Few, if any, of even the most clued-in pundits could have foreseen the turn of events in Zimbabwe.
Nonagenarian Robert Mugabe, president since Independence in 1980, was looking forward to the ruling Zanu-PF’s congress next month where he would push through his middle-aged wife Grace to succeed him both as party supremo and candidate for the presidential election next year.
He had laid the ground well, dashing any pretensions that erstwhile opposition chief Moses Tsvangirai had on the presidency and hounding two potential successors in Joice Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa (both former vice presidents) out of the party and government.
As matters have turned out with his immobilisation by the military from public affairs, President Mugabe underestimated the resolve of the war veterans to keep the leadership within the liberation cadre.
Still, respect from the trenches meant he was spared the atrocities that befall dethroned leaders at the hands of the military.
In Zimbabwe’s case, the men in uniform have been at pains to distinguish their toppling of President Mugabe from a coup d’etat, describing it as a reorganisation of government meant to get rid of criminals surrounding the president.
It is easy to see why: Democratisation has caught on across Africa since the polarisation of the Cold War to replace putsches as the common way of taking over governments.
Despite Zimbabwe’s being a coup in all but name, the condemnation from the rest of the world has been reserved amid a silent hope in capitals that the intervention could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Harare.
The fact that Zimbabwe has come to this, however, is an indictment of particularly the African Union.
While the AU is quick to denounce coups as a way of ascending to power in the continent, it does little to hold incumbents to account even as all indicators point to emasculation of citizens and institutions like parliament, the judiciary and non-governmental actors including the media.
As Zimbabwe slowly became an authoritarian state and a global laughing stock for the idiosyncrasies of the executive, President Mugabe never lost his seat on the high table of Africa politics. The behaviour of his more progressive companions notwithstanding, President Mugabe was elected chairman of the AU in 2015.
For every Zimbabwe, there are scores of other African countries where compatriots are looking for help from the AU to temper the excesses of their leaders. When it does not come through and citizen or military uprisings fill the void, the AU loses its credibility.
Even where it has belatedly entered the fray to return calm in volatile transitions, the AU has tended to place stability above accountability by negotiating exile for violators of democratic principles instead of resolution through a country’s or transnational judicial system.
That has robbed AU initiatives like the Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) of vital goodwill from citizens and potential benefactors.
It is instructive that despite the increasing number of former presidents pushed out of office by term limits and outright rejection by voters, the annual Mo Ibrahim Governance index (this year’s will be released this week) has only found five worthy of the award of its $5 million Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership since it was launched in 2006.