On November 14, 2017, Robert Mugabe’s iron-fist rule over Zimbabwe came to an abrupt end. In just a matter of hours, the country’s military placed the 93-year-old ruler and his wife under house arrest, and quickly declared his days as president over.
While Africa is no stranger to power-struggles and coups, what happened in Zimbabwe is rather peculiar in the fact that no one—not even the international press—knew exactly what was going on. This was not because information was not getting out. Actually, it was quite the opposite.
The country’s military put forward a communications strategy that controlled the narrative and helped drive support internally and externally for their actions. While it’s safe to say that Mugabe’s ousting garnered very little sympathy, the international community typically frowns upon non-democratic coups. But in this case, the world seemed okay with this development.
While the situation in Zimbabwe bears all the hallmarks of a coup, the military did a very good job of convincing the international press to report it otherwise. In any time of crisis, the first priority is to take control of your message and start shaping the narrative.
Zimbabwe’s military commanders knew this, and they quickly took control of the national broadcaster. While this is common practice in most government takeovers (there have been 300 or so over the past 50 years in Africa), it was what the military said on national television that raised eyebrows:
“We wish to assure the nation that his excellency the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe and commander-in-chief of Zimbabwe defence forces comrade R.G. Mugabe and his family are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed. We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country, in order to bring them to justice. As soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect that the situation will return to normalcy.” – Major General SB Moyo
Military spokesman Major General SB Moyo took to the airways and declared his men had carried out “a bloodless correction of gross abuse of power” and that the country would return to genuine democracy as a “modern model nation.” He went on to say “to both our people and the world beyond our borders, we wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover of government.”
General Moyo’s statement is a perfect example that despite all evidence pointing towards a coup, sticking to your key talking points, no matter how much the evidence says otherwise, helps to shape the conversation. He managed to cause enough confusion that the African Union condemned the events as “what seems like a coup” and the international media had no idea what to call it. While some networks labeled the events as a ‘coup’, many others refrained from using that terminology altogether.
So what happened? By announcing the military was going after corrupt criminals and not Robert Mugabe himself, the army effectively positioned itself, not as power-hungry thugs, but as civilian partners ending the rule of a man who bankrupted a country with unemployment rates north of 95%.
By promising to restore civilian rule as quickly as possible, the military painted itself as a sort of caretaker-government. Whether military leaders are telling the truth, or just playing kingmaker by installing another iron-fist leader, so far their communications strategy has been paying off: the vast majority of Zimbabweans are celebrating their swift actions.
In the world of communications, persuasion campaigns take time to effectively shift public opinion. Recognizing that Mugabe still had small legions of supporters out there, the military decided to trot the world’s oldest leader out from house arrest to preside over a university ceremony in the nation’s capital. In what was Mugabe’s first public appearance since the alleged coup, the frail 93-year old delivered a rambling, incoherent speech, then promptly fell asleep on stage in front of hundreds of people.
Pictures of him asleep at the job, so to speak, were quickly broadcast across the country, driving home the military’s message that Mugabe must go. A convenient PR-boost for a coup that is not a coup, by allowing Mugabe himself to show his country he is incapable of leading. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and no amount of military-propaganda could have a better impact than this.
While scholars will debate whether or not the events in Zimbabwe are actually a coup or not, the military did an expert job of amassing support on its side, including those who are quick to dismiss any form of political change through the barrel of a gun. If things couldn’t be any more complicated, Mugabe’s former Vice President, who was sacked just days before the military moved in, has just been sworn into power.
But as history has shown, coups, (or “bloodless corrections” in this case) are often popular immediately after they happen, especially when the end result is the fall of a tyrant like Mugabe. However, even popular coups elicit negative responses from the international community. Perhaps this military’s communications strategy kept the international community at bay, preventing it from making rash decisions that could have caused the situation to spiral out of control. In the end, this strategy bought the military—and Zimbabwe—time, which is crucial when a government that has been in power as long as the country has existed comes to an abrupt end. For the sake of Zimbabweans, let’s hope positive change is in store in the post-Mugabe era.