Zimbabwe's military seized control of the country Wednesday in a disturbance that one regional expert said renders Robert Mugabe's nearly 40-year hold on power "over".
The 93-year-old leader is reportedly in detention following what the military claims is a "bloodless correction" targeting so-called "criminals" around the president. Witnesses have reported hearing explosions in the capital Harare as tanks block streets and long lines form at banks.
Regional expert Charles Laurie, head of country risk at Verisk Maplecrof, said Wednesday that while the extent to which the situation is a coup is unclear, the intervention certainly bears all the hallmarks of a military takeover.
"The degree to which it is a coup remains to be seen, but there is no doubt at this stage it is a strong military intervention," Laurie told CNBC.
The development follows days of tensions between Mugabe's ruling Zanu-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party and military chief General Constantino Chiwenga. The latter announced in a rare press conference Monday that those behind the "purging" of ZANU-PF must stop, or the military will take action. ZANU-PF responded by accusing the general of "treacherous conduct."
Chiwenga is believed to have been referencing Mugabe's sacking of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa a week prior. Mnangagwa then fled to South Africa but has reportedly already returned. Once seen as the president's successor, he was caught in a power struggle with Mugabe's wife Grace, who is currently viewed as favorite to succeed her husband, despite having little political experience.
"Its unlikely at this stage that the general is seeking to secure power for himself," Laurie said. "The more likely scenario is that he is seeking to in effect wind back the clock and bring the former senior vice president back into the country and have him be in the key position to succeed."
Laurie rejected suggestions that this could be the work of the South African government.
Alisha Patel, Sub-Saharan Africa analyst at AKE, told CNBC in an email that: "Mugabe's rule had long been despised, with the deep factionalism within the ruling ZANU-PF demonstrating this. However, up until now there had appeared to be no way to unseat the 93-year-old president."
"The military takeover is the latest development in an increasingly bitter and public succession battle for the presidency, and more importantly the vast patronage opportunities that come with it," Patel said.
"Moreover, it is a tremendously significant development. For Mugabe, the end appears to be nigh after 37 years in power, and he looks set to be little more than a lame duck president. A Mugabe dynasty now appears to be equally unlikely."
Regarded by some as an African revolutionary hero who rid Zimbabwe of minority white rule, Mugabe's leadership since 1980 has been largely characterized as tyrannical, marked by severe economic mismanagement leading to famine and hyperinflation, violent suppression of opposition, corruption and human rights abuses.
International sanctions imposed on the country as a result have pushed it further into isolation and economic decline. By 2008, unemployment in Zimbabwe was at 94 percent and inflation had skyrocketed to more that 1000 percent.
Now, Patel says, former vice president Mnagagwa could be on course to lead Zimbabwe. "Mnagagwa has much support for the West, and this could yet be an opportunity to mend broken relations. The mood on the streets appears calm. Indeed, many are excited about the end of an era."
"Zimbabwe has for the last 10 to 15 years been in a state of suspended animation — economically and politically it's been in a dire condition," Laurie said. "As of today, the situation in Zimbabwe is dramatically different from what it was yesterday.
"The degree to which this is an improvement is far too premature to say. What we can definitely say is Mugabe's absolute hold on power is now over, and we're into a period of uncertain rule in the country."