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Opinion Pool Indicates Increasing Risk of Atrocities in Zimbabwe after Apparent Coup

Emmerson Mnangagwa, former First Vice President of Zimbabwe, during High Level Segment of the 25th Session of the Human Rights Council. 5 March 2014. —UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

The Zimbabwean military appears to have staged its first successful coup in the country’s 37-year history, according to numerous news outlets and outside observers. Early this morning, the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) seized control of state TV and newspaper outlets and declared that they had taken President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, into custody. At time of writing, international media reported that opposition parties and supporters of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former First Vice President fired by Mugabe on November 6, are currently negotiating plans to form an interim government.

These events are driving an increase in Zimbabwe’s risk of mass killing, according to the Good Judgment Open opinion pool run by the Early Warning Project of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for International Understanding. The shift in the crowd forecast reflects a prominent theory of mass killing, which contends that mass killing is most likely when ruling elites’ power is severely threatened—in short, that regimes under threat due to coup attempts, mass protests, and other forms of political instability are more likely to lash out against their populations and commit atrocities.

The Early Warning Project uses a public opinion pool to draw on the “wisdom of the crowd,” asking experts and generalists to forecast atrocity risk in countries of interest. The opinion pool complements our annual Statistical Risk Assessment—which ranked Zimbabwe 35th in the world in 2016 with a 1.1% risk of onset of state-led mass killing—enabling us to gauge risk in real-time.

The consensus judgment on our most recent question—Between 1 October 2017 and 30 September 2018, will an armed group from Zimbabwe engage in a campaign that systematically kills 1,000 or more civilians in Zimbabwe?—has consistently been 0 percent risk since the question launched on October 1. However, as forecasters read the news coming out of Zimbabwe, many have updated their forecasts to reflect increasing risk. Forecasts since news of the coup was made public have ranged between 15 percent and 100 percent, a sharp increase rarely seen across our country questions.

The main precursor to ZDF’s actions was the firing of Mnangagwa, a leading candidate to succeed the 93-year-old Mugabe. Succession disputes between Mnangagwa’s allies in ZANU-PF and supporters of First Lady Grace Mugabe have escalated as President Mugabe’s health has worsened and the succession question remained unresolved. Mnangagwa, who also served as the head of Zimbabwe’s security apparatus, commands strong support among both the leadership and the rank-and-file of the Zimbabwean defense and intelligence forces. In a November 2016 Early Warning Project report, the Simon-Skjodt Center identified factional disputes within ZANU-PF—and their spillover effects within the Zimbabwean security forces—as a potential driver of future mass atrocities:

“Observers should focus on two central dynamics for indicators of a change in the risk of mass atrocities against civilians by members of either ZANU-PF faction: (1) continued uncertainty surrounding the selection of the next leader of ZANU-PF (and, therefore, of Zimbabwe); and (2) distribution of support for the two factions by the Zimbabwean army, police, and intelligence services.”

These two factors remain critical to assessing the risk of mass atrocities in the aftermath of the apparent coup. If Mnangagwa and his allies are able to establish a roadmap quickly for transition to a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe and if they are able to gain or maintain support from the bulk of the country’s security forces, mass atrocities would be much less likely. If conflicts continue between ZANU-PF factions over post-Mugabe succession, despite Mnangagwa’s claim to power, or if security forces split between factions, the risk of mass atrocities would increase significantly. As they respond to the current crisis, Zimbabwe’s international partners should make preventing mass atrocities a high priority.

To read more about the Simon-Skjodt Center’s work on Zimbabwe, read our November 2016 report, Scenarios of Repression: Preventing Mass Atrocities in Zimbabwe. For more about the Early Warning Project, visit To participate in the public opinion pool, see our challenge on Good Judgment Open.