She is a polarising figure who became known as "Gucci Grace" for her lavish style in a country where millions live below the poverty line.

Zimbabwe's First Lady Grace Mugabe, 52, is widely loathed and loved throughout the nation.

Her critics claim her influence exists purely because of her marriage to President Robert Mugabe, 93, and that it will die when he does. Her supporters argue she is an ambitious politician who could become the next leader of Zimbabwe.

She has been subjected to ongoing sexist and misogynist attacks from men in both the ruling and Opposition factions but her steely demeanour has earned her a following of loyalists who perceive her as refreshing.

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Those who oppose the First Lady and President are breathing a sigh of relief as the couple, along with several of their supporters, are reportedly in military custody.

It was not clear whether the apparent military coup would bring a formal end to Mugabe's 37-year rule. The main goal of the generals appeared to be preventing Grace, who is 41 years younger than her husband, from succeeding him.

Grace's desire for the top job became apparent earlier this month when she suggested that the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) constitution should be amended to mandate that one of the two vice presidents be a woman.

On November 5, she asked a crowd of churchgoers: "Would it be so wrong if I was elected? Give me the job and see if I fail."

Zimbabwe's army was set on a collision course with Mugabe last week when the ailing leader abruptly fired his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a linchpin of the country's defence and security establishment.

Mnangagwa, 75, was previously one of Mugabe's most loyal lieutenants, having worked alongside him for decades, but he fled to South Africa following his dismissal and published a scathing five-page rebuke of the President's leadership and Grace's political ambition. The revelation was said to spark the military intervention.

Mnangagwa has been embroiled in a long-running feud with Grace that included a bizarre alleged ice cream poisoning incident that laid bare the pair's rivalry.

Both were seen as leading contenders to replace Mugabe when he died or retired, but Mnangagwa had the tacit support of the armed forces which viewed Grace - a political novice - with derision.

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In less than two years as an active politician, she has brought down more than a dozen big men and women who have been at the heart of ZANU-PF's survival, The Washington Post reported.

According to the newspaper, Grace appears to openly enjoy the fight, even laughing at her own jokes, and the audience often joins in her glee.

Once the bread basket of the region, Zimbabwe has struggled to feed its own people since 2000 due to severe droughts and the effects of a land reform program which saw the seizure of white-owned farms redistributed to landless black Zimbabweans and led to sharp falls in production, the BBC reported.

But Grace has been a fierce defender of her husband, declaring that he could run as a "corpse" in next year's election and remain in power.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace

She has been accused of being tone deaf for appearing in designer clothes and going on expensive shopping trips amid the country's economic crisis. Her penchant for fashion has earned her the nickname "Gucci Grace".

She has ditched the designer apparel in place of military clothing in recent years as she ramped up appearances at campaign events and became heavily involved in charity work and state duties.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace.

But controversy continues to haunt the First Lady who first came to public attention for having an affair with Mugabe.

The rendezvous produced his first surviving children. The pair later married after the President's first wife died, the Associated Press reported.

Alex T Magaisa, a lecturer at Kent University and former aide to ex-Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai told CNN she needed her husband to ensure she survived politically.

"Grace Mugabe without Robert Mugabe will not survive a single day politically," he said.

"But as long as Mugabe is there, she will do what she wishes."

Those words this week rang true when General Constantine Chiwenga asked the President to rein in Grace Mugabe in a speech on Saturday.

The President - and, most likely, the First Lady - responded by using a youth leader to deliver a speech that accused the general of embezzling diamond revenue worth over $15 billion.

The apparent military coup was triggered just days later.

Whether or not the President is overthrown, the incident may mark the end of the country's dominance by Mugabe, the last of Africa's state founders still in power from the era of the struggle against colonialism.