The question is whether Mugabe's removal can pull a once-prospering country from the ditch into which he drove it but the prospects don't look good. Picture: Reuters/Rogan Ward

Washington - A military coup in Zimbabwe may have ended - at last - the misrule of Robert Mugabe. 

The 93-year-old president was reported to be under house arrest Wednesday after the army sent troops into the streets of Harare in an apparent move to prevent him from installing his wife as his putative successor. 

Now the question is whether his removal can pull a once-prospering country from the ditch into which Mugabe drove it. Unfortunately, the prospects don't look good.

Mugabe was a hero of Zimbabwe's independence struggle and took power in 1980. But he wrecked his legacy with bloody campaigns of repression against opponents and the summary expropriation of white-owned farms, which destroyed the country's export business. 

Zimbabwe's economy nearly halved from 1998 to 2008, and unemployment rose past 80 percent; shortages of food and other basic goods haunt a population of about 14 million, many of whom have fled abroad. Opposition movements have been brutally repressed, and most elections have been rigged.

Read more: #Zimbabwe state TV prioritises sport, Diabetes Day, ignores political crisis

That horrific record, however, was not the reason for the military coup. Rather, it was Mugabe's firing last week of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was vying for control of the ruling party with Grace Mugabe, the president's wife. 

Mugabe has a reputation for lavish spending and erratic behavior, and the 75-year-old Mnangagwa has the support of army commander Constantino Chiwenga. 

But both men have a history of brutal behaviour: Mnangagwa is blamed for the killing of some 20 000 civilians in the 1980s, while Chiwenga oversaw the bloody crackdown that followed Mugabe's loss in the first round of the 2008 election.

Also read: Grace Mugabe has fled #Zimbabwe - report

Many Zimbabweans and some in Western governments may welcome any change in the country after 37 years of Mugabe. Some reports suggest that Mnangagwa, if put in power, could reverse some of the regime's worst mistakes. A Reuters article in September, sourced to reports by the state intelligence agency, said he was contemplating forming a unity government with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and reaching out to dispossessed white farmers in a bid to revive the agricultural economy.

Mnangagwa is not, however, committed to competing in an election, according to the Reuters report. Given his notoriety and the dire state of the economy, he could easily lose a fair vote to Tsvangirai. Yet without an election that provides a genuine popular mandate, the chance for reforms that could revive the economy looks small.

That's why the United States and other Western governments should insist on a prompt restoration of constitutional order and a firm commitment by the military to holding internationally supervised elections next year. The outside world has leverage, including potential help with Zimbabwe's defaulted international debts. The end of Mugabe's rule offers a fragile opportunity to rescue an African country - but only if it does not lead to the installation of another strongman.