What is the risk for life, limb and property now that a military coup appears to be underway in Zimbabwe?
The answer may be: surprisingly little.
Yes, there have been tanks on the streets in and around Harare. Yes, shots were fired overnight in the city, and yes, reports that a couple of guards have been killed may be true.
But by the standards of coups globally, this has been relatively smooth and well-orchestrated.
Just a few days after President Mugabe sacked key minister and erstwhile successor Emerson Mnangagwa, President Mugabe’s own hold on power appears to be slipping.
Mr Mnangagwa, briefly exiled, is reportedly back in the country. Now it’s President Mugabe’s wife Grace who is likely to be seeking exile. The President’s palace in the exclusive Borrowdale area of Harare has been sealed off by the military for two days, and it’s not known for sure if Grace Mugabe is inside.
But Mr Mugabe himself is there, and he’s alive and well, as was confirmed by the South African president Jacob Zuma who has spoken to him on the phone.
This is crucial, as the army knows only too well. It may be that a combination of Mr Mnangagwa and army chief Constantino Chiwenga hold the levers of power now, and perhaps always have done. But there’s no doubt that Mr Mugabe still holds the soul of the nation.
That’s because of the huge credibility he brings as leader of the liberation struggle fought against white minority rule in the 1960s and 1970s. Mr Mugabe successfully led Zimbabwe to freedom in a deal negotiated with the returning British in 1980 and has led it ever since. No other African freedom fighter of his stature from that era remains alive.
His word still carries emotional weight and the power of his rhetoric, honed in the context of 1960s Cold War liberation theory, immense even at his advanced age of 93.
But the army knows this. The army itself has been key to keeping Mr Mugabe in power in the face of democratic resistance and international pressure for nearly three decades. And it’s been happy to do so because there’s always been a fair division of the spoils.
It was the army who helped officials of Mr Mugabe’s party, Zanu PF, seize control of the lucrative Marange diamondfields soon after they were discovered, and army officials were amongst the many government apparatchiks who profited from wholescale currency manipulation as the country plunged into hyperinflation following the widespread seizure of commercial farms.
Many of those farms went to top army officials, and the seizing itself was done by so-called “war veterans”, although how many of those veterans actually ever did any fighting has long been hotly debated.
So, for the army to turn against Mr Mugabe, there must have been a real game-changer in play. And there was: President Mugabe’s second wife Grace, several decades his junior, and a real polarising figure. A faction, known as the G40, has grown up around Grace Mugabe in recent years, and gradually begun to remove key army figures from the government, actions always cloaked under the authority of Mr Mugabe himself.
But with the removal of Mr Mnangagwa, the G40 finally looks to have overplayed its hand. True, if there was to be a succession battle after Mr Mugabe’s death, it was unlikely that the G40 would win against the physical hardware and wealth of the army. A gradual series of moves now made more sense than waiting.
But Mr Mnangagwa was not for waiting, and Constantino Chiwenga appears to have been of like mind. Between them, they don’t seem to believe that Grace Mugabe has the best interests of the nation at heart and, what with reports of over-excessive shopping habits, and violent altercations in South Africa, they may have been right.
Misbehaving relatives of despots are nothing new. It becomes problematic only when they try to take income, capital and welfare away from other significant political figures.
Mrs Mugabe will now disappear from view, to become in Trotsky’s damning phrase, little more than a footnote in history.
More significant than her individual fate is the future of the country at large. Should interested parties be worried? If, as seems likely, this move now settles the succession for Zimbabwe, then the outlook for stability actually seems rather good.
This is a coup that has been achieved with minimal bloodshed, but total effectiveness. In that sense it mirrors the farm seizures, which also involved a huge transfer of power and wealth with minimal bloodshed, in spite of the impression given at the time by Western media.
There are hard men in Zimbabwe to be sure, but in the new emerging global context of “strong men” like Presidents Putin and Erdogan they ought to fit in quite well. Zimbabwe may not be a free country, but it’s repression does come with a lighter touch.
As such, we are unlikely to witness the emergence of a Zimbabwean Idi Amin. But what we are witnessing, undoubtedly, is the end of an era.