The following afternoon, Sunday November 19th, ZANU-PF’s Central Committee met to follow through on those provincial resolutions that Jenfan Muswere and Monica Mutsvangwa had helped coerce from that building in theAvenues in the previous two days.
And so it happened: after almost 40 years as leader of the party that brought him to power, Mugabe was recalled, and Grace, Moyo, Kasukuwere and several other G40 stalwarts expelled.
A week earlier, every ZANU-PF provincial committee had enthusiastically lined up to expel ED; now, the power matrix having shifted, the exact same people fell into line to enthusiastically reinstate him.
Ah well, if it weren’t for double standards, ZANU-PF might have none at all.
Christopher Mutsvangwa, like an African Zelig, was there too, and footage of him celebrating, dancing to Kutongo Kwaro, as the resolutions were announced, did the rounds. It was in March 2016 that he had been expelled from ZANU-PF and begun that quixotic one-man campaign against his former boss. It had taken him 20 months of planning, of forming strange alliances, but he had now helped return the favour.
The final nail in Mugabe’s coffin – his resignation – was surely close.
Indeed the party had given Mugabe 24 hours to resign as the country’s President, or they would begin impeachment proceedings against him.
Across town that same Sunday, meanwhile, Pastor Evan Mawarire, a thorn in the side of the dictatorship, and a victim of multiple arrests and assaults over the years, was holding a prayer vigil in Unity Square, imploring Mugabe, for the good of the nation, to go. He and his followers in the This Flag movement remained unmolested, which was also new. “My fear that day and Saturday was that people would get beaten, shot, murdered – as had happened before.
But the soldiers treated us with respect and said, ‘Just control people so they don’t get out of hand and your guys will be fine.’ That was amazing to me.”
It all appeared to be coming together and on Sunday evening Mugabe seemed to have got the message too, for at around 6pm word spread that he was finally going to resign.
He would do so that night in a live television broadcast on ZBC at 8pm.
An expectant nation – and a global audience estimated at one billion people – gathered around TV sets.
I watched the speech with my friend Joanna and her husband who live in Harare. I was in Mozambique, racing back to Zimbabwe, when I received the group WhatsApp message from her in the early hours of Wednesday 15th, after the military strike: A few bumps in the night. We don’t watch Game of Thrones, we live it.
She and her husband live in Borrowdale Brooke, the centre of the action.
Her neighbour, one street north, is General Chiwenga, and tanks were still posted out front and back of his Titanic mansion on that Sunday night, with soldiers on guard. The Blue Roof is 500 yards away, over the ridge, and for much of Saturday and Sunday helicopters buzzed over the roof, intimidating the occupants.
Denford Magora’s Glass Pavilion is close by too, of course. Denford had spent much of the past few days updating his Facebook feed, correcting fake news reports that Grace had fled the country. He knew she hadn’t because he could see her walking through the grounds of the estate in the mornings, deep in thought, clearly anxious about her world falling apart around her.
Few people believed what Denford had to say, however, because no one believed that someone could have such a clear and unobstructed view of the home of one of the most feared men in Africa.
Denford also noticed those days that every time Mugabe’s cavalcade departed the Blue Roof to meet with the generals and the mediators at State House, his car, that black Mercedes 600, would be thoroughly searched by soldiers at the gate, who now answered to the generals.
It must have been the ultimate humiliation for the Old Man.
What on earth did they think he was hiding in there – weapons to stage a comeback? I believe I know the answer, for as late as Sunday, November 19th, they were still searching for Saviour Kasukuwere and Jonathan Moyo.
Both Saviour and Moyo are writing books about the coup, but they spoke to me for this book without giving too much of their personal story away. I had long assumed that the pair fled the Blue Roof on the morning of November 15th, soon after arriving there, after the attacks on their homes. Not so.
They left on Saturday, November 18th, the day of the march. “It turned out to be the most difficult time of all,” said Moyo. “The helicopters were buzzing and the soldiers outside were on high alert.” He will not say how they got out; just that it was terrifying and it was thanks to “angels” that they made it.
It would take them two more days to get to Tete in northern Mozambique, before flying on to Maputo where, according to Saviour, they were met by Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi, an acquaintance of his, who put them in the care of his chief of police. Their lives had changed forever but the pair retained a shared sense of humour.
Saviour said that when he told the police chief what their families had been through on the night of the attack, tears started rolling down the Mozambican’s face. Saviour, always the tough guy, turned to Moyo and quietly muttered:
“Good Lord – no chief of police should ever cry.”
The expected resignation speech is an hour late.
At 9pm, ZBC goes live to a red carpeted room in State House. The military commanders are shown first, seated left of screen, Chiwenga in the same fatigues he wore for his press conference. The mediators, including George Charamba and Mugabe’s friend and spiritual advisor, Catholic priest Father Fidelis Mukonori, are seated right.
The odd man out, next to Chiwenga, is Augustine Chihuri, the G40-aligned police chief, the man who supposedly tried to arrest Chiwenga at the airport. He and Chiwenga looked on good terms.
Mugabe finally appears, in a dark suit, looking small, frail and unsteady. He shakes hands with the commanders, who salute him, then sits at a table in front of two mics. He’s immediately swallowed by the chair he’s slumped in.
With the military men hovering over him, it looks like a hostage video.
What follows is one of the most bizarre live broadcasts by a politician in modern television history. As he’s about to speak he shuffles some papers – one assumes the written speech – and they drop to the floor.
Chiwenga picks them up and hands them to Chihuri next to him, who keeps them for the duration. This act will set off a host of conspiracy theories that are still raging today. Was the intended speech changed at the last minute?
Then he begins and he’s a sad shadow of his usually articulate self. He looks his 93 years and his usually perfect diction and BBC English are gone. He rambles, slurs and mumbles for 20 minutes.
Incredibly, given the drama of the occasion and the roller-coaster of the past 13 days, it turns out to be a dull state-of-the-nation address. Six minutes in, he says the economy “is going through a difficult patch”, at which point the speech itself hits a difficult patch, from which it never recovers.
It’s about 15 minutes in that we all realise: he’s not going! Thousands of social mediators are frantically asking,
#WTF? Indeed, despite being dismissed as ZANU-PF leader earlier that day, he even says he’s going to preside over the party’s December congress.
By the end, when he’s calling on the nation to “refocus”, and put “shoulders to the wheel” for the promising agricultural season, millions of mouths across the world have fallen open in horror.
“Asante Sana,” he says, signing off – Swahili for “thank you very much” – and with that he staggers to his feet, shakes more hands and is gone.
If it was a hostage video, he had flipped the script.
I confess I found a sneaking admiration for the Old Man at that minute. They would have to hold a gun to his head to get him to go.
The Asante Sana speech memes were instant and apt:
“How do you put a champagne cork back in a bottle? Ask eight million Zimbabweans.”
“When you have a coup that’s not a coup expect a resignation speech that’s not a resignation speech.”
Some people reacted with more horror than others. Recall Tino Mambeu of the ZEF? He had flown from Johannesburg to Harare for the march and watched the speech at the Bronte Hotel.
He expected Mugabe to be contrite, to say that he understood the anger and would take steps to leave office. Instead he seemed determined to stay, and Tino was suddenly gripped by fear.
“When we in ZEF started this thing back in 2016 it was just activism, a way for us in exile to keep the fire burning. I did not realise that I was in the middle of something so big, and when there was talk that this was a coup I started panicking – what are we going to do now? We are involved!”
He had reason to be afraid. As he left the Bronte that night, a man in a suit approached him in the parking lot. “We know who you are,” the man said. “Watch out, we can kill you any time.”
He took the next plane out of Harare.
I confess I exit the story at this point, too. My return flight to the US was the following day, Monday 20th, and I made sure I was on it, relieved to be flying back to my family in Virginia for Thanksgiving.
I would write a magazine piece about the coup and my experience of it that would lead to this book, but I was not around for the denouement.
I admit I got the fear.
I was frightened that Mugabe was not going anywhere and the fightback had begun. The swapped speech conspiracies started raging instantly, and continue today.
Months later George Charamba told me his version of events. Charamba said he wrote the speech for Mugabe and the President made alterations, but the intention was never to resign. Chiwenga, on the other hand, expected Mugabe to go, and while he (Chiwenga) looks calm on screen, he’s furious when Mugabe doesn’t bow out.
“There was external calm against internal discord,” Charamba says of Chiwenga’s poker face. Minutes after the speech, however, summoned to KG VI by the fuming General, Charamba gets a first-hand taste of some external discord when Chiwenga pins him against a wall, crushes his foot with his big military boot, and snarls at him: “What the fuck have you done, watengesa – you sold out!”
“Get your hands off me – don’t you know I have saved your future?” Charamba splutters back.
He tells Chiwenga that Mugabe couldn’t have resigned on live television with the military hovering over him like that.
This calmed the General down.
Intriguingly, given they were on opposing sides, Ellis, Gabriel and Kasper, the core of the Northgate team, were of the same view as Charamba that night, and not too worried.
“It would have looked terrible for Mugabe to resign seated in front of military officers accused of removing him,” said Ellis. “When he said he was still in charge, that took away any chance of the operation being called a coup, and it took away any chance of foreign intervention to save him.”
Instead, all it meant was that the game had to play itself out; Mugabe had to be removed by legal means, which was the idea in the first place, and there was still one big play left to make.
For, despite all his defiance, the Old Man was cornered. He had been fired by his own party on Sunday 19th, and by noon, Monday 20th, missed the deadline given by ZANU-PF to resign as President.
On Tuesday, November 22nd, impeachment proceedings against him would begin.
Cornered as he was, he was desperately trying to rally support, though, as was Grace.
Grace called Jacob Zuma for help, and Mugabe sent an emissary to the Zambian government to appeal to them for military assistance. To no avail. Months later Mugabe would complain of a mysterious “third hand” at play that had got to all the regional leaders before him. That third hand was Christopher Mutsvangwa.
Another cunning last-minute gambit was an offer from Mugabe to resign in favour of Chiwenga – as long as Chiwenga was in charge, not ED. Perhaps Mugabe recognised a certain ambition in his general; only an ambitious man builds the biggest house on the tallest hill. Chiwenga, no fool, refused.
He’d put down enough coups to know how to carry out the perfect one. Besides, he still had time. He was only 61.
Another ploy was a call between Mugabe and ED arranged by the mediators, in which Mugabe implored ED to come back and they could talk it out. He actually asked ED why he had run away. “The people around you have caused me to leave the country. My life was in danger and they wanted to eliminate me,” ED said he told Mugabe, as quoted in Ray Ndlovu’s In the Jaws of the Crocodile.
After initially suggesting he would come back to talk it over, that plan was quickly scuttled. Instead, ED released a long statement on Tuesday 21st saying that he would not return until Mugabe had resigned. Referring to the mass march of Saturday 18th he wrote: “To me the voice of the people is the voice of God, and their lack of trust in the leadership of President Mugabe has been expressed.”
And so, with desperation setting in at the Blue Roof, and hearing word of those plaintive calls to Zuma and other regional leaders, the military and the Johannesburg team upped the pressure some more.
According to Mutsvangwa, he contacted Brigadier General SB Moyo and asked him to send a tank to the Blue Roof. A crowd of demonstrators descended on the property at the same time.
They were loud and angry and they appeared to have commandeered the tank. The occupants of the Blue Roof could hear them. The generals now told Mugabe and Grace that they didn’t know how long they could hold the braying mob. It was the Gaddafi scenario that Mutsvangwa had warned about days earlier.
The military had now turned into Mugabe’s protectors, imploring him to help himself by letting go. What the occupants of the Blue Roof didn’t know was that the crowd outside was choreographed, too.
It was staged. There were only about 50 demonstrators, bussed in for the purpose, and they were in fact rather orderly, gathered at the northeastern wall of the property, near the back entrance to Borrowdale Brooke. Denford Magora could hear them from his unbuilt house, although he couldn’t see them, and they were in no way about to scale the walls.
If you had been able to make your way to that corner of the property, you might have recognised three of the demonstrators on the tank. They were shouting into megaphones, getting their voices heard; megaphones lent to them by a friend of theirs named Ellis in Johannesburg. I did not know Kasper, Magic and Horse then, but they were playing the game a few hundred yards from my friend Joanna’s house, and they were playing it perfectly.
And so it was that on the afternoon of Tuesday, November 21st, impeachment proceedings against President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s only ruler for 37 years, began.
Let’s close more circles.
So many people were present for the occasion that parliament relocated to the Harare International Conference Centre at the Rainbow Towers Hotel. The Rainbow Towers happened to be where the Johannesburg team had also relocated on the Friday.
The game had literally come to them.
It wasn’t just every parliamentarian and much of the world’s media who wanted to be there. The public did too, and the galleries were full. Taking their seats upstairs were four men who had spent the last two weeks running on adrenaline: Gabriel, Kasper, Magic and Horse. The latter three were just back from tank duty at the Blue Roof, while Gabriel, along with Mutsvangwa, had been to meetings at various western embassies to update diplomats and ask them what they could expect in the months ahead.
Mutsvangwa had arrived at the HICC too, but was downstairs with his wife, who was a sitting senator. Only Ellis was missing from the Core Group but it was 3pm and Kasper messaged him as he always did at around that time, part of his routine.
Shamwari how are u – he wrote.
They got comfortable on the balcony, anticipating history. Only Gabriel scanned the room. He looked to his right at three men a few seats away. They were looking right at him. They did not look happy.
There was doubt that ZANU-PF would succeed with impeachment on its own. The party had many G40 members and there was no guarantee they would vote against Mugabe. To avoid disaster the Lacoste faction needed the support of the opposition MDC who were tabling their own impeachment motion. There was more backroom dealing before the MDC came aboard the ZANU PF version.
Then there was the question of who was going to table the motion. If the motion failed, that person could be charged for treason, and everyone was understandably wary.
A woman stepped up. A woman who had gone to war for her country at the age of 15, in 1976, and who three months later survived an attack by Rhodesia’s Selous Scouts on her training camp.
Her name was Monica Mutsvangwa. She tabled it. Mugabe was unfit for office and in dereliction of duty, the motion read; he’s too old and frail; falls asleep in meetings, and in general embarrasses the nation.
The motion was seconded by James Maridadi from the MDC.
However, no sooner had Monica forwarded it than she was approached on the floor by a stern-faced, plump figure in a suit – Happyton Bonyongwe, a Mugabe loyalist who was the CIO boss for many years and was now the Justice Minister.
“You are going to lose your head,” he threatened her.
She didn’t flinch. “I went to war, I know what’s right. You don’t scare me.”
And then, just before the hearing was about to proceed, something bizarre happened on the house floor. There was a sudden flurry of activity around the speaker, Jacob Mudenda. Bonyongwe, the Mugabe loyalist, had handed a letter to him, and a couple of MDC MPs had raced over to him. The speaker asked on mic if its contents were accurate, and Bonyongwe nodded.
Word spread around the great hall before it was even confirmed – Mugabe had resigned!
Indeed, by the time Mudenda read – “Following my verbal communication with the Speaker at 13.53 hours… I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe… formally tender my resignation as the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe with immediate effect,” – the vast auditorium had erupted in jubilation.
Within seconds the country erupted too. You could hear the hooting and screaming from the streets outside in the hotel lobby. For the second time in four days Harare embarked on a wild and raucous party that would go on late into the night. Bars and taverns would run out of beer, soldiers would be hoisted aloft in celebration, and joyous music would blare from a million speakers.
After 37 years of rule by one man, the country would soon have a new leader and a fresh chance.
Tears rolled down Gabriel’s face that afternoon as he hugged his unlikely friends. At last the nightmare was over. He was so emotional he didn’t even care when one of the surly men near him in the gallery walked past and said to his colleagues: “It’s them, they must be dealt with.”