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In Implicit Rebuke to Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s Military Says It May ‘Step In’

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, center, and his wife, Grace, left, arrived at party headquarters last week. Credit Jekesai Njikizana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s top military commander waded into an escalating feud within the country’s governing party on Monday, issuing a rare warning to President Robert G. Mugabe.

“When it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in,” the commander, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, who leads the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, said in what amounts to an extraordinary intervention in the country’s politics.

General Chiwenga was referring to the armed struggle that contributed to the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 from Britain, following a period of white minority rule.

Although not a military commander himself, Mr. Mugabe, 93, was a leader in that struggle. Lately, however, the political party he helped found, ZANU-PF, has purged several veterans of the struggle, including Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, whom Mr. Mugabe abruptly fired last week in a move that was widely seen as clearing the path for Mr. Mugabe’s wife, Grace, as a possible successor. (Mrs. Mugabe, 52, was a teenage student during the struggle.)

“There is distress, trepidation and despondence within the nation,” General Chiwenga said. “Our peace-loving people, who have stood by their government and endured some of the most trying social and economic conditions ever experienced, are extremely disturbed by what is happening within the ranks of the national revolutionary party.”

He said the ZANU-PF had been undermined by “gossiping, backbiting and public chastisement” since 2015, and added, “Indeed, the party is undoing its legacy built over the years.”

Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, Zimbabwe’s top military commander, second from right, and Lt. Gen. Philip Valerio Sibanda, commander of the Zimbabwe National Army, second from left, held a news conference on Monday in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. Credit Jekesai Njikizana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Flanked by some 90 senior military commanders, General Chiwenga addressed journalists at army headquarters. He took no questions.

It was a bold intervention, said Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and all the more extraordinary because General Chiwenga denounced “the current shenanigans by people who do not share the same liberation history of ZANU-PF,” an indirect but pointed reference to Mrs. Mugabe and her ally Jonathan Moyo.

“It sets the stage for a showdown,” Mr. Chan said. “Mugabe may have to contemplate two options: inviting Mnangagwa back into the government, or facing down the generals.”

The general’s statement stopped short of directly criticizing Mr. Mugabe, arguing that one of his slogans — “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again” — was being “seriously challenged by counterrevolutionary infiltrators.”

This is not the first time the military has intervened in politics.

In 2008, after the first round of elections in which the Movement for Democratic Change, an opposition party led by Morgan Tsvangirai, won at the polls, the military warned that it would not allow leaders without liberation-war credentials to take power, and 200 people died in a state-sponsored crackdown on the opposition. Mr. Tsvangirai did not participate in the runoff, but he served as prime minister from 2009 to 2013, as part of a power-sharing deal. Mr. Mugabe’s party regained full control in 2013 elections that were widely seen as rigged.

Politics in Zimbabwe remain in considerable disarray as internal squabbling over who should succeed Mr. Mugabe — the world’s oldest head of state — worsens. Party elders have also talked about ousting Patrick Chinamasa, the cybersecurity minister, and Kembo Mohadi, the national security minister, both seen as rivals to Mrs. Mugabe and Mr. Moyo.

For her part, Mrs. Mugabe has dared the army to shoot her, calling for the military to stay out of politics. And Mr. Mnangagwa, the ousted vice president, has not been heard from; there are widespread rumors that he is in exile in South Africa.

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