RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. And now, his reign may have come to an end. It appears the military has taken control of that country's government. Officers in uniform appeared on state TV to say that President Mugabe and his wife are in custody and are safe.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 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.
MARTIN: South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, said he had spoken with Mugabe and that he's fine but confined to his home. Zuma added...
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PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA: Given the seriousness of the situation, I've taken a decision to send an envoy but also to meet with President Mugabe so that we have a more clear picture of what is happening in Zimbabwe.
MARTIN: So the big question, is this a coup? The military says no. It sure looks like it, though. We've called up NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton now. Is Robert Mugabe still in power in Zimbabwe or not?
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Rachel, very clearly not. So, although the army is soft-pedaling and playing this down, this is a coup in everything but name. But coups are taboo now in Africa. The African Union does not accept them. The regional Southern African Development Community does not accept them. So the military wants to say, we are in charge, but this has been bloodless, and this is not a coup - it is.
MARTIN: Remind us, what's the political backdrop to all of this? I mean, President Mugabe has his fair share of detractors, to be sure.
QUIST-ARCTON: Tension has been building, especially over the last week. Last week, Monday, President Mugabe sacked one of his vice presidents who is a war veteran, an independence war veteran - Emmerson Mnangagwa - and said that this was for disrespect and disloyalty. And behind all this, the entire nation sees the first lady, Grace Mugabe, who is deeply politically ambitious, who is also political within the governing ZANU-PF party which is now factionalized.
And the infighting within the party over who will succeed Robert Mugabe is what has caused all this trouble. Emmerson Mnangagwa fell foul of Grace Mugabe because she wanted him out. Most people say that's because she wants to be appointed vice president to her husband. Clearly, she overstepped her reach and look what's happened. The army has moved in - for the first time, might I add.
MARTIN: So what does this mean? I mean, who is the figure who emerges to lead Zimbabwe in this moment?
QUIST-ARCTON: Depending on whose tweets you read, the governing ZANU-PF party is now saying that Emmerson Mnangagwa, who, by the way, when he went into exile after being ousted by the president said that he would come back to lead Zimbabwe. We've been told over the years, over decades that the army would only accept a former veteran to succeed President Mugabe when the time came. Now the army general, the army commander said on Tuesday that if this infighting and political turmoil did not end that the military might intervene. And that is exactly what happened.
But all this is uncharted waters. It's unknown territory to Zimbabwe. We know that there are armored vehicles. And the military have been patrolling the streets. But what happens next is a question mark. Also, we're being told that Emmerson Mnangagwa, the ousted vice president, will return to be the interim leader of the party. And then what next?
MARTIN: It is pretty extraordinary though. If this is a coup, if Robert Mugabe has been ousted from power, I mean, when you think about that word, coup, it usually is accompanied by scenes of violence and conflict. That's not happening though.
QUIST-ARCTON: And this is why the army says it has been bloodless. As I said, coups are now old-fashioned. Nobody wants to hear about coups in Africa. But the army is going to have to tread gently. And it is going to have to tread gingerly because now, the region may say, no, this is unconstitutional. Although officially, it is being called a constitutional change of power and not a coup. We'll have to just wait and see, Rachel.
MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and on the line from her base in Dakar, Senegal, talking about the perceived coup of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Thanks so much, Ofeibea.
QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.