Mugabe.
Soldiers stand beside military vehicles just outside Harare, Zimbabwe, on November 14, 2017.
The military has been a key pillar of Mugabe’s power since independence from white minority rule in 1980.
Mugabe last week fired vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa and accused him of plotting to take power, including through witchcraft. Mnangagwa had repeatedly clashed with First Lady Grace Mugabe.
Mnangagwa, who enjoyed the backing of the military and was once seen as a potential successor to Mugabe, fled the country and said he and his family had been threatened. More than 100 senior officials allegedly supporting him have been listed for disciplinary measures by a faction associated with Grace Mugabe.
The first lady, whose political profile has risen in the past few years, now appears positioned to replace Mnangagwa at a special conference of the ruling party in December, leading many in Zimbabwe to suspect she could succeed her husband as president.
On Monday, army chief Gen Constantino Chiwenga issued an unprecedented statement saying purges against ruling ZANU-PF party officials linked to the 1970s liberation war should end “forthwith”.
“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” Chiwenga said.
File photo taken on November 8, 2017 shows Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe addressing party members and supporters who gathered at his party’s headquarters to show support to his wife Grace Mugabe (right) becoming the next vice president after the dismissal of Emerson Mnangagwa.
Mugabe did not respond to the military statement, and government spokesman Simon Khaya Moyo said only the president could respond. The state-run broadcaster did not report the statement.
The ruling party’s youth league, aligned to the first lady, criticised the army commander’s statement on Tuesday, saying the youth were “ready to die for Mugabe”.
State broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation was operating as usual and the capital remained calm.
Mugabe in the past has warned military commanders from interfering in ZANU-PF succession politics. “Politics shall always lead the gun, and not the gun politics. Otherwise it will be a coup,” he told supporters in July.
Frustration has been growing in once-prosperous Zimbabwe as the economy collapses under Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state. The country was shaken last year by the biggest anti-government protests in a decade, and Mugabe’s appointment of a minister for cyber-security last month was criticised by activists as a crackdown on social media users.
The arrest earlier this month of a 25-year-old US citizen, who was charged with subversion and accused of insulting Mugabe as a “sick man” on Twitter, was called the first since the cyber-security ministry was created.