As rebel, revolutionary, Machiavellian manipulator, and supreme leader, Robert Mugabe has been the face of Zimbabwe for so long that it’s almost impossible to imagine the country without him. Almost. The impossible finally began to happen on Nov. 14, when tanks rolled into the capital, Harare, and the armed forces took custody of Mugabe and his wife, Grace. Military spokesmen said they were “safe and sound and their security was guaranteed.”
Mugabe has ruled for 37 years—the entire existence of Zimbabwe after the downfall of the white minority government of what was then called Rhodesia. In that four-decade period, the economy has deteriorated from resource-rich breadbasket to basket case. Violent repression made Zimbabwe’s leader a pariah to most of the world. Mugabe’s visage became a face loved only by fellow leftist autocrats and the commodity-hungry Chinese government. Indeed, Chinese trade to the southern African nation last year was worth $1.6 billion; Zimbabwe’s military maintains close ties with Beijing’s generals.
More important, despite economic decline and international isolation, Mugabe was the undisputed master of Zimbabwe, outmaneuvering several would-be successors, including the co-leader of the uprising against white rule, Joshua Nkomo. His regime appeared to be getting ready for its third vice president in three years when the military took possession of the streets and the government television station. Mugabe, 93, had been expected to anoint Grace, 52, as the new vice president.
The fall of Mugabe hasn’t led to dancing in the streets. It’s nothing like the developments in the late 20th century that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet bloc or the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, where people power stirred the promise of democratic revival and reform. The military action, which the generals refused to call a coup d’état, is the latest chapter of a bitter fight within Mugabe’s political regime, one that’s resulted in the president being caught in his own web of intrigue and betrayal. The leader of this uprising, GeneralConstantine Chiwenga, commander of the armed forces, is a close ally of Grace’s fiercest rival, the deposed heir apparent, Emmerson Mnangagwa. A comrade-in-arms of the president during the fight against the white regime, Mnangagwa also used to run the country’s fearsome security apparatus. His nickname is “The Crocodile.”
Read more: What the Fall of Mugabe Means