Troops have been reported in the capital, raising the specter of a coup. The army seems to have positioned itself against parts of the president's ruling party amid a succession battle involving first lady Grace Mugabe.
Zimbabwe was on edge Wednesday over a potential coup as tensions between the army and President Robert Mugabe threatened to escalate. The ruling ZANU-PF accused the army chief of "treasonable conduct."
Troop and tank movements were reported late Tuesday night around the capital, Harare, one day after the nation's army chief said his forces would be "obliged to take corrective measures" to defend Zimbabwe's liberation struggle.
The open threat by defense forces chief Constantino Chiwenga came in response to alleged purges within 93-year-old president's ZANU-PF.
Last week, Mugabe sacked Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a veteran of the 1970s liberation struggle who was popular with the military and viewed as a possible successor to the presidency.
Mnangagwa fled the country and some 100 officials backing him are reportedly being threatened with disciplinary measures by a faction within ZANU-PF that supports Grace Mugabe, the president's wife who is seeking to take power once her husband dies.
"Our peace-loving people who have stood by their government and endured some of the most trying social and economic conditions ever experienced are extremely disturbed by what is happening within the ranks of the national revolutionary party," Chiwenga told the assembled press while surrounded by other high-ranking military personnel. He also spoke of "counter-revolutionary infiltrators who are now influencing the direction of the party."
This is the first time that the military has openly criticized the ZANU-PF and Mugabe, who has ruled the impoverished country for 37 years.
General Chiwenga's press conference was not covered by Zimbabwe's national broadcasters and newspapers
The rift within ZANU-PF
The rift within ZANU-PF could lead to a dangerous escalation, said political analyst Rashweat Mukundu of the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA).
"This is a dangerous situation in Zimbabwe because if the military insists on the statement that General Chiwenga issued, we are most likely going to have violence."
Evan Mawarire, a Zimbabwean pastor and nationally prominent activist who has been imprisoned multiple times, also voiced concerns for his country in a tweet.
The ruling party and ZANU-PF's Youth League, which supports Grace Mugabe, said in a statement that civilian rule and the constitution must be protected.
Kudzai Chipanga, who leads the ZANU-PF Youth League, went further, saying at the party headquarters that "defending the revolution and our leader and president is an ideal we live for and if need be it is a principle we are prepared to die for."
Succession battle heats up
With a general election set for mid-2018 and President Mugabe fast approaching his 94th birthday, Zimbabwe's succession battle is heating up. It has long been rumored that the president's wife Grace Mugabe harbors hopes of stepping into her husband's shoes.
Mnangagwa's sacking was preceded by other purges within ZANU-PF. In 2014, the president fired his then-deputy Joice Mujuru.
Both Mujuru and Mnangagwa were active members of the liberation struggle and had been close to President Mugabe. But both politicians were said to have fallen out with his much younger wife, who did not belong to that liberation group.
According to Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean, an online paper that is published outside the country, the army press conference was a direct stab at the first lady. "It's a risk that [the army] are taking," he said. "Robert Mugabe could now respond by dismissing them or having them arrested for treason."
"The timing is so telling," Mbanga told DW. "They did not respond when Joice Mujuru was sacked. She was also a guerilla commander. Then leaders of the war veterans association were sacked. The army kept quiet. This time it was Emmerson Mnangagwa who is close to [army commander] Chiwenga, and the military has come out and said — you can't do this."
Who supports Grace Mugabe?
The once strong ZANU-PF seems more divided than ever. While the army has placed itself clearly on one side of the divide in the battle for succession, a group of younger ZANU-PF politicians known as the G40 and the party's women's league still seem to stand behind Grace Mugabe.
"We in our millions will not let an individual military man interfere with the leader of the party and legitimately voted president of the country," ZANU-PF Youth League secretary Chipanga stated. "We therefore call upon all youths of Zimbabwe regardless of their political affiliation, race and creed to stand up and be counted when the time comes."
The veterans of the independence movement who stood by President Mugabe when he called for the takeover of white-owned farms have spoken out firmly against Grace Mugabe.
"The people must reject the dynasty initiative by Grace. They must reject being oppressed again because that will take them back more than 400 years under oppression," War Veterans Association Secretary General Douglas Mahiya told DW.
ZANU-PF has for a long time employed a patronage system, explained Mbanga, and in the past both the youth and the women's league have always supported the winning side. "You benefit if you're a member of the party, if you're close to the first family."
Opposition divided, press threatened
While the spat within the ruling party continues, Zimbabwe's opposition remains divided, and attempts at internal unification have failed. Morgan Tsvangirai, who leads Zimbabwe's main opposition party, no longer enjoys the support he once had.
In the meantime, ZANU-PF has also cracked down on activists and journalists. American journalist Martha O'Donovan was released on bail after she having been arrested last week. She is affiliated with the satirical online channel Magamba TV, whose offices were reportedly raided on Tuesday, November 14.