Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa makes opening remarks during a congress of the governing ZANU-PF party in Harare, Zimbabwe, 15 December, 2017. Source: Shaun Jusa/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
In early November 2017, Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe tried to sack his first vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa. Instead, the nonagenarian found himself ousted by his military and replaced by his former comrade after having been in charge for 37 years.
By ending Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe rid itself not only of a brutal dictator but also of one of the most incompetent and brazenly corrupt leaders in recent history. His exit presents an opportunity for the people of Zimbabwe to finally have a share of their country’s great economic potential. The southern African nation has one of the best educated workforces in the region as well as a fairly successful and affluent diaspora. Thanks to its fertile soil, Zimbabwe was once a major exporter of agricultural products. It is littered with natural resources including diamonds, platinum, gold and lithium. It harbours one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders, the Victoria Falls, which, together with its temperate climate, make it a highly attractive tourist destination.
It wouldn’t take much to at least modestly improve the living standards of ordinary Zimbabweans. Most key industries are lagging behind their potential. Reversing Mugabe’s most disastrous economic policies and containing at least some of the worst excesses of mismanagement, corruption and graft could make a major difference. By adjusting the regime’s official rhetoric, showing the political will for reform, and sugar-coating some of its nastier practices, the new government might regain access to Western donors’ development budgets and attract foreign direct investments to exploit their vast economic opportunities.
A corrupt tyrant has been removed, but a corrupt tyranny remains in place.
Mnangagwa is likely to take that path. Mugabe was delusional about the state of Zimbabwe and his own role in ruining it. His successor was part of the higher echelons of government ever since independence and shares responsibility for the country’s decline as well as its atrocious human rights record. However, he seems less irrational, erratic and detached from the harsh realities his citizens are facing than his predecessor.
While Mugabe rambled about imperialist conspiracies against him and his country, Mnangagwa has been repeating that Zimbabwe is “open for business” since he became president. His invitation to Davos and the UK’s support for Zimbabwe’s re-entry to the Commonwealth show that he enjoys goodwill within the international community. And his engagement with China over the past decade indicates that he is able to build bridges both to the West and to the East.
The bad news is that the military coup also tightened the ruling party’s grip on the country. A corrupt tyrant has been removed, but a corrupt tyranny remains in place. Public demonstrations against Mugabe improved the optics of his ouster. But what happened was essentially the resolution of an internal conflict within the ruling ZANU-PF party.
Robert Mugabe addresses members of the media, 2015. Image: GCIS, CC BY-NC 2.0
The army’s intervention tipped the balance of the party’s long-standing and increasingly escalating conflict between its “Generation 40” (G40) faction that included Mugabe’s wife Grace and the “Lacoste” faction supporting Mnangagwa, who is known as “the crocodile” due to his reputation for cunning ruthlessness. And it ended Mugabe’s disastrous rule in a way that allowed the party to save face.
However, ZANU-PF’s last-minute threat to impeach Mugabe and its delegates’ cheering when he was removed as party leader shouldn’t distract from the party’s responsibility in ruining the country. Just like Mandela didn’t single-handedly save South Africa, Mugabe didn’t destroy Zimbabwe entirely on his own. He was supported and enabled by a party apparatus that is rotten to the core.
As in many countries in which liberation movements have acquired power, political legitimacy is mainly derived from one’s involvement in past struggles. Governmental positions were used to reward loyalty rather than competence or integrity. In the run-up to the 2002 presidential elections, Zimbabwe’s military chiefs even announced that they wouldn’t salute someone who hadn’t fought in the war of liberation.
When it started to look like Mugabe was going to lose the 2008 election to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the military establishment orchestrated a campaign of violence against the opposition to help him to stay in power. Just like it saved ZANU-PF then, the generals may have saved the party once again by swiftly resolving the internal conflict that could have caused its implosion.
Mugabe didn’t destroy Zimbabwe entirely on his own.
They seem to have succeeded. Since the coup, most G40 sympathisers were either silenced or have fallen in line. By securing modest improvements for Zimbabweans, ZANU-PF could now further restore public trust. It helps that the Lacoste faction is successfully establishing a narrative according to which past failures are largely the Mugabes’ fault, and particularly that of Grace.
Shortly after the coup, the president’s second wife was expelled from ZANU-PF for hate speech, divisiveness and exercising powers not delegated to her office. Her outrageous behaviour makes her an easy scapegoat. The former first lady has been deeply unpopular within the population and substantial parts of ZANU-PF. Her excessive consumerism, sheer ineptitude and greed for power and money earned her nicknames like “Gucci Grace” and “DisGrace”.
The hostility Grace Mugabe is facing, understandable and justified as it may be, is amplified by patriarchal and misogynist sentiments. This is best illustrated by her nickname “Fugunde”, a Shona word conveying a nasty sexist innuendo to alleged promiscuity. But whatever Grace Mugabe’s influence may have been, Zimbabwe would not be a substantially better place without her. The 52-year old only entered frontline politics about four years ago. Mugabe and Mnangagwa were already complicit in the genocidal massacres in Matabeleland when she was still a teenager. The blame for the country’s demise over the past two decades lies firmly with them, as well as many of those ZANU-PF grandees that Mnangagwa has appointed to his new government.
Meanwhile, his power grab came at the worst possible time for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T). Its founder and leader Morgan Tsvangirai had been battling colon cancer for the past two years and was largely absent from the public eye during and after the coup. After he passed away in February, the already on-going infighting about his succession between the MDC-T’s three deputy leaders escalated.
Just a day after Tsvangirai's death, Nelson Chamisa installed himself as interim leader in a way that many saw as violation of the MDC-T’s own constitution. His swift and ruthless move jeopardized the unity of the party, which lacks internal coherence and had not yet experienced a change in leadership. It wasn’t accepted by the party’s other two deputies and even caused resentment among neutral party members. The infighting manifested itself in ugly scenes at Tsvangirai’s funeral, when party youths assaulted several of Chamisa’s critics.
Former deputy Thokozani Khupe, who claims to be the MDC-T’s legitimate leader, has de-facto broken away since. As a legal battle over her faction’s use of the party’s name and logo has just been decided in her favour, the ballot papers in the upcoming elections may feature two presidential candidates under the MDC-T’s name.
Neither Chamisa nor Khupe command remotely as much respect within the electorate as Tsvangirai did. Moreover, many see the current infighting as distasteful and disrespectful to the late opposition leader and his legacy. Along with the MDC-T elites’ lack of respect for their own rules, recent developments make the party look almost as un-democratic, self-centred and self-serving as ZANU-PF. And with the election just months away, time is running out for the party to get its act together.
Joice Mujuru, the other political heavyweight with presidential ambitions, is a former Zimbabwean vice president and was part of ZANU-PF’s leadership until she was purged in 2014. Although she has been among the regime’s fiercest critics since, her actions both in government and opposition don’t make her look the white knight she likes to portray herself as.
More hope rests on Zimbabwe’s civil society, which has been reinvigorated by #ThisFlag, a rather accidental movement for change. In April 2016, Evan Mawarire, a previously unknown pastor, posted a video of himself wrapped in a Zimbabwean flag ranting about the dire state of his nation. His video touched a nerve, triggered a social media campaign and eventually led to one of the largest anti-government protests in years.
The protests have not yet developed into a political movement. But as they encouraged many citizens to overcome their fear and publicly express their misgivings, they may have sown the seeds of future dissent.
For the time being, however, Mnangagwa is riding on a wave of optimism and gratitude for his role in removing the deeply resented Mugabe family. Against this background, his promise of free and fair elections and his pledge to accept an opposition victory rings hollow. As Zimbabwe’s state-controlled public media is heavily biased in his favour and with his challengers currently lacking both the credibility and capability to beat him, Mnangagwa does not have to rig the polls. But based on his past, little suggests that he would shy away from it if it was necessary.
For now, most Zimbabweans seem to be willing to give the new president the benefit of the doubt. It remains to be seen whether he will deliver on the high expectations he has raised and how he will react to a more substantial protest movement and opposition once the current euphoria has ebbed off. Only time will tell if Mnangagwa is just a crocodile in sheep’s clothing.