What is a Coup? Robert Mugabe 'Safe and Sound' as Zimbabwe Military Targets 'Criminals' in Government

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Zimbabwe Defense Forces Major General S.B. Moyo, chief of staff logistics, makes an announcement on Zimbabwe state broadcaster ZBC, in this still image taken from a November 15 video. ZBC/Handout via Reuters

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for 37 years, may be witnessing the most significant challenge to his authority to date.

After a politically chaotic week—during which Mugabe fired his deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa and the head of the armed forces warned those in government to stop its "purge"—the Zimbabwean military seized control of the state broadcaster overnight on Tuesday.

Major General Sibusiso Moyo, a spokesman for the military, gave a televised address on the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), in which he said that the 93-year-old president and his family were "safe and sound" and denied that a coup had taken place.

"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," said Moyo. "What the Zimbabwe Defence Forces is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country, which if not addressed, may result in violent conflict."

What is a coup?

A coup d'etat is the illegal—and often violent—seizure of power from a government, often carried out by the military of a country. Zimbabwe has not witnessed a coup since its independence war that resulted in emancipation from British rule in 1980, when Mugabe became prime minister.

Why is the Zimbabwean military saying this is not a coup?

The military has been careful with its choice of words and is emphasizing that it has not taken over the running of government. In particular, Moyo was keen to stress that the president had not been deposed.

"We wish to assure the nation that His Excellency, the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, and Commander in Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Comrade R. G. Mugabe and his family are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed," said Moyo.

"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."

Moyo did not state specifically who the "criminals" were, but the military detained Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo on Wednesday, Reuters reported, citing a government source.

But many analysts have suggested that, despite the military's claims to the contrary, a coup had been carried out. "They have decided not to call it a coup because they know that a coup does not sell, it will be condemned," Alex Magaisa, a former adviser to Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, told the BBC.

What came before the military's action?

The military takeover of ZBC came after a tumultuous week in Zimbabwean politics. Mugabe fired his former vice-president Mnangagwa—an independence war veteran with a solid support base among the military—on November 6, accusing him of disrespect and deceit.

The shock dismissal came after a weekend rally in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo, at which the president's wife, Grace Mugabe, was booed, allegedly by Mnangagwa supporters.

Mnangagwa's dismissal was interpreted as a decisive blow in a long-running feud between two factions of the ruling ZANU-PF coalition, which are divided over who should succeed Mugabe. One faction, known as the G40, backs the first lady; another, known as the Lacoste faction, supports Mnangagwa.

Some analysts have said that the military's actions are directed towards Grace Mugabe and her faction. The detained finance minister, Chombo, is a leading member of the G40.

The head of Zimbabwe's armed forces had warned on Monday that the "current purging" taking place within the ruling coalition must stop. "We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in," said General Constantino Chiwenga, in an address that was ignored by state broadcasters.

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Zimbabwe Army General Constantino Chiwenga, commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, addresses a media conference held at the Zimbabwean Army Headquarters in Harare on November 13. JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Image

Is Zimbabwe safe?

Several foreign embassies have issued warnings to their citizens in Zimbabwe to remain in their homes as the situation remains unclear and volatile. The U.S. Embassy in Harare will be closed on Wednesday and U.S. citizens have been encouraged "to shelter in place until further notice" and avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place.

The U.K. embassy in Harare, the EU delegation and the Canadian embassy in the capital have all issued similar statements.

Prolonged gunfire was heard close to the presidential residence in the suburb of Borrowdale, a witness told AFP, while Reuters reported that three explosions were heard overnight in the center of the capital.