Review: Vivien Horler
Two Weeks in November, by Douglas Rogers (Jonathan Ball)
This is the “astonishing untold story of the operation that toppled Mugabe” in Zimbabwe in November 2017.
I watched the televised Sunday night press conference where the frail old man sat, surrounded by generals and a priest, shuffling his papers and, against all expectations, not resigning as president.
In the previous few days there had been reports of tanks on the streets of Harare – something was going on but, after 37 years in brutal control, Mugabe being toppled in a coup seemed unlikely.
Rhodesian-born Rogers, author of the delightful The Last Resort, about his parents clinging on to their tourist resort near Mutare in the east of the country during the land grabs, says a reported global audience of one billion people watched the press conference on the evening of November 19.
Earlier that day Mugabe had been fired as the leader of ZANU-PF, and everyone was confident he was going. Six minutes into his speech he said the economy was going through a difficult patch. Rogers comments: “At which point the speech itself hits a difficult patch, from which it never recovers.”
A few minutes later his watchers realise: he’s not going. And many people, including Rogers and those who had been plotting the downfall of the old man, are terrified.
Two days later, impeachment proceedings against Mugabe began in parliament. There was no guarantee ZANU-PF would win the motion, as many of Grace Mugabe’s G40 members were in the party and might well vote against it. There was also the problem of who would table the motion – should it fail that person could be charged with treason.
And then someone handed a letter to the speaker of Parliament, and the house – and the country – erupted in joy. Mugabe was gone.
But the lead-up to that moment is an extraordinary one, much of which seems to have been played out by Zimbabwean ex-pats in Johannesburg over the previous year.
One of them was Zimbabwean businessman and fixer Rogers calls Tom Ellis, who knew he was being tailed by Zimbabwean Central Intelligence Operation agents in Joburg. It turned out they were about to assassinate him at an ATM when he stopped his car at a red traffic light, walked back to their car behind him and invited them for a drink. The three became the core of the team.
This book opens with the firing of vice president Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa on November 6, 2017, and ends with his being sworn in as president on November 24. In between Mnangagwa had fled for his life, reached Johannesburg via Mozambique, and then returned to Harare in triumph.
What made it all possible was a movement between members of the Zimbabwean diaspora who wanted their country’s downward spiral to be halted, in consultation with former enemies, disillusioned members of ZANU-PF who realised that Grace Mugabe as president was simply going to be more of the same (as South Africans did at the prospect of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma succeeding her divorced husband in 2017).
These groups overcame their mutual hostility to work towards a greater good. And in the end the support of the military, in particular Defence Force head General Constantino Chiwenga, proved decisive.
One of the problems the plotters faced was: how do you carry out a coup that is not a coup? By the late 1990s the African Union and the SADC countries had signed agreements that they would intervene militarily to stop unconstitutional overthrows of member governments. As Rogers points out: “Turns out seizing power is the easy part. Keep it is what you have to plan for: legitimacy.”
The military could not remove Mugabe by force because that would make them potential criminals – they had to find a way to make him leave voluntarily.
And the way to do this was to call in what Rogers refers the A-Team, the team of rivals in South Africa who had been planning for this possibility for more than a year.
For a non-Zimbabwean, some of the backroom negotiations that occupy several chapters of this book were less than riveting, but were of course a vital part of Rogers’s story. Where it really takes off, though, is Mnangagwa’s desperate bid to flee Zimbabwe on the night he was fired, his son having been warned that “a cell (is) waiting for him at Rhodesville Police Station. They are going to poison him and hang him. It will look like a suicide.”
How do you get out of a country when every border post is bristling with police and emigration officials looking for your well-known face? Will someone lend you an aircraft? Do you have enough cash on hand for bribes?
Rogers accepts that the end was not an entirely happy one for the country – the title of his final chapter, “The Hangover”, proves that.
And yet. He writes: “The way I see it, the art of politics is to get the wrong people to do the right thing…” Referring to a major peace march through the streets of Harare on November 18, 2017 which was organised within a couple of days, he says the military sheathed their weapons and treated citizens with dignity and respect for a day; war veterans called for peace and unity, and members of two political parties which despised each other put away their hatred for a day.
And they did this because they knew this is what most ordinary people want, all the time.