The seizure of power in Zimbabwe by the military presents important lessons for Zambia, for the rest of the southern Africa region and for the continent as a whole. Given that things are still in a state of flux, it is hard to properly analyse the issue and predict how the situation will unfold over the next few days or weeks. In times like these, today’s certainties are often undone by tomorrow events. That said, there are emerging lessons to be tentatively drawn from what has happened so far, especially in relation to the motivations for the military takeover, the key figures behind the move, the local and external response to the ‘coup’, and the possible consequences of transferring power through the gun, not the ballot.

The first lesson to learn from Zimbabwe is that any close connection between military and political elites in power, one driven by commercial and economic interests, should be strongly opposed by the public because it almost always threatens democratic consolidation, especially in political systems that are characterised by relatively weak institutions such as Zambia’s. While Zimbabweans have long complained about the degenerating economic, political and social situation in their country, what motivated the military to seize power is the desire to protect entrenched privileges, ensure continued access to wealth accumulation and remove the possibility of their leaders being held to account by a new president not of their choosing. As expected, the coup leaders opportunistically linked their actions to the poor-performing economy, the erosion of democratic principles, the need to sort out ‘the criminals’ surrounding Mugabe and to restore constitutional order in the nation.

The military leadership is not a sudden convert to constitutional democracy. Generals had no problem with Mugabe in power and his autocratic tendencies while they were able to enrich themselves, with their safety (from possible prosecution) guaranteed. When Mugabe announced that he would seek another term in next year’s elections, there was no opposition from the security wings. Even now, they are not critical of Mugabe in any major way. The military leaders only acted now because Grace Mugabe’s so-called G40 faction, widely seen as incapable of guaranteeing their interests, threatened their power. In seizing control, the generals are not seeking to create an alterative democratic society: they are simply safeguarding their position and want to keep power within the liberation aristocrat. Their reported preference for former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, a popular figure amongst soldiers, draws inspiration from this point.

As President Edgar Lungu seeks to extend his terms in office, it may be important to thoroughly investigate the economic and financial interests of those in his inner circle who stand to benefit from his continued stay in office. It is only through a wider understanding of the interests and networks that bolster Lungu’s rule that those opposed to his ambition to cling to power past his constitutional limit would understand the challenge that faces them. While the military has not previously had an overt political role in Zambia, there are signs that this is slowly changing, especially under Lungu’s presidency. Military leaders have, in recent times, sought to influence political developments behind the scenes and in support of Lungu. In the run-up to the January 2015 presidential election, military chiefs reportedly backed Lungu, hitherto the Minister of Defence, in the ruling party’s divisive succession wrangles. In May 2016, at the height of the election campaign, top military commanders held a rare press conference, effectively in support of the ruling authorities. We now hear that when the election petition was filed last August, senior military figures put pressure on Lungu to ignore the constitutional provision that requires an incumbent whose election is legally challenged to step down and cede power to the Speaker of the National Assembly. It is likely that the manoeuvring of the military extends beyond these cited examples and continues behind the scenes. This, left unchecked, is a serious threat to Zambia’s democracy.

The second lesson is that foreign condemnation and intervention of a number of key political developments in Africa is closely tied to the strategic and economic interests of major international powers. It is telling that not a single Western government has openly condemned the military seizure of power in Zimbabwe or described the generals’ actions as an outright coup against a legitimately elected government. A statement by United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson appears to effectively endorse the overthrow of Mugabe as good riddance. Johnson’s major concern was the choice of Mugabe’s possible successor, Mnangagwa, whom the top British diplomat criticised as another autocrat and one of the leading architects of Zimbabwe’s current misery. This kind of response perhaps should not come as a surprise. Western governments, led by the United States and United Kingdom, have long sought Mugabe’s removal and their response to the generals’ actions indicates that they have welcomed military intervention. Principled opposition to military seizure of power vanished in the face of this political aim. It is likely that if the leader at the receiving end of the military’s actions had been faithful to Western interests, Western governments would have been unanimous in their condemnation. To buttress this point with an example from home: how many civil society organisations in Zambia do Western governments fund to seriously scrutinise the activities and operations of mining companies on the Copperbelt or in North-Western Province as part of encouraging greater transparency in the sector? Probably none. They would rather maintain the status quo (apart from condemning the working conditions in Chinese-owned enterprises) and finance a few NGOs in Lusaka to make noise around ‘constitutional reform’ and ‘good governance’ because they have vested interests in the mining sector. The hypocrisy of Western governments on certain issues is truly embarrassing.

The Zimbabwe experience also demonstrates the need for regional bodies such as the Southern Africa Development community (SADC) to take a more proactive role in the happenings of its member states. Latest reports indicate that SADC leaders are locked in crucial talks that seek to either return Mugabe to power or safely secure his exit. Had SADC leaders paid attention to and acted on the longstanding concerns of Zimbabweans much earlier, they would have averted the latest crisis. The current edition of Africa Confidential reports that South Africa and China supported and endorsed the “smart takeover of power” in Zimbabwe to protect their national interests. If this is true, l would be less surprised about South Africa’s involvement. It is the role of China, a country that has previously been very hands off in its approach to African governments, that raises serious concern. What would happen to Zambia when the country defaults on the huge Chinese debt or elects a leader who is not amenable to Chinese interests?

The third lesson from Zimbabwe is that when ordinary citizens lose all belief in their own capacity to cause or enact change, they are likely to support anything they can construe as salvation. When news of the military takeover filtered through the streets of Harare, many Zimbabweans – a majority of whom have made strenuous efforts to remove Mugabe from power both through elections and popular protests – welcomed it. Ordinary citizens who sought the removal of Mugabe have been unsuccessful partly because Mugabe previously retained the support of the army. The lesson here for leaders elsewhere in the region is the need to respect presidential term limits and leave power voluntarily. In a way, Mugabe brought this military intervention on himself by refusing to consider stepping down or making any succession plans. Leaders elsewhere, including in Zambia, who are similarly stubborn and are destroying public institutions with great abandon could invite the same fate of any kind of non-constitutional or sudden removal from power.

The final lesson is one that the people of Zimbabwe may sadly be about to learn: that once the military becomes directly involved in politics, they are very hard to dislodge. To take the example from West Africa, celebrations when the military overthrew various corrupt and authoritarian regimes quickly turned to regret as the soldiers proved unwilling to surrender power. There is a danger about the unfolding political events in Zimbabwe that many people are overlooking, possibly out of an immediate desire to see Mugabe’s back. If Zimbabweans and the region accept the generals’ seizure of power in Zimbabwe as a ‘clean coup’, military takeovers could come to be seen as a legitimate form of removing unwanted leaders. Already, South Africans are fantasizing about President Jacob Zuma being removed in a similar manner. Mugabe’s departure was long overdue, without question. Yet the manner of his departure is deeply worrying. Military coups cannot be accepted as a legitimate part of political life. There is a possibility that the positive reception to the coup in Zimbabwe will embolden anti-democratic forces across the region. The clamour to be rid of Mugabe may be short-sighted if we lose sight of the wider and far more important democratic principles.