Something is happening in Zimbabwe. It might be a coup. It might not. (UPDATED: It now appears more likely that it is)

Conway Waddington

[Update: Events have shifted considerably overnight since writing, and it seems probable that some form of coup is now in progress. We will update as more becomes clear]

[Update: quite a lot changed in the space of 12 hours – at around 4 AM on 15 November, Zimbabwe Defence Force troops seized the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation station in Harare, to announce that, while the Mugabe family was “safe”, the military intended to arrest “criminals” surrounding the president. Subsequently, rumours surfaced of the detention of several ‘G40’ (pro-Grace Mugabe) faction leaders, including several minister. By mid-morning on 15 November, UK and US embassies had issued unspecified warnings to staff, citing political uncertainty. Further unconfirmed rumours suggested former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa had arrived at Manyame Air Force Base, which is located alongside Harare International Airport, from South Africa.]

 

ZDF personnel seen on the streets of Harare on 15 November, after the ZDF seized control of the national broadcaster to announce it was effectively taking, at least temporary, control. The armoured vehicle pictured appears to be one of the same seen on the outskirts of the city on 14 November. It is still not a ‘tank’. (image source unclear)

 

On the afternoon of 14 November, Twitter erupted with rumours (and more than a few victorious declarations) that a coup to oust President Robert Mugabe was underway in Zimbabwe. The rumours originated from a collection of photographs and video clips showing armoured vehicles on a road, purportedly headed towards the capital, Harare. African Defence Review is watching developments closely, but this is what we can tell from the material available publicly so far.

 

Online comments almost without fail are mistakenly called these vehicles ‘tanks’. In the above video, the narrator claimed to have been passed by at least “ten tanks”, headed to Harare from Chinhoyi, and speculates that the unsmiling passengers on the military vehicles “have orders”.

Still image from the above video – seen here, a tracked APC (not a ‘tank’).

 

Specifically, the vehicles appear to be either Norinco-made Type 63 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) or – more likely – to be the more modern Type 85/89s seen in Zimbabwean service as the ZSD-89-II.

 

 Norinco type 63 APC – these were the smaller predecessors of the PLA’s type 85, and 89 export models (image source)

 

At least one of the (at most four) vehicles seen in any one image appears to be either a mortar, ambulance, or command vehicle variant.

 

One of the images circulating on social media showing three of the APCs (the hatches more clearly visible in these images would make these Type 89s)

A PLA Type-89-ACV-2S command variant (Image source: Air Power Australia)

 

The imagery available of the convoy seen on 14 November shows, at most, four tracked armoured personnel carriers.  They could be described as armoured fighting vehicles or infantry fighting vehicles (AFV/IFV) – based on armaments and variant. But importantly, these are not ‘tanks’. The difference is more than just semantics.

A convoy of four APCs moving from one location to another is quite different to driving a convoy of tanks toward a capital city. APCs carry personnel for any number of reasons and their presence on a road could far more easily be explained away as a simple redeployment, albeit a terribly timed one. Tanks are solely fighting vehicles – the reasons for moving them around are more limited. Moreover, moving them is a significant logistical undertaking, one that would not be done without a very specific purpose in mind. When local and international media casually refers to a convoy of ‘tanks’ heading toward Harare, it connotes a far more serious situation than might actually be the case.

Indeed, video showing these APCs stopped on the road has been narrated by witnesses as setting up roadblocks – where they might just as easily be pausing, or as has been speculated by calmer heads, attending to a breakdown. Various images circulating on social media and local press show the same types of APCs as seen in the original video(s). In the third image, one vehicle appears to be towing another.

 

   

In another video, the narrator describes military police and two “tanks” having blocked off Kirkman Road, on the outskirts of Harare. Interestingly, the narrator specifically notes that the blocked off roads leads to the “2nd Presidential Guard Barracks just outside Harare”. 2nd Battalion of the Presidential Guard has a barracks in Dzivarasekwa, roughly in the same area.

 

Vehicle identification and circumstances aside – local and international media have since seized on the story – reporting witnesses’ claims of ‘tanks’ heading to, or even in Harare.  From there, the story snowballed. [UPDATED: regardless of events on 15 November, it is worth noting that declarations that a coup was underway on the afternoon of 14 November, based on limited imagery of armoured vehicles, was still premature]

Contextually, the time [was] ripe for a coup – or at least, narratively speaking, it made sense that a coup might occur. On 13 November, General Constantino Chiwenga, the ZDF Commander, warned that the Zimbabwe National Army could step in, if infighting in the ruling ZANU-PF continued. This was interpreted, in its most extreme form, to suggest the Zimbawe National Army could overthrow the Mugabe-led ZANU-PF, or at least, the pro-Mugabe ZANU-PF faction, which has been positioning itself for Grace Mugabe to take over from Robert, seen most dramatically in the recent abrupt firing of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Earlier in the day, on 14 November, the ZANU-PF Youth League responded to Chiwenga, pledging support for the Mugabe family.

Another important facet of the day’s event to consider is that police, or possibly military personnel were reportedly engaged in raids on an NGO in Harare today. This could plausibly account for at least some of the presence of military personnel in the city.

 

 

 

It is also worth noting that military personnel are regularly deployed in and around the city, at various secure points, or transiting between several barracks located in and around the city.

 

An image circulating on social media showing military personnel in Harare. The image is purportedly from 14 November, but it is unclear which unit those men are from, or what their purpose is.

For the time being, ADR strongly advises restraint against drawing dramatic conclusions about an ongoing or imminent coup. The specific unit identity of the military personnel shown in the imagery is unknown. Their intentions are unknown and undeclared. The circumstances of the convoy of APCs on the road and their apparent stop is also unknown. Yes, given the past two weeks’ political events, it is tempting to speculate that there is a connection between the deployment of military personnel and the comments of ZDF Commander on an ‘intervention’ – but there are very real dangers of violence breaking out as a result of rampant and unfounded speculation.

As has been noted elsewhere, there are currently no other signs of an organised coup – no further military deployments, or announcements. A lack of activity among foreign diplomatic personnel in Harare is also a fairly good indicator that things are not nearly as dramatic as the initial social media response to the APC imagery would suggest. That is not to say that some lesser form of posturing might be taking place. The movement of forces might be coordinated as part of a deliberate act of intimidation, or even an uncoordinated act by a small unit. [UPDATE: this summary of events on 14 November obviously changed quite dramatically by the following day – but the following remains valid]There is plenty of room for speculation, although again, restraint is probably a good idea.

In the meantime, some falsely portrayed imagery has already appeared on social media. One such example to look out for is this video clip, purportedly showing a military convoy headed toward Harare – except that it is a video from another location and another time, as evidenced by the beautiful clear weather in the video, despite the cloudy, raining conditions in Harare on 14 November.

A video of Zimbabwe National Army troop movements dating back to September, being portrayed as taking place currently: source

 

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