In Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa’s rise is democracy delayed

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Vice-President Emmerson (Crocodile) Mnangagwa, 75, has decisively won the battle to succeed Zimbabwe’s heavy-handed President Robert Mugabe, 93, thanks to a bloodless military coup (the leading generals call it a “correction”).

By Robert Rotberg

Mr. Mugabe’s resignation on Tuesday seals the seismic shift that has engulfed the southern African country. But Zimbabwe is not about to become a democracy, only a somewhat more ordered and much less economically madcap country. Nor will rampant corruption cease.

Mr. Mnangagwa has been Mr. Mugabe’s chief lieutenant and close associate since before the country’s independence in 1980. He fought in the country’s liberation struggle of the 1970s against white-ruled Rhodesia and successively served Mr. Mugabe as chief of intelligence, minister of defence and minister of justice, among other posts. He was also the chief enforcer of Mr. Mugabe’s rule among cabinet officials and civil servants. He helped lead Zimbabwe and its armed forces into the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997-99 to secure president Laurent Kabila’s administration against invaders from Rwanda, and to plunder cobalt, copper and diamonds. Much earlier, in 1983-84, he organized a massacre of 20,000 or more Sindebele-speaking Zimbabweans opposed to Mr. Mugabe’s presidency. He has long known who in government service was corrupt, and how and by whom. Mr. Mnangagwa has, in recent years, cultivated good relations with China and been backed financially by Beijing.

Most of all, Mr. Mnangagwa has both supported and collaborated with General Constantino Chiwenga, the head of Zimbabwe’s military forces, and other generals. Together, possibly with Chinese knowledge and backing, Mr. Mnangagwa and Gen. Chiwenga long ago planned the military intervention, an initiative unwrapped when a frail Mr. Mugabe foolishly succumbed to his wife Grace’s ambitions and ousted Mr. Mnangagwa two weeks ago. That was a fatal error, triggering Mr. Mnangagwa and Gen. Chiwenga’s lethal response, and now Mr. Mugabe’s forced removal from office.

The coup and Mr. Mnangagwa’s accession to the top of Zimbabwe’s political tree hardly heralds the outbreak of political tolerance and better human outcomes for beleaguered and much oppressed Zimbabweans. The purpose of the coup was to prevent the loss of access to privilege, power, and riches by a cabal of generals and politicians in cahoots with Mr. Mnangagwa and disdainful of the first lady’s ambitions. The coup restored an old guard and maintained the “normal” or “expected” succession within the ruling party.

Nevertheless, Mr. Mnangagwa has promised to stabilize Zimbabwe’s precarious financial situation and to remove ill-considered policies supported by Mr. Mugabe that were harmful to big business and foreign investment. He says that he will stop raiding white-owned farms and end a supposed Indigenization policy that has halted meaningful commercial activity. But, with a national poll on the horizon in 2018 and Mr. Mnangagwa now the presumed ZANU-PF presidential candidate, he has not promised to cease rigging elections or to permit the country’s beleaguered opposition parties to campaign freely and fairly.

What might change for the democratic better, however, is that Mr. Mnangagwa has less legitimacy nationally and in Africa than Mr. Mugabe possessed as an authentic liberation leader. He hardly has the common touch and, politically unpopular with voters, lost several parliamentary elections in his home constituency. Those factors may compel even a man such as Mr. Mnangagwa with uncompromising authoritarian tendencies and a ruthless streak to seek postcoup legitimacy by forming a quasi-coalition (a coalition of convenience) with selected leaders from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in order give his rule (and his electability) more saliency.

His accession to power depends fatally on the generals. But it also draws heavily on the anti-Mugabe mood of the people of Zimbabwe. That popular energy (and relief at the end of an interminable dictatorship) also gives those millions who prefer more freedom and less repression influence on the incoming Mnangagwa regime. So will Mr. Mnangagwa’s behaviour also be constrained by the reluctance of the African Union and the constituent countries of the Southern African Development Community to accept a naked military takeover. That is mostly why the generals were so gentle on the Mugabes and bargained with him to secure his reluctant agreement to resign.

Zimbabweans have for at least two decades yearned for the end of Mr. Mugabe’s rule. Saturday, tens of thousands of Zimbabweans enthusiastically endorsed the coup in the streets of Harare and other cities. They were glad to see Mr. Mugabe and the first lady placed under house arrest by the generals. Those Zimbabweans and their fellow citizens had suffered for 37 years under Mr. Mugabe’s increasingly authoritarian single-minded rule and the recent much-resented attempts to put his second wife forward as a successor.

Over those years, they experienced a plummeting in living standards, a major slippage of life expectancy and health results, great losses in jobs and income, wild inflation, unemployment rates that have now reached 90 per cent, and the flight of 30 per cent of its 17 million adults to South Africa and other neighbouring countries. Mr. Mnangagwa’s accession to high office hardly guarantees a return of better times, but it could provide a positive, if still tightly controlled, start.

Robert Rotberg is founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, and president emeritus, World Peace Foundation.