Robert Mugabe and his family remain under detention in Zimbabwe twelve hours after the military declared on national television that it had temporarily taken control of the country to “target criminals” around the head of state.
The move by the armed forces appears to have resolved a bitter battle to succeed the 93-year-old president, which had pitted his former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, against his wife, 52-year-old Grace Mugabe.
Mnangagwa was reported to have returned to Zimbabwe on Wednesday morning from South Africa, where he fled after being stripped of his office by Mugabe last week in an apparent attempt to clear Grace’s path to power.
The military takeover comes two days after the army chief – flanked by other senior officers – warned that he was prepared to “step in” to end turmoil in the ruling Zanu-PF party.
It is likely to signal the departure from power of the world’s oldest leader within days, weeks or at most months.
Soldiers have sealed access to parliament, government offices and courts in the capital, residents said. Access to the president’s official residence was also blocked by troops. But Harare appeared calm.
“Although a little bit scary, I think this is good for us. It has been a long time, we are going through a lot of hardships,” a fruit and vegetable seller in the centre of the city told the Guardian.
“People are excited because they are ready for change,” said an official who asked not to be named because of his job. “I don’t think things will get violent because they are doing this for the people — if they start shedding blood they can’t do that any more. That is why they told people to stay away from the centre of town unless they have business, so troublemakers cannot stir things up.”
Early on Wednesday a military spokesman, Maj Gen SB Moyo, made an announcement on state television saying Mugabe and his family were “safe and sound and their security is guaranteed”. Troops had seized the network’s offices late on Tuesday night.
Moyo insisted – despite appearances – that a coup had not taken place, adding: “as soon as [the armed forces] are done the situation will come to normalcy”.
Cancelling all leave for members of the military, he urged the security forces to “cooperate for the good of our country”. “Any provocation will be met with an appropriate response,” he warned.
There was no sign of any resistance to the takeover or to the arrest of a series of senior officials associated with Grace Mugabe and her G40 faction. The youth wing of the ruling Zanu-PF, which had made defiant statements directed at the military earlier in the week, appeared to condone the military action.
Mnangagwa, a former spy chief, has strong support among many in Zimbabwe’s armed forces, and it is unclear who might oppose him in coming days.
In contrast, Grace Mugabe is deeply unpopular and has few allies internally or, crucially, regionally.