A few weeks ago — and less than a month into his new life as an ex-president — Robert Mugabe received a rather awkward telephone call. It was his protégé on the line. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s new president, aka the Crocodile, had a quibble. He had just been asked to sign off on the passenger list for a state-funded flight the 93-year-old was planning to take to Singapore. The entourage was 38-strong — for the former leader of one of the world’s most indebted nations to go for a health check.
By Alec Russel
Mnangagwa, a careful man with the build of a prizefighter and the conversational precision of a lawyer, has reached the climax of a half-hour account of his 54-year relationship with the founding father of the nation.
“I phoned back and said: ‘Chef, you are going for a medical check-up. Why do you want 38 people?’
“He said: ‘Emmerson, I don’t know that list. I know it’s myself, my wife and my family.’
“I said: ‘No . . . You know the new dispensation . . . it’s a leaner cabinet. That can’t be understood if you are going to go for a medical check-up with a big number.’
“He says: ‘Emmerson.’ ” Mnangagwa pauses for comic effect. “He never says Mr President. He just calls me Emmerson.”
Mnangagwa sits back and laughs. It echoes around the grand thatched lodge where we are having a late lunch. Aides, security staff, join in enthusiastically. Sycophancy? A touch, maybe. If so, who could blame them? But it seems more than that: Zimbabweans are rather enjoying the freedom to joke in public about their longtime autocratic overlord.
The president recounts how an abashed Mugabe eventually reduced his entourage by nearly half, although he did end up taking a 767 to Singapore and back for just 22 people. Apparently the man whose economic mismanagement fuelled one of the worst cases of hyperinflation since the Weimar Republic, rang from Singapore seeking a smaller plane for the return trip, but the memo never reached Air Zimbabwe. The checkpoints that littered Harare in the late Mugabe era may have gone, I think, but some things are harder to change . . .
We are an hour into our encounter, late on Tuesday afternoon in Harare’s eastern suburbs. A wood owl whoops from the garden. A rumble of thunder signals a summer storm. I am weighing the question whose answer will decide Zimbabwe’s fate. Is the 75-year-old politician sitting beside me a latter day Gorbachev/de Klerk, apparatchiks who came to power with dyed-in-the-wool reputations but then pushed for reform and accelerated the collapse of the ancien régime? Is he a Zimbabwean version of Paul Kagame, the authoritarian leader of Rwanda who prizes economic growth over individual rights? Or, as a veteran functionary of the ruling Zanu-PF party, will he prove unwilling to take on its corrupted ways?
Mugabe may be plaintive but he is not penurious. Just before the new year the government approved a swanky pension package including up to 23 staff and four international trips a year. I ask if Mugabe will have amnesty in the event of an investigation into abuses on his watch. Mnangagwa looks surprised. An ex-president loses the immunity he had in office, he concedes. But he adds he doesn’t see “any possibility of us taking him to court or prosecuting him for anything . . . He’s our father figure . . . our founding father. We’ll do everything in our power to keep him happy.”
And yet Mnangagwa leaves little doubt he has no time now for his old patron — and no wonder after the drama of late last year. In eight frenetic weeks he narrowly survived an apparent assassination attempt via a supposedly poisoned ice cream cone; he was denounced by Mugabe’s wife Grace as the head of a snake that had to be crushed; and he had to flee into exile. Then after 15 days in South Africa and a brief military takeover — coup is a word not officially recognised in Harare these days — Mugabe stepped down, and he returned to be inaugurated as Zimbabwe’s new president.
Now he is preparing for his debut on the world stage at next week’s Davos meeting of global business leaders, where he will present himself as the man to deliver Zimbabwe from rogue nation status. For my last Lunch with the FT in Zimbabwe, seven years ago with Morgan Tsvangirai, the bluff and brave leader of the opposition, I had to enter the country illegally. As Zimbabwe spiralled into disarray, Mugabe abhorred the press. He tended to give one interview a year on his birthday and that was to the state media. He was also a stickler for protocol.
Not so it seems the new president. When I arrived for our rendezvous at his chosen venue, the Amanzi Lodge, I found him on his own by the palm-tree-fringed pool. He had been waiting for 15 minutes making personal calls. However cosmetic this may ultimately prove — and much is still up for grabs — there is a new zip in the presidency. Mugabe’s notoriously elastic time keeping is at an end.
The waiter arrives to take our order. The president looks up and deadpans: “No crocodile meat, please.”
“I’m not a crocodile,” he muses, more, it seems, to set the record straight than out of irritation. I had asked if the moniker irks him. (He says it doesn’t.) In Zimbabwean tradition, he explains, his family totem is an even more fearsome predator. “I’m a lion . . . It’s the former president who has the crocodile totem.” But the Crocodile tag has stuck for decades and spawned very different interpretations. In recent years, with the ruling party divided between his allies and the faction of Grace Mugabe, his cohort was known as the Lacoste grouping — after the designer emblem. Crocodiles, he has said, are known for their strategic patience — all too appropriate given how long he waited in Mugabe’s shadow.
For his opponents, however, it is the snapping jaws that are more apt. Zimbabwe’s new president is a hard man. He was head of intelligence during the subjugation of Matabeleland in the early 1980s when North Korean-trained forces killed as many as 20,000 people in the southern region. He also oversaw the tainted election campaign in 2008 when the security forces clamped down on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change after it became clear it had defeated Zanu-PF in the parliamentary poll and won the first round of the presidential race. On these two counts alone, the opposition argue the new guard is no more than old wine in new bottles.
As we move to the restaurant, adorned with hangings, sculptures and furniture from across sub-Saharan Africa, I ask how he reacted when Mugabe turned against him last year. He replies by taking me back to their early encounters in his youth in the liberation movement in the 1960s when he was in charge of a sabotage unit dubbed the Crocodile Group. The president recounts its members and then in some surprise realises the others are all dead. “I am the only survivor.”
At this point the wine waiter appears. We agree on a bottle of Steenberg Syrah. The many FT readers who abhor “dry” Lunches are lucky, it seems. It is, the president explains, his “wet season” — a tradition that dates back 40 years. In 1978 a member of the high command of the liberation army died of cirrhosis of the liver. The overall commander rebuked his subordinates and said they had to vow to limit their alcohol: a week on and a week off or a month on a month off. “I chose six months. No wine. No beer. No whisky.” His “wet season” starts at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Mnangagwa only narrowly survived his time in the Crocodile Group. After blowing up a train he was captured by the white minority regime, tortured by being hung upside down, and then had a stint on death row before a decade in prison. It is a tale well known in Zimbabwe and of course a distraction from the issues at hand, but a reminder of the layers of Zimbabwe’s recent history. He only escaped being hanged because of his youth — he was just under the official age of majority of 21. It prompted, he tells me, his only recorded public dispute with Mugabe, over the death penalty. As president he will push for its abolition.
Our starters, picked from the African-Asian fusion menu, have arrived: Chiang Mai chicken soup for him and spinach koftas with turmeric and mustard for me. I urge him to eat but he moves to the other life and death drama of his career — last year’s showdown with Grace Mugabe.
The night before the lunch, a public servant with years of experience of the government reflected to me that factionalism was the lifeblood of Zanu-PF. “Without it, it will die,” he said. Mugabe was certainly a past master of playing off one would-be successor against another. But this game became more complicated last year as Mugabe’s wife, Grace, — nicknamed Gucci Grace by opposition media for her spending habits — appeared to gain a taste for power herself. As Mugabe became increasingly frailer in public, her faction known as G40 became locked in a public battle for the succession. Then in August came the most extraordinary episode yet.
George Charamba, the sardonic spokesman of Mugabe, now with the new guard, and the effervescent Zimbabwean novelist Petina Gappah have joined our table. She is one of the former critics who dare to hope their homeland can really change — and badgered the presidency to break with its traditional reserve and agree to an interview. We three barely pick at our food as Mnangagwa tells a story redolent of Nero’s court, when every senator with sense had a taster.
Shortly after a rally Mnangagwa was rushed to hospital. He had, he says, been poisoned. “They kept me going by washing me out . . . ” He had 28 sachets attached to one arm at one stage, he adds. “The doctors say it [the poison] was hard-metal arsenic toxin . . . They say it’s colourless, it’s tasteless and the areas where it could be found are possibly two. Russia and Israel. They were surprised I survived.”
His supporters pointed the finger at Grace Mugabe, saying he was the victim of a poisoned vanilla ice cream cone. She was also linked to the incident by innuendo because she and her husband co-own one of Zimbabwe’s biggest dairies. I ask who was responsible. Mnangagwa havers.
Robert Mugabe emerges from exile at Harare Fields, Salisbury, Rhodesia in 1980, with Emmerson Mnangagwa to his left © REX/Shutterstock
“I suspect who did it . . . They are still good friends of mine . . . They now know that I know.” Whatever the truth of this bizarre episode, the G40 faction has been subjected to the full fury of the new order. Members have been arrested and had assets seized. Others have fled into exile and are regularly denounced in the state press. The opposition has long urged a crackdown on corruption but they have a caveat about this move: to date no one in the army — long a player in the predations of the economy — nor in the Lacoste group has been targeted.
There was one last explosive act in the drama. Some weeks later he received an official letter from Mugabe firing him. That evening, “officials from security services came and said: ‘Sir, we are part of a group charged with the task to eliminate you. So you must leave now.’
“I said: ‘Where?’ They said: ‘Just leave because we are going to pick you tonight and we will poison you, we will kill you, then put a string around your neck and say you hanged yourself.’ ” He fled across the Mozambican border on foot with two of his sons and ended up in South Africa. He was there, in close contact with President Jacob Zuma, an old friend from the liberation struggle, when the army played the pivotal role intervening to stop the G40 takeover of the party and to bring down the curtain on Mugabe’s rule.
Mnangagwa insists to me that the generals did not contact him before making their first statement about taking charge. But the suspicion remains that he is in hock to the generals, many of whom have long prospered from Zanu-PF rule. The first to announce the military move was one Major General SB Moyo. Now the new minister of foreign affairs, he was named in a UN report as having benefited from Zimbabwe’s incursion into the Congo nearly 20 years ago. The new vice-president, Constantino Chiwenga, is another new ex-general, who was head of the army until a month ago.
The sun is setting. Our starters are cleared away. As I embark on my main course, a chicken butter curry, I look across the darkening restaurant to another corner table and reflect on the misfortunes of the last politician I interviewed at the Amanzi.
It was at that table nearly a decade ago, a day or so after the March 2008 election I had breakfast with Tsvangirai. He was on cloud nine thinking he had won the poll — as indeed he had. But that was the high point of his career. He eventually pulled out of the race in the face of brutal intimidation — overseen by none other than my guest. He is now stricken with cancer, his party riven with splits, and he has lost his greatest campaigning asset — President Robert Mugabe — clearing the way for Zanu-PF to claim the mantle of change.
The president had originally been uncertain about eating anything at all. But an hour of reminiscing about close shaves had clearly piqued his appetite. He is tucking into the chef’s special, Thai baked bream with Asian greens and a ginger soy sauce, as he makes his pitch. Zimbabwe is due parliamentary and presidential elections by August. At home they are a critical test of his legitimacy. For the rest of the world the staging of a genuinely free and fair election is a critical test of the elite’s commitment to change. For donors familiar with countless failed pledges this would be a key first step to restoring credibility and unlocking a new debt relief agreement. So he tells me, the world and his wife are welcome to monitor them.
“With this new dispensation I don’t feel threatened by anything. I would want that the United Nations should come, the EU should come. If the Commonwealth were requesting to come, I am disposed to consider their application.” Mugabe had no interest in allowing potentially critical observers to look at his elections. The acceptance of UN monitors, not just for Election Day, but for the campaign and ideally preceding months, would be a genuine breakthrough — even if the opposition rightly suggest it says as much about Zanu-PF’s confidence at the polls as a desire to change.
The president was not finished. Britain, he suggested, was keen to talk about their rejoining the Commonwealth after almost two decades in the cold. He added that he was too, and that he would seek direct discussions about it after a meeting of the African Union in February. As for the old colonial power, Britain, with which Mugabe had a love-hate relationship: Brexit, he said, could bring the two nations back together.
“Breaking out of . . . Brex. How do you call it? Brexit. Yes it’s a good thing because they will need us. And we will make sure we become very close to them. What they’ve lost with Brexit they can come and recover from Zimbabwe.” He even predicted that Zimbabwe’s Hawk jets would soon be back in the air. They have been grounded after Britain, the only country that can supply spare parts, banned their sale in 2000 in protest at human rights abuses.
In a closing flourish, recalling Margaret Thatcher who was prime minister in Mugabe’s first decade in power, he suggested Britain should always have women prime ministers. “They are more sensible than their male counterparts . . . The guy we didn’t like is that young man Tony Blair [who challenged Zimbabwe over human rights abuse]. I don’t know where he is now.”
The message is clear. He wants to open a new chapter, and pretty much without conditions. He cites Germany, France, Britain of course, which has been eagerly pushing itself forward, and Spain as prospective partners. He makes no mention of the US, which has been cautious to avoid any endorsement. By now courses and drinks are coming and going as Lunch with the FT morphs into a dress rehearsal for a diplomatic summit.
He outlines a new order where Zimbabwe stays close to China — “a country that has stood by us in difficult times” — while embracing the west. “We introduced the Look East policy but let me remind you that was a survival policy.” As he reminds me he has an old relationship with China, dating back to his youth when he had military training there.
When I raise the concern cited by South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki a decade ago that China could develop a colonial-style relationship with Africa, he dismisses it. He is heading to Beijing soon after Davos to negotiate “mega deals in infrastructure and railways”.
Years of profligacy and the ruling party’s exploitation of prime economic resources have led to chronic indebtedness, soaring fiscal imbalances and a liquidity crisis. The IMF estimates foreign debt is $9.4bn, or 52 per cent of GDP, and is forecast to rise to more than $10bn this year. He mouths appropriate pledges of being open for business, although investors will want to see him act on his words. The indigenisation law which decreed that investors hand a 51 per cent stake to a Zimbabwean partner is, he reiterated, over. “It’s not in the mortuary, it’s in the departure lounge,” he says when I ask if it is truly dead. “The entire economy is open except for two minerals: diamonds and platinum. The rest is open.” (The army is known to have interests in the diamonds, an industry that has been plundered in recent years.)
He concedes that the economy is terribly indebted but dismisses the need for scrapping the bond notes, a form of banknote issued in 2016 in theory pegged to the US dollar. Many businesspeople are crying out for them to go in the search of clarity about exchange rates and money supply. He agrees government expenditure is too high before disingenuously blaming it on the west’s targeted sanctions against the elite rather than on Zanu-PF’s failure to balance a budget. As for land, which sparked the economic and political crises of the past 20 years, he reiterates his pledge to compensate the commercial farmers who lost their title. When I ask how it will be paid for, he indicates that productivity is improving fast.
By now the head waiter has the dessert menu and is trying to catch the president’s eye. There is only one on the menu, fruit salad with, er, ice cream. (The Amanzi only had a couple of hours notice that the president was on his way.) A boisterous debate ensues around the table as to whether it is right — or safe — to have ice cream. Diplomatically the waiter opts to ignore the president’s and Petina’s request for vanilla ice cream and serves us just fruit salad.
The recent history of southern Africa has been marked by liberation movements staying on past their sell-by date, blurring the distinction of party and state and immiserating their people. Now, as if in lock step, Zimbabwe’s and South Africa’s are seeking to defy that trend. When I put this declinist thesis to Mnangagwa, he says “new generations are coming to the helm” — a claim at odds with the reality of his new cabinet.
A theory repeatedly put to me in Harare was that he sees himself as the Deng Xiaoping of Zimbabwe. Another favoured by the opposition is that Britain in particular will settle for stability if that ensures a growing economy, over true democracy — a trade-off the West has implicitly endorsed in Rwanda. So is he a would-be latter-day Deng? “I met Deng with president Mugabe I think around 1977 or 1978. Let me assure you I am not Deng.” He concedes though that some are saying he’s looking at opening the economy as Deng unleashed China’s.
Two hours have passed and his aides signal time is up. What about a sweeping gesture of reconciliation and an apology for the massacres in Matabeleland? The cautious old pro has broken enough ground for one afternoon. He will not be drawn. He refers me to his recent signing of the National Peace and Reconciliation Bill. “From the past we must take what is good and leave behind what is bad.”
He hands me an apron with the headline “Crocodile Stew”. Underneath are culinary guidelines such as: “Beat crocs over the heads with a sledgehammer”. My last sight of the Crocodile is when his official car with the number plate Zimbabwe One roars off into the night.
The only time I spoke to Mugabe in 24 years off and on covering Zimbabwe was at an election rally in 1994 where he gave a sprightly account of his record. Back then Zimbabwe was southern Africa’s island of stability rather than the shambles it is today. Since then I have interviewed five liberation movement leaders and all but one have disappointed. Mnangagwa can buck that trend. But that requires two leaps of faith. He will have to shed the crocodile’s traditional patience. He will also have to turn his jaws on some of his own kind.
Alec Russell is the editor of FT Weekend