Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

How Women Shape Coups

In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

LONDON – Last week, Zimbabwe’s generals took President Robert Mugabe into custody in an effective coup (though they insist on not calling it that). Days later, the country’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), moved to expel the 93-year-old president from its ranks. But it may not have been Mugabe himself, the quintessential “big man” leader, who catalyzed this revolt, despite the ruthlessness that has characterized his nearly four-decade rule. Quite the contrary, it may have been Mugabe’s possible successor – his wife, Grace.

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In the last couple of years, the 52-year-old Grace Mugabe has become increasingly active politically, even declaring her hope to succeed her husband. Just a week before the coup, Mugabe sacked his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to promote Grace to that position.

According to new research by Theresa Schroeder of Radford University and Jonathan Powell of the University of Central Florida, female heads of state may be more likely to provoke military coups in countries where armies are powerful enough to stage them. The paper cites several examples of attempted coups against woman leaders.

For example, Corazon Aquino, the first woman president of the Philippines, survived four coup attempts. Benazir Bhutto was not just Pakistan’s first woman prime minister; she was the first woman to lead a democratic government in a Muslim-majority country. In 1995, she also faced a coup attempt – which was ultimately foiled – by renegade military officers.

One possible explanation for this tendency, proposed by Schroeder and Powell, is that female leaders can be viewed as direct threats to the interests of the generals, because women are more likely to favor, say, reduced military spending and less pugnacious policies. And, indeed, Aquino took a more diplomatic approach to dealing with rebels in the Philippines than her country’s military command advocated.

Another reason why female leaders might be more likely to attract coups is the belief, conscious or unconscious, that a woman in charge must have obtained her post through family or marital connections. She was not actually tough enough, in other words, to get to the top on her own.

As Schroeder and Powell point out, this reading is not entirely baseless: in some parts of the world, female leaders have disproportionately obtained office through familial ties. One survey they cite found that 33% of female leaders in office from 1960 to 2007 had family ties to prominent politicians.

But there are vast regional disparities, with familial ties most likely to drive female leaders to the top in Latin America and Asia – regions with low gender equality overall and little respect for women’s rights. In fact, until recently, the only women who had become heads of state in Latin American countries were daughters or wives of political leaders.

None of this is to say that gender provides a decisive, much less comprehensive, explanation for a coup. Powell himself points out that, in Zimbabwe, many women fought for the country’s independence in the Rhodesian Bush War. Among that war’s female veterans was Joice Mujuru, who later served as vice president for a decade, ostensibly without having her competence challenged by the military.

Ironically, Mujuru was once viewed as a potential successor to Mugabe. But in 2014, she was apparently censured for purportedly plotting against him – allegations that cost her both her post as vice president and her position in the ZANU-PF leadership.

In fact, gender may also play a role when it comes to executing a coup. Planning a successful coup requires a significant degree of instrumental reasoning – that is, the tendency to use other people as tools to advance one’s own goals. And, according to new study, this “Machiavellian” tendency – which encompasses the intention and ability to use manipulative tactics, a cynical view of human nature, and a disregard for conventional morality – may manifest differently in men and women.

The new research, which took into account the results of three studies, suggests that men who exhibit a high degree of Machiavellianism tend to be self-aggrandizing, boisterous, and vain, with an exploitative approach to relationships and an opportunistic worldview. Machiavellian women, by contrast, may be defensive, anxious, and introverted. The study concludes that men may be more likely to engage in assertive and violent forms of manipulation, while women may resort to covert, restrained, and concealed deceptive tactics, such as rumors and gossiping.

Because power reflects perception, rival coup leaders ruthlessly manipulate potential enemies and collaborators. Yet they may not realize how gender bias is shaping their own strategies. Sometimes, it’s this psychology that explains an unexpected fall from grace.

In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place. But who the eventual winners and losers are might depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

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