HARARE (Reuters) – Inside State House in Harare, Robert Mugabe was in the most closed place of his 37-year government. The tanks were in the streets and the troops had occupied the state radio station, from where the army had announced that it had taken control of Zimbabwe.
Mugabe, 93 years old but still alert, remained defiant. The only leader the country had known since independence refused to resign.
In a tense meeting with its high military commanders on November 16, the oldest head of state in the world stood up: "Bring me the constitution and tell me what it says", ordered the military chief Constantino Chiwenga, according to with two sources present.
An badistant brought a copy of the constitution, which states that the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Chiwenga, dressed in a camouflage uniform, hesitated before replying that Zimbabwe was facing a national crisis that demanded military intervention.
Mugabe replied that the army was the problem, according to the present sources. Then, the embattled president indicated that maybe they could find a solution together.
The meeting marked the beginning of an extraordinary five-day standoff between Mugabe and the supreme law of Zimbabwe on the one hand, and the army, its party and the people of Zimbabwe on the other.
The generals wanted Mugabe to go, but they also wanted a peaceful "coup", one that would not irreparably stain the administration with the objective of taking charge, according to multiple military and political sources.
The president finally accepted the defeat only after he was fired by his own ZANU-PF party and faced the ignominy of the accusation. He signed a brief letter of resignation to the Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Mudenda, which was read to the legislators on November 21.
Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe since 1980 and supervised his descent into economic ruin while his wife was buying luxury goods, gone.
The country erupted in ecstasy. Parliamentarians danced and people took to the streets in their tens of thousands to celebrate a political fall that caused commotion throughout Africa and the world.
For many, the end of Mugabe had been unthinkable just a week before.
Reuters has reconstructed the events that led to Mugabe's elimination, showing that the army action was the culmination of months of planning that extended from Harare to Johannesburg to Beijing.
Drawing on a treasure trove of intelligence documents belonging to Mugabe's feared Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Reuters reported in September that the army was backing Emmerson Mnangagwa, then vice president, to succeed Mugabe when the time will come.
The report details how Mnangagwa, a lifelong friend and former security chief of Mugabe, could cooperate with Mugabe's political enemies to revive the economy. It caused furor in the mediatic and political circles of Zimbabwe.
The bitter rivalry intensified between Mnangagwa and Grace, the wife of Mugabe, 52, who also hoped to take over as president and had the backing of a ZANU-PF faction known as the G40.
In early October, Mnangagwa said he had been flown to a hospital in South Africa after an attempted poisoning in August. He did not point any finger, but it was not necessary.
Grace's quick response was to deny him and accuse his rival of seeking sympathy; she despised him as an employee of her husband, according to a report in the state newspaper Herald.
As the pressure mounted, Mugabe became increasingly paranoid about the loyalty of army chief Chiwenga, a career soldier and decorated veteran of the civil war in Zimbabwe in the 1970s against the government of the white minority.
Mugabe's spies, who permeated all institutions and sectors of society in Zimbabwe, warned him that the military would not accept Grace as president.
"Mugabe is very concerned about a coup," said an intelligence report, dated October 23. "Mugabe was informed openly by the senior CIOs that the military will not readily accept Grace's appointment, he was warned that he would be ready for civil war."
Reuters reviewed the document and hundreds of other intelligence reports dating back to 2009, before the coup. The documents come from the CIO, but Reuters could not determine for whom they were written. The CIO is divided into factions, some pro and some anti-Mugabe.
At the end of October, Mugabe summoned Chiwenga to a confrontation, according to another of the documents, dated October 30. He said that Mugabe confronted the army chief about his ties to Mnangagwa and told him that going against Grace would cost him his life. .
"Mugabe warned Chiwenga that it was time for him to start following him in. He mentioned to Chiwenga that those who fight against his wife must die a painful death," the intelligence report said.
At the same meeting, Mugabe also ordered Chiwenga to swear allegiance to Grace. He said no.
"Chiwengwa refused to be intimidated and remained firm in his loyalty to Mnangagwa," the report said.
Reuters asked questions about this exchange and other aspects of this article to Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba. In an enigmatic text message dated November 23, he replied: "Enjoy a copy of Reuters Good evening."
Two Chiwenga spokesmen refused to comment.
After another tense meeting with Mugabe on November 5, Chiwenga left Harare on a previously agreed official trip and traveled to China, which exerts significant influence as a major investor in Zimbabwe.
A day later, Mugabe dismissed Mnangagwa as vice president and purged him of ZANU-PF, the liberation movement that Mnangagwa had served since his youth and for which, as a young militant caught bombing a train, he had almost been executed.
For the generals, Mugabe had gone too far. The military immediately activated a "Code Red" alert, its highest level of preparedness, said a military source.
Moments after Mnangagwa was ousted on November 6, security details badigned to him and his house were removed, according to a statement issued later. They told him that his life was in danger.
"The security personnel, who are friendly to me, warned me that there were plans to eliminate me once arrested and taken to the police station," Mnangagwa said in a statement on November 21. "It was in my security interest to leave the country immediately."
From Harare, he managed to escape over the border with neighboring Mozambique, where he took a plane to China, according to a source familiar with his movements. There he met Chiwenga, said the source.
Reuters could not confirm the account; but an intelligence report of November 13 indicates that Mugabe suspected that some of his generals were preparing to overthrow him from China.
"Several generals are now in China ready to plan the overthrow of Mugabe with Mnangagwa," the report said. It was not clear what generals and if his trip to China was authorized.
Mugabe's spies suspected that the old allies had turned against the old president. An intelligence report, dated October 30, said Beijing and Moscow supported regime change out of frustration over Zimbabwe's economic implosion under Mugabe.
"China and Russia are seeking change," the report said. "They are looking for a change within the ZANU-PF as they are tired and sick of Mugabe's leadership"
"The two countries are even ready to smuggle weapons of war to Mnangagwa to fight against Mugabe."
Neither the Ministry of Defense of China nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to a request for comments. The Foreign Ministry had previously said that Chiwenga's visit was "a normal military exchange mutually agreed upon by China and Zimbabwe."
Reuters sent written requests to the Kremlin, the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. None of them responded.
China has always been interested in Zimbabwe, as it supported Mugabe's forces during the liberation struggle. After independence, he developed connections there in mining, security and construction.
Russia has also had links with Zimbabwe since the early 1980s, and in 2014 a Russian consortium formed a partnership to develop a $ 3 billion platinum extraction project in the country.
Chiwenga's trip to China culminated in his meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan in Beijing on November 10.
Two sources with knowledge of the talks told Reuters that Chiwenga asked if China would agree not to interfere if it took temporary control in Zimbabwe to eliminate Mugabe from power. Chang said Beijing would not get involved and the two also discussed the tactics that could be used during the coup, the sources said.
Reuters could not establish whether Mnangagwa met Chang.
After hearing about the talks in China, Mugabe summoned his still loyal police commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, and his deputy, Innocent Matibiri, to arrest Chiwenga on his return to Harare, government and security sources said.
The couple badembled a squad of 100 policemen and intelligence agents. But the plot leaked and Chiwenga's supporters managed to reunite a counter-team of several hundred soldiers and special forces agents when their commander's plane approached.
Some were disguised as baggage handlers, their military uniforms and weapons hidden under jackets and high-visibility overalls, a security source said.
Realizing that they were outnumbered and outgunned, Chihuri's police team backed off, allowing Chiwenga to land without incident, the security source said.
Mugabe's spokesman did not comment on the incident.
Two days later, Chiwenga and a group of military commanders demanded a meeting with Mugabe at his official residence of the State House in Harare, an ornate colonial villa complete with stuffed leopards and thick red carpets , according to a government source
They said they were "very alarmed" by the dismissal of Mnangagwa and told Mugabe to control his wife and his G40 faction, whom they accused of trying to divide the military, according to the official of the government, which was present in the discussions
"What do you think should be done?" Mugabe demanded from the soldiers as he sat in an armchair.
The generals asked him to give badurances that they too would not be purged. Mugabe's response was lukewarm, the government source said. Chiwenga told Mugabe that he would be expressing concern for the public faction of the G40.
Hours later, Chiwenga summoned reporters to the military headquarters near Harare to issue a statement.
"We must remind those who are behind the current treacherous traps that, when it comes to protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to intervene," he said, reading a prepared text.
The following afternoon, Reuters reported six armored personnel carriers heading to the headquarters of the Mugabe Presidential Guard on the outskirts of Harare. It was not clear who they obeyed.
At that time, the residents of the city were nervous but were still not sure what it all meant.
THE LINE WAS DEAD
Around 6 p.m. On November 14, Mugabe's caravan drove to his private residence "Blue Roof," a heavily fortified compound in the leafy suburb north of the capital, Borrowdale.
Meanwhile, social networks buzzed with images of armored vehicles driving on roads to Harare, sparking frantic speculation about a coup.
Increasingly concerned, Grace made a call shortly after 7 p.m. to a cabinet minister who asks that WhatsApp and Twitter be cut, according to a source familiar with a recording of the conversation.
The minister, whose identity Reuters is holding for security reasons, responded that such measure was the responsibility of the state security minister, Kembo Mohadi.
"Nobody will represent a coup d'etat". It can not happen, "said Grace, commonly known as Amai, which means Mother, according to a source who heard the recording.
Mugabe's voice is heard on the line:" As you heard from Amai, is there anything that Can he do? "
The minister gave the same answer, about the responsibilities of state security, and the line went dead, the source said.
Mohadi refused to comment.
Two hours later, two armored vehicles entered the headquarters of Pockets Hill of Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), according to ZBC sources.
Dozens of soldiers closed the site and broke into the studios where they boarded the staff, took their phones and suspended their programs The state broadcaster ZBC, widely seen as Mugabe's spokesman, switched to the transmission of pop music videos.
Mugabe's inner circle, almost all of them loyal to the G40, had no idea what was happening, according to four sources. familiar with their conversations.
Information Minister Simon Khaya Moyo called Defense Minister Sydney Sekeramayi to ask if he had any information about a possible coup. Sekeramayi said no, but tried to consult with the military chief Chiwenga.
Chiwenga told Sekeramayi that he would return with him. According to the sources, Chiwenga never did.
Moyo remains hidden and was not available for comment. Sekeramayi refused to comment.
While the ministers of the G40 faction were desperately trying to resolve what was happening, Chiwenga's men approached the Mugabe complex.
According to an informed source on the situation, Albert Ngulube, director of the CIO and head of the security services of Mugabe, was driving home at around 9.30 p.m. after visiting Mugabe. He found an armored car in Borrowdale Brooke, a side road that leads to Mugabe's house.
When Ngulube confronted the soldiers and threatened to shoot them, they beat him and detained him, the source said. Ngulube was then released, but suffered injuries to his head and face, the source added.
Spokespeople for Chiwenga and Mnangagwa declined to comment. Reuters could not contact Ngulube.
Other G40 ministers were also picked up by soldiers. Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo was found hiding in a bathroom in his house and beaten before being arrested in an undisclosed location for more than a week.
When he was released on November 24, he was hospitalized with injuries to his hands, legs and back, his lawyer told Reuters, describing the army's behavior as "brutal and draconian."
Soldiers used explosives to fly the front door of the house of Jonathan Moyo, the mastermind behind G40, according to the video of the house seen by Reuters. Others stormed through the front doors of the residence of the local government minister, Savior Kasukuwere, another key supporter of Grace.
Both men managed to escape to Mugabe's residence. Contacted by Reuters shortly after midnight on the morning of November 15, Kasukuwere was audibly stressed. "I can not talk, I'm in a meeting," he said, before hanging up.
For another week, Mugabe clung to the presidency when Chiwenga and his forces tried to design a peaceful and almost legal exit for the long-time leader.
But when the parliament began the indictment process on November 21, Mugabe finally gave up. After 37 years in control, during which much of his country fell into poverty, his letter of resignation said he was abandoning his "concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe."
Reported by MacDonald Dzirutwe, Joe Brock and Ed Cropley; Additional reporting by Cris Chinaka and Michael Martina in Beijing, and Jack Stubbs in MOSCOW; Edition by Richard Woods and Mike Collett-White