The rise of Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe has been widely celebrated but does not necessarily bring any security guarantees.

By Adrien Morin

Robert Mugabe, the only president Zimbabwe has known since achieving independence 37 years ago, resigned on November 21st, 2017. His decision came after a political crisis which started with the firing of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa on November 6th. This move decided by Robert Mugabe could have benefitted his wife Grace and her G40 (a rival faction within the ruling Zanu-PF party) in the succession of the 93-year old ruler. The Zimbabwean military, under the leadership of General Constantine Chiwenga, subsequently seized key sites in the capital Harare and placed the Mugabe couple under house arrest. The military, the very institution that maintained Robert Mugabe in power for nearly four decades, ironically became the main actor of his downfall. This paved the way to the return of Emmerson Mnangagwa, and eventually to his instatement as Zimbabwe’s new president on November 24th.

Mugabe’s downfall and the rise of Mnangagwa were celebrated all across the country, by both the political elites and civil society. The international community also overwhelmingly welcomed the political change in Zimbabwe. This is a rather uncommon situation for a political transition that bears most of the hallmarks of a military coup.

Not much of a political transition

Emmerson Mnangagwa is no stranger to Zimbabwean politics or to Robert Mugabe himself. “The Crocodile,” as he is known domestically, has been involved in governmental affairs alongside Mugabe for the past 37 years and, just like his former boss, fought against Rhodesian forces during the war of independence in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Mnangagwa was the country’s spymaster (national security minister) during the civil conflict in the ‘80s that allegedly cost the lives of more than 20,000 in Matabeleland (Western Zimbabwe), mostly from the Ndebele minority. He is also suspected to be the mastermind behind the 2008 outburst of violence that followed Mugabe’s defeat in the first round of the presidential election to political rival Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe ended up winning the election after Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-off, in fear for his life and those of his political supporters.

Mnangagwa is currently revered as the man who seized power from an authoritarian leader who put his own interests before those of his people for decades. Many hope that this will bring concrete changes and opportunities in a country that has been struggling since achieving independence, and even more so since the early 2000s (economic crisis, food insecurity, unemployment, civil violence). However, it would probably be naïve to believe that “the Crocodile” orchestrated a coup to give power back to the Zimbabwean people. Mnangagwa had long been tipped to become the successor of Robert Mugabe, until he was sacked and replaced by Grace Mugabe as the more likely candidate. Therefore, what is more likely is that Mnangagwa mobilized his loyal friends from the military because he was betrayed by his former boss and lost his political perspective to become Zimbabwe’s next ruler.

There is little, if any, reason to believe that the new president would fundamentally reform the Zimbabwean society. To perform a peaceful political transition and bridge the divides within civil society, the new administration should involve figures from the political opposition, starting with former candidate to the presidential election and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC): Morgan Tsvangirai. However, as Todd Moss, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development explains: the more likely scenario is that “Mnangagwa simply takes power” and continues to use the “well-oiled machine [Zanu-PF has built] for dominating the country and stage-managing elections.”

Zimbabwe’s history of civil violence

Like many of its neighbors in Africa, Zimbabwe was struck by civil violence during and after its march for independence from colonial rule. Between 1965 and 1980, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) was under white-minority rule with Ian Smith acting as prime minister, leading to a racially motivated internal conflict between the Rhodesian Security Forces and the National Guerilla Forces. Lengthy years of guerilla warfare, tens of thousands of casualties (including many civilians) and international isolation eventually forced Ian Smith to give up power in the country, leaving his seat to Robert Mugabe.

Peace and stability did not last long within the newborn Zimbabwe. Allies of yesterday became enemies during a power struggle between Mugabe and his rival nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo between 1983 and 1987. The so-called Gukurahundi campaign is thought to have cost the lives of 20,000, including that of Nkomo, and granted Mugabe, Mnangagwa and the rest of the Zanu-PF party, full control over the country.

Mugabe and the Zanu-PF built their legitimacy on an anti-colonial rhetoric. In the 2000s, more than two decades after the end of white-minority rule, this rhetoric was brought back into fashion to justify the eviction of white farmers from their lands, orchestrated by veterans from the liberation war. Subsequent mismanagement of the lands seized by the government brought Zimbabwe, once dubbed “the breadbasket of the region,” into a state of critical food insecurity, aggravating the country’s instability.

It is possible that Mnangagwa will prove to be a better manager than Mugabe was, and will improve the country’s agricultural and economic policies. Whether or not “the Crocodile” will implement inclusive societal policies and accept to make concessions with the political opposition is, however, very uncertain. Zanu-PF’s reign was built much more on power struggle and violence than on democratic processes. Dr. Binoy Kampmark, lecturer at RMIT University, insists on the fact that “such a system is hardly likely to produce a gentle hearted, rose growing pacifist,” and that Mnangagwa is indeed “a true product of his time.” His attitude towards his political opponents in the upcoming days and weeks will be critical to determine the security perspectives in Zimbabwe and the possibilities to enter the post-Mugabe era peacefully.

Cover Picture: Zimbabwe’s flag, © Nicolas Raymond / freestock