(Bloomberg View) -- If there were justice in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe would be removed from power by a free and fair election. The promise of the independence struggle Mugabe led 40 years ago could finally be fulfilled. The country he ruined could begin the long process of recovery.
Zimbabwe is a basket case of a nation, but its ruling regime does have an opposition, and it has had elections. In 2009, Zimbabweans came close to a decent end to their national nightmare when Mugabe agreed to share power with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the man who likely won the election in 2008. And for a period it worked. But then in 2013, Mugabe stole the election again. Tsvangirai left the government, Mugabe accused him of treason, and Zimbabwe continued to spiral.
Today it looks like Mugabe is finally out. The military leaders who ousted him say he is safe and secure. South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, said Wednesday that he had spoken with the 93-year-old Mugabe, who said that he was safe and confined to his home.
Getting rid of Mugabe is a good thing. He was a tyrant in senescence, known for falling asleep in government meetings. (North Koreans would call him a "dotard.") But the military coup that unseated him shows no signs of ending Zimbabwe's political and economic decline. This is not a moment of hope like the 2009 power sharing agreement was. It is really a power struggle between his wife and former typist, Grace Mugabe, and his former vice president and all-around enforcer, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Consider the context of this week's coup. Last week Robert Mugabe stripped Mnangagwa of his position as vice president, and his government accused him of disloyalty and deceit. This was largely seen as a way to clear the path to power for Grace Mugabe, who has been positioning to take over the country herself after her husband finally died.
Now consider the statement from Maj. Gen. S. B. Moyo, the chief of staff to the military, in the aftermath of the coup. He said the military was not assuming political power from the deposed leader. "We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice,” he said.
That statement was almost definitely directed at Grace Mugabe. Among the ruling elite, she has earned the moniker, "Gucci Grace" for her expensive shopping sprees. Earlier this year she used her diplomatic immunity in South Africa to avoid charges from the police for assaulting a model with an electric plug. (Zimbabwe's first lady pulled a similar maneuver in 2009 when she was accused, along with her bodyguards, of assaulting a photographer.)
None of this is to say Mnangagwa is better. His nickname is "the Crocodile," because that is the symbol of his family and clan. But he has himself acted like something of a swamp monster during his years by Mugabe's side. Some of the highlights of his brutality include overseeing the crackdown on Mugabe's political opposition in 2008 after Tsvangirai won the first round of elections. Mnangagwa was the minister of state security for Mugabe in the early 1980s during what was known as the Gukurahundi massacres, where as many as 20,000 people were slaughtered in a campaign in the eastern part of the country. Recently the Crocodile hinted that he was willing to come forward about the atrocity and pin the blame on his old boss.
Zimbabwe deserves better than Gucci Grace or the Crocodile. It's not too late for the military to prepare for a real transition to democracy and call for elections. But for now, it appears the generals have paved the way for the dictator to be replaced by one of his henchmen.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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