A general in military fatigues appeared on Zimbabwe’s state TV Wednesday denying the army had carried out a coup, despite soldiers taking control of the capital and detaining long-serving President Robert Mugabe in his compound.
“To both our people and the world beyond our borders, we wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover of government,” Maj. Gen. S.B. Moyo, Chief of Staff Logistics, said in his early morning address, adding that his troops were targeting “criminals” around Mugabe, who remained “safe.”
Moyo’s soldiers and armored vehicles had earlier moved to control major intersections around the parliament, government buildings, and courts in Zimbabwe’s capital, while local media reported several members of the ruling ZANU-PF ruling party were being held.
Mugabe, the 93-year-old leader who has ruled the country since leading it to independence in 1980, has not been publicly seen or heard from. Moyo said that Mugabe and his family were “safe and sound and their security is guaranteed.”
South African President Jacob Zuma said he spoke to Mugabe Wednesday, who “was confined to his home but said that he was fine.”
Mugabe’s 53-year-old wife Grace has fled the country, according to Sky News.
The military’s actions follow a tumultuous 10 days in Zimbabwean politics, in which Mugabe sacked his deputy and likely successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, leaving the path clear for the First Lady to succeed her husband, the world’s oldest head of state.
Mugabe said he dismissed Mnangagwa, who subsequently fled to South Africa, for disloyalty and disrespect.
Military leader General Constantine Chiwenga threatened Monday to intervene and calm political tensions following Mnangagwa’s ouster.
In the hours following the military takeover, a Twitter account purporting to be the official mouthpiece of the ruling ZANU-PF party issued a series of tweets, saying that there had not been a coup, but that Mnagngawa, a 75-year-old former freedom fighter, would now be president.
“There was no coup, only a bloodless transition which saw corrupt and crooked persons being arrested and an elderly man who had been taken advantage of by his wife being detained,” read a tweet, referring to Mugabe and the First Lady.
“Last night the first family was detained and are safe, both for the constitution and the sanity of the nation this was necessary. Neither Zimbabwe nor ZANU are owned by Mugabe and his wife. Today begins a fresh new era and comrade Mnangagwa will help us achieve a better Zimbabwe.”
Mnangagwa was dismissed following tensions between the vice-president and the First Lady over their leadership ambitions, the latter warning that Mnangagwa was planning a coup, and saying she was ready to take over after his removal.
While Mugabe is viewed in the West as an autocrat who has led his country into economic ruin, he enjoys enduring respect in Africa as a hero of the anti-imperialist movement.
His younger wife does not share his connections to the national liberation struggle, and does not command the same support.
Chris Mutsvangwa, leader of the influential Zimbabwe War Veterans’ Association, issued a statement Wednesday praising the military for “coming to the decisive rescue of the nation” with a “bloodless coup.”
“This is a correction of a state that was careening off the cliff,” he told Reuters.
“It’s the end of a very painful and sad chapter in the history of a young nation, in which a dictator, as he became old, surrendered his court to a gang of thieves around his wife,” Mutsvangwa added.
Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change called for a peaceful return to democracy, saying it hoped the military’s actions could help create “a stable, democratic and progressive nation state.”
Moyo said the military expected that situation would return to normalcy “as soon as we have accomplished our mission.”
Harare was reportedly quiet Wednesday as many residents heeded the military’s advice to stay home, although some shops and buses were running as usual.