Inside State House in Harare, Robert Mugabe was in the tightest spot of his 37-year rule. Tanks were on the streets and troops had occupied the state broadcaster, from where the army had announced it had taken control of Zimbabwe.
Mugabe, 93 years old but still alert, remained defiant. The only leader the country had known since independence was refusing to quit.
At a tense meeting with his military top brass on November 16, the world’s oldest head of state put his foot down: “Bring me the constitution and tell me what it says,” he ordered military chief Constantino Chiwenga, according to two sources present.
An aide brought a copy of the constitution, which lays out that the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Chiwenga, dressed in camouflage fatigues, hesitated before replying that Zimbabwe was facing a national crisis that demanded military intervention.
Mugabe retorted that the army was the problem, according to the sources present. Then the beleaguered president indicated that perhaps they could find a solution together.
The meeting marked the start of an extraordinary five-day standoff between Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s supreme law on one side, and the military, his party and Zimbabwe’s people on the other.
The generals wanted Mugabe to go, but they also wanted a peaceful “coup,” one that would not irreparably tarnish the administration aiming to take over, according to multiple military and political sources.
The president finally accepted defeat only after he was sacked by his own ZANU-PF party and faced the ignominy of impeachment. He signed a short letter of resignation to parliament speaker Jacob Mudenda that was read out to lawmakers on November 21.
Mugabe, who had run Zimbabwe since 1980 and overseen its descent into economic ruin while his wife shopped for luxury goods, was gone.
Drawing on a trove of intelligence documents from within Mugabe’s feared Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), Reuters reported in September that the army was backing Emmerson Mnangagwa, then vice president, to succeed Mugabe when the time came.
The report detailed how Mnangagwa, a lifelong friend and former security chief of Mugabe, might cooperate with Mugabe’s political foes in order to revive the economy. It caused furore in Zimbabwe’s media and political circles.
Bitter rivalry intensified between Mnangagwa and Grace, Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife, who also hoped to take over as president and had the backing of a ZANU-PF faction known as G40.
In early October, Mnangagwa said he had been airlifted to hospital in South Africa after a poisoning attempt in August. He pointed no fingers - but he didn’t need to.
Grace’s swift response was to deny it and accuse her rival of seeking sympathy; she belittled him as nothing but an employee of her husband, according to a report in the state-run Herald newspaper.
As the pressure built, Mugabe became increasingly paranoid about the loyalty of army chief Chiwenga, a career soldier and decorated veteran of Zimbabwe’s 1970s bush-war against white-minority rule.
Mugabe’s spies, who permeated every institution and section of society in Zimbabwe, were warning him the military would not accept Grace as president.
“Mugabe is very worried of a coup,” one intelligence report, dated October 23, said. “Mugabe was openly told by senior CIOs that the military is not going to easily accept the appointment of Grace. He was warned to be ready for civil war.”
Reuters reviewed the document, and hundreds of other intelligence reports dating back to 2009, before the coup took place. The documents come from within the CIO, but Reuters could not determine for whom they were written. The CIO is split into factions, some pro- and some anti-Mugabe.
In late October, Mugabe summoned Chiwenga to a showdown, according to another of the documents, dated Octobr 30. It said Mugabe confronted the army chief about his ties to Mnangagwa and told him that going against Grace would cost him his life.
At the same meeting, Mugabe also ordered Chiwenga to pledge allegiance to Grace. He refused.
Moments after Mnangagwa was ousted on November 6, the security details assigned to him and his house were withdrawn, according to a statement he issued later. He was told his life was in danger.
From Harare, he managed to escape over the border into neighbouring Mozambique, where he caught a plane to China, according to one source familiar with his movements. There he met up with Chiwenga, the source said.
Reuters could not confirm the account; but an intelligence report from November 13 indicates that Mugabe suspected some of his generals of preparing to overthrow him from China.
“A number of generals are now in China ready to plot Mugabe’s ouster with Mnangagwa,” the report said. It was not clear which generals, and whether their travel to China was authorised.
Mugabe’s spies suspected old allies had turned against the ageing president. An intelligence report, dated October 30, said Beijing and Moscow both supported regime change out of frustration at Zimbabwe’s economic implosion under Mugabe.
“China and Russia are after change,” the report said. “They are after change within ZANU-PF as they are sick and tired of Mugabe’s leadership.”
“The two countries are even ready to clandestinely supply arms of war to Mnangagwa to fight Mugabe.”
Neither China’s Defence Ministry nor Foreign Ministry responded to a request for comment. The Foreign Ministry had previously said Chiwenga’s visit was “a normal military exchange mutually agreed upon by China and Zimbabwe.”
The line went dead
At around 6pm local time on November 14, Mugabe’s motorcade headed to his private “Blue Roof” residence, a heavily fortified compound in the capital’s leafy northern suburb of Borrowdale.
Meanwhile, social media buzzed with pictures of armoured vehicles driving along roads to Harare, sparking frenzied speculation about a coup.
Increasingly concerned, Grace put in a call shortly after 7pm to a cabinet minister asking to get WhatsApp and Twitter shut down, according to one source familiar with a recording of the conversation.
The minister, whose identity Reuters is withholding for safety reasons, replied that such a move was the responsibility of state security minister Kembo Mohadi.
“No-one will stand for a coup. It cannot happen,” said Grace, commonly referred to as Amai, which means Mother, according to a source who heard the recording.
Mugabe’s voice is then heard on the line: “As you have heard from Amai, is there anything that can be done?”
The minister gave the same response, about the responsibilities of state security, and the line went dead, the source said.
Two hours later, two armoured vehicles rolled into the Pockets Hill headquarters of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), according to ZBC sources.
Dozens of soldiers sealed off the site and stormed into the studios where they accosted staff, snatching their phones and halting programmes. State-owned ZBC, widely seen as a mouthpiece for Mugabe, switched to broadcasting pop music videos.
Mugabe’s inner circle, nearly all of them G40 loyalists, had no idea what was under way, according to four sources familiar with their conversations.
As ministers in the G40 faction tried frantically to work out what was going on, Chiwenga’s men closed in on Mugabe’s compound.
According to a source briefed on the situation, Albert Ngulube, a CIO director and head of Mugabe’s security detail, was driving home around 9.30pm after visiting Mugabe. He met an armoured car on Borrowdale Brooke, a side road leading to Mugabe’s house.
When Ngulube confronted the soldiers and threatened to shoot them, they beat him up and detained him, the source said. Ngulube was later released, but had suffered head and facial injuries, the source added.
Other G40 ministers were also picked up by soldiers. Finance minister Ignatius Chombo was found hiding in a toilet at his house and beaten before being detained at an undisclosed location for more than a week.
Soldiers used explosives to blow the front door off the house of Jonathan Moyo, the main brains behind G40, according to video footage of the house seen by Reuters. Others burst through the front gates of the residence of local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere, another key Grace supporter.
For another week, Mugabe clung on to the presidency as Chiwenga and his forces tried to engineer a peaceful, and quasi-legal, exit for the long-serving leader.
But as parliament began impeachment proceedings 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 stepping down out of “concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe.”