Having got wind of the talks in China, Mugabe summoned his still-loyal police commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, and his deputy, Innocent Matibiri, to detain Chiwenga on his return to Harare, government and security sources said.
The pair assembled a squad of 100 police and intelligence agents. But the plot leaked and Chiwenga supporters managed to pull together a counter-team of several hundred special forces soldiers and agents as their commander’s plane approached.
Some were disguised as baggage handlers, their military fatigues and weapons hidden beneath high-visibility jackets and overalls, one security source said.
Realising they were outnumbered and outgunned, Chihuri’s police team backed down, allowing Chiwenga to touch down without incident, the security source said.
Two days later, Chiwenga and a group of military commanders demanded a meeting with Mugabe at his official State House residence 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” at the firing of Mnangagwa and told Mugabe to rein in his wife and her G40 faction, whom they accused of trying to divide the military, according to the government official, who was present at the discussions.
“What do you think should be done?” Mugabe demanded of the soldiers as he sat slumped in an armchair.The generals asked Mugabe to give them assurances that they too would not be purged. Mugabe’s response was lukewarm, the government source said. Chiwenga told Mugabe he would be making his concerns about the G40 faction public.
Hours later, Chiwenga summoned reporters to the military’s main barracks near Harare to issue a statement.
“We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that, when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” he said, reading from a prepared text.
The following afternoon, Reuters reported six armoured personnel carriers heading towards the headquarters of Mugabe’s Presidential Guard on the outskirts of Harare. It was unclear whose command they were under.
At the time, the city’s residents were on edge but still unsure what it all meant.
At around 6 p.m. on Nov. 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 7 p.m. 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.
Mohadi declined to comment.
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.
Information Minister Simon Khaya Moyo called Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi to ask if he had any information about a possible coup. Sekeramayi said no, but tried to check with military chief Chiwenga.
Chiwenga told Sekeramayi he would get back to him. According to the sources, Chiwenga never did.
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 9.30 p.m. 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.
On his release on Nov. 24, he was hospitalised with injuries to his hands, legs and back, his lawyer told Reuters, describing the army’s behaviour as “brutal and draconian.”
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.
Contacted by Reuters shortly after midnight in the early hours of Nov. 15, Kasukuwere was audibly stressed. “I can’t talk. I‘m in a meeting,” he said, before hanging up.
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 Nov. 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.”
Reported by MacDonald Dzirutwe, Joe Brock and Ed Cropley; Additional reporting by Cris Chinaka in HARARE, Michael Martina in BEIJING and Jack Stubbs in MOSCOW; Editing by Richard Woods and Mike Collett-White