Can a coup in Zimbabwe really usher in democracy?

The history of military coups suggests another trajectory. 

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Every so often, the ousting of a leader is greeted with jubilation in the streets. The dramatic arrest of Robert Mugabe, culminating in his resignation this week, is one such case. When a widely detested autocrat is removed from power at the hands of generals, the streets often flood with citizens waving national flags, greeting generals as national heroes, and celebrating a new democratic dawn.

Yet international leaders are often left a quandary: should they sanction a military coup in the name of supporting a democratic opening? Or should they condemn a coup, because a military intervention itself is inherently undemocratic? Can a coup ever be justified in the name of democracy? 

Though there is reason to celebrate the potential for a new democratic dawn in Zimbabwe, there is a clear and present danger to condoning military coups, which are unlikely to yield sustainable democratic gains. By definition, coups are not legal. More importantly, solid research shows that countries experiencing military coups are significantly more likely to experience subsequent coups, a finding that has become known as the “coup trap”.

Supporting a military that intervenes to preserve democracy may address a specific and proximate danger, but it also often creates new and deeper challenges to democracy. These include the likelihood that the military regularly intervenes, as regularly happens in Thailand when a weak civilian government is in power; or that it more actively works to create the conditions under which a pretext for intervention occurs, such as the creation of an existential external enemy in Pakistan or internal enemy in Myanmar.

Consider a recent scene in another country, when another autocratic incumbent was removed at the hands of the military. In February 2011, protesters crowded by the millions into Cairo’s central civic space, Tahrir Square, to rejoice over the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s military generals were greeted as national heroes and saviours of the revolution. In Cairo then, as in Harare now, the military promised to serve as a guardian of democratic progress and as a representative of the people’s will.

Six years on, the Egyptian military’s grip on power is more firmly entrenched than ever. Many key revolutionaries languish in jail or have simply disappeared. Civil liberties, the right to protest, and the prospect of fair elections appear a more distant prospect now than a decade ago. And international human rights organisations call the current regime the most repressive in generations. By objective standards, the Egyptian revolution to remove Mubarak and then Morsi by the military in order to create a new democracy has failed.

Egypt’s example should serve as a cautionary tale. Enthusiasm for a new democratic opening in Zimbabwe should be tempered with a healthy squeamishness over military coups - even one that removes a disliked dictator.

As Zimbabwe’s generals did this week, militaries deposing leaders invariably suggest that they are acting as guardians of the national interest. More often, they are acting to further the interests of their own institution. Zimbabwe’s military chose to abandon Mugabe now and not, for example, when he lost an election to Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008. The reason behind his removal was that he had recently moved towards a personalist regime that would cut the generals from power. Mugabe’s recent expulsion of long-term party leaders, including his political heir apparent, former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, was patently a bid to position his wife Grace to succeed him and usher in dynastic politics. Zimbabwe’s coup thus came at a time when military leaders perceived their proximity to power to be threatened. The same was true of the Egyptian military’s decision to cut Mubarak loose, as he had recently moved to position his son Gamal as his heir apparent. 

When military generals talk of a speedy “return to normalcy”, these words are spoken as much as from institutional interest as from a genuine commitment to democratic norms. The post-Cold War environment has virtually required countries to assume a democratic veneer in order to qualify for aid and international support. It is for this reason that the Zimbabwean military took extreme measures to avoid labelling its actions a coup – since doing so risks drying up a needed stream of international assistance. For example, Section 508 of the US Foreign Assistance Act requires it to cut off aid to any country whose elected head of government is removed by a military coup. Even the African Union itself is assuming a more critical stance towards coups. Zimbabwe’s generals may be savvy to all this and be seeking to avoid repercussions, but policymakers should be clear that a coup by any other name is still a coup.

The country’s democratic future after Mugabe is uncertain. A unity government, likely headed by the newly sworn in President Mnangagwa - who is in reality one of the country’s most hated men - could assume power until elections, currently scheduled for next year, are held. It is possible but far from certain that these elections will be free and fair. It is possible but far from certain that the older generation of ZANU-PF leaders, under Mnangagwa, could commence economic reforms that would put the country on the path towards economic growth. In the meantime, the country faces its first leadership transition since independence, and the military understands that its intervention into politics will, under the right conditions, be condoned and even celebrated.

Maya Tudor is associate professor of government and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.