Coup in Africa: Zimbabwe Dumped Mugabe, But Will Other African Countries Do the Same to Their Dictators?

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe reviews the guard of honor during the country’s 37th Independence Day celebrations at the National Sports Stadium, in Harare, Zimbabwe, on April 18. Mugabe, untouchable for decades and a hero of African independence, is now out. Who’s next? JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty

In January 2016, Zimbabwe's then-President Robert Mugabe gave a speech at the African Union in Ethiopia. As he railed against Westerners' meddling in African affairs, the delegates repeatedly burst into delighted applause for the 91-year-old leader and laughed at his one-liners, as his audiences have for decades. "They are everywhere in Africa—if not physically, through [nongovernmental organizations], through spies, through pretenders who come to us and say they are here in Africa to assist us," Mugabe said. "Africans shall no longer tolerate a position of slavery." At the end of the speech, the elderly elder statesman received a standing ovation.

Less than two years later, his 37 years in power came to an abrupt end, as Mugabe was pushed out by his military and members of his ruling party in November. It was a bloodless coup but a coup nonetheless, given legitimacy by the nation's courts after the deed was done. Many countries around the world also approved, cheering the downfall of a man who presided over gross human rights abuses and an economic implosion that left most Zimbabweans destitute.

Should other African leaders be nervous? Some have orchestrated changes to term-limit laws, rigged polls and quashed civil society to stay in power, drawing regular condemnation from the same Western governments that Mugabe took pleasure in lambasting.

"Africa doesn't need strongmen. It needs strong institutions," Barack Obama said during his first trip to Africa as U.S. president in 2009. "No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy—that is tyranny."

November's events have undoubtedly caught the attention of a few of the "strongmen" called out by Obama. Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, who has led the East African nation since 1986, promised a pay raise to soldiers the day after Mugabe's resignation. In South Africa, where the increasingly unpopular President Jacob Zuma has been fighting off attempts to unseat him, his party's chief whip seized the post-coup moment to say South Africa urgently needs a leadership change.

"It's a lesson for the old dinosaurs still kicking around as heads of state in Africa," says Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You're in power at the behest of the people or the party. When they call time, there's not much you can do about it."

A few of Africa's long-ruling leaders fell in the last year. In December 2016, Gambia's Yahya Jammeh was voted out in a surprise election result, bringing his 22 years of autocratic rule to an end. In August, José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down as Angola's president and, after 38 years, Africa's longest serving leader until that time; he was replaced by a member of his party who has started to purge dos Santos's allies from their posts.

Supporters hold posters of Zimbabwe’s newly sworn-in President Emmerson Mnangagwa during his inauguration ceremony at the National Sport Stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe, on November 24. Mnangagwa is part of the same party machinery that Mugabe controlled for decades. AFP/MUJAHID SAFODIEN

Zimbabwe's new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is part of the same party machinery that Mugabe controlled for decades. In other words, this was not a democratic uprising, but it was a warning. Given the success of the military takeover in Zimbabwe, Museveni is probably not alone in taking steps to make sure his control over Uganda's military and party remains intact, particularly if popular disgruntlement has been building.

After all, Zimbabwe's military leaders would probably not have attempted their stunning maneuver if Mugabe had done a better job running the country and had more citizens' support. "They made the judgment that he was sufficiently unpopular both domestically and internationally," says Nic Cheeseman, a professor at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. who studies democracy in Africa.

Long-ruling leaders in other countries in which there has been popular unrest, such as Paul Biya in Cameroon and Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, now Africa's longest-serving leader, could also be vulnerable. But, Cheeseman says, any political upheaval in those or other countries would more likely be sparked by a popular uprising, rather than military intervention. "You'd need to see people on the ground first. You'd need to see mass protests."

A surge in protests inspired by events in Zimbabwe, however, is unlikely anytime soon. Democratic advances in the continent have been rare in recent years, observers say, and a recent survey by Pew Research Center showed that many people in African nations were willing to consider nondemocratic forms of government.

It could be years before it's clear whether Mugabe's ouster is a win for democracy in Africa. If Mnangagwa's administration pulls off the economic reforms he has promised and delivers fair elections next year, the coup may turn out to have been a watershed moment. If, however, the situation for Zimbabweans deteriorates further, and Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front, the ruling party in Zimbabwe, tightens its grip on power, November 2017 may be remembered as an altogether different kind of turning point for the country—and the continent.

"Everybody wanted Mugabe out," says William Gumede, executive chairman of Democracy Works Foundation in Johannesburg. "It's not a new beginning. But it has a potential to be a new beginning."