Zimbabwe: was Mugabe’s fall a result of China flexing its muscle? | World news

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A visit to Beijing last Friday by Zimbabwe’s military chief, General Constantino Chiwenga, has fuelled suspicions that China may have given the green light to this week’s army takeover in Harare.

If so, the world may just have witnessed the first example of a covert coup d’etat of the kind once favoured by the CIA and Britain’s MI6, but conceived and executed with the tacit support of the 21st century’s new global superpower.

Mugabe fires vice president

Robert Mugabe fires his powerful vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, clearing the way for his wife, Grace, to succeed him as leader of Zimbabwe. Grace had accused 75-year-old Mnangagwa, a former intelligence chief, of being the “root cause of factionalism” in the ruling Zanu-PF party. 

Mnangagwa defiant

Mnangagwa reportedly flees to South Africa, but vows to return to Zimbabwe to lead party members. The party “is not personal property for you and your wife to do as you please,” Mnangagwa tells Mugabe in an angry five-page statement.

Army chief issues warning

Zimbabwe’s army chief demands a halt to the purge in Zanu-PF, and warns that the military could intervene. “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,” General Constantino Chiwenga told a media conference attended by about 90 senior army officers.

Army denies coup

A convoy of tanks is seen moving on the outskirts of the Zimbabwean capital but the military denies a coup. In an overnight declaration on state television, they say Mugabe is safe and they are “only targeting criminals around him”.

Mugabe detained

Military vehicles take control of the streets of Harare in the early hours. South Africa says Mugabe has told its president, Jacob Zuma, by telephone that he is under house arrest but is “fine”.

China, Africa’s biggest foreign investor, has more at stake in Zimbabwe, and more political influence, than any other state. This is largely due to its extensive investments in the mining, agriculture, energy and construction sectors. China was Zimbabwe’s top trade partner in 2015, buying 28% of its exports. But the Chinese connection is about more than money.

The pre-independence guerrilla force led to victory by Robert Mugabe, the 93-year-old Zimbabwean president detained by the military on Tuesday night, was financed and armed by the Chinese in the 1970s. Close ties have continued to the present day.

When the US and EU imposed sanctions after Zimbabwe’s 2002 elections, China stepped in, investing in over 100 projects. Beijing also blocked UN security council moves to impose an arms embargo and restrictions on regime figures.

Xi Jinping, China’s president, visited Zimbabwe in December 2015 and has since promised a massive $5bn (£3.8bn) in additional direct aid and investment. He described China as Zimbabwe’s “all-weather friend”.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, shakes hands with his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, in Harare in 2015.



China’s president, Xi Jinping, shakes hands with his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, in Harare in 2015. Photograph: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

Xi’s personal support extended to providing $46m towards building a new parliament in Harare. The Mugabe family is reported to have savings and property assets squirrelled away in Hong Kong, a favourite shopping destination for Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

Aware of criticism from Mugabe’s opponents that Beijing is propping up a despotic regime, China has used soft power tools to win over public opinion. This included a $100m medical loan facility in 2011 and the construction of a new hospital in rural Zimbabwe. In 2015, state-owned Power Construction Corporation of China signed a $1.2bn deal to expand Zimbabwe’s largest thermal power plant. Chinese investors have also bought into farms seized from their former white owners and given to Mugabe cronies who subsequently neglected them.

China’s big bet on Zimbabwe is not all staked on Mugabe and his faction in the ruling Zanu-PF party. Military-to-military cooperation has continued since independence in 1980. China financed and built Zimbabwe’s National Defence College and the People’s Liberation Army has helped train the Zimbabwean army.

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