Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president of Zimbabwe whose sacking by dictator Robert Mugabe touched off a political crisis that ended Mugabe’s 37 years of rule, returned to Zimbabwe on Wednesday and announced that he would be sworn in as interim president on Friday.
CNN reports Mnangagwa arrived at the headquarters of the Zanu-PF party “to the cheers of thousands of supporters, eager to hear from ‘The Crocodile,’ as he is known.”
An interesting point about that nickname: it is commonly said that Mnangagwa adopted it because he admires the survival skills of crocodiles, but more specifically it comes from a radio interview he gave two years ago in which he said the crocodile “never goes in the villages or in the bush looking for food.” Instead, he explained, “it strikes at the appropriate time.”
That is a rather chilling motto for the man Zimbabweans hope will be a vast improvement over the brutal, corrupt, and shockingly inept Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa is slowly shedding his pretense of having nothing to do with the military ouster of Mugabe, which supposedly bore only the most superficial resemblance to a coup. CNN notes he admitted to being in “constant contact” with military leaders after they made their move on Mugabe, while inside sources describe him as “instrumental” in devising the coup plot.
Mnangagwa knows how to say the right things in a political speech, at least when he is speaking English for international consumption. “I pledge myself to be your servant. We want to grow the economy. We want peace in our country. We want jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said on Tuesday. He praised the “new and unfolding democracy” of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe and declared, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”
He sounds a bit different when he speaks in Shona, the language of Zimbabwe’s dominant ethnic group:
#Mnangagwa harsher in tone speaking in Shona than what he said in English – according to one translation I’ve had, he said the dogs can keep barking while the train of Zanu-PF keeps on rolling. Words to inspire a hopeful nation? Not exactly
— Ben Brown (@BenBrownBBC) November 22, 2017
Mnangagwa is younger than Mugabe, but at 75 years of age, he is not an exciting young idealist. On the contrary, he is a veteran leader of Zimbabwe’s intelligence forces, a lifelong student of Mugabe’s deranged economic policies and brutal tactics. Voice of America notes he is “widely credited with being the architect of Gukurahundi, a series of army-led massacres of political and ethnic rivals in the 1980s.”
David Moore of the University of Johannesburg told VOA that “in many ways, he’s worse” than Mugabe. The Washington Post explains just how much worse by detailing the Gukurahundi operation, which massacred up to 20,000 people:
The crackdown, carried out by Zimbabwe’s North Korean-trained military, was notable for its almost unimaginable brutality. Children were made to rape and kill their parents; pregnant women’s bellies were split open, their families made to pound the fetuses in a mortar and pestle; men were made to dig their own graves at gunpoint.
Mnangagwa “honed Zimbabwe’s ever-watchful Central Intelligence Organization into an elite dirty tricks team feared throughout the land,” wrote Wilf Mbanga, the editor of the Zimbabwean, a weekly newspaper, in the Guardian. “Over the years, like his master Mugabe, he has been accused of masterminding election violence, kidnappings, extortion, plundering national resources and other crimes.”
The State Department said in 2000 that Mnangagwa was “widely feared and despised throughout the country” and “could be an even more repressive leader” than Mugabe.
Mnangagwa was still running brutal campaigns of political repression as recently as 2008, when he “fixed” a presidential vote Robert Mugabe unexpectedly lost by killing a few hundred people and injuring thousands of others, including the candidate who had the temerity to defeat Mugabe in the first round of voting, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mnangagwa speaks of serving as an interim president and has not yet declared his intention to run in the 2018 Zimbabwean election, but he is not acting as if he plans on a temporary stay. The Washington Post notes he is consolidating power and purging the Zanu-PF party of opponents, including Grace Mugabe and the sitting vice president, Phelekezela Mphoko.
Mphoko is technically the acting president under Zimbabwean law, but conveniently for Mnangagwa, he was sacked by Zanu-PF and is seeking refuge outside the country. He was on a trip to Japan when the military coup began and decided to alter his pre-purchased return tickets to fly somewhere other than Zimbabwe when his business overseas was complete.
Ed Krayewski of Reason notes that Mugabe’s ouster was not a burst of idealistic enlightenment by a nation weary of tyranny; it was the powerful military establishment demonstrating loyalty to Mnangagwa and acting to protect itself from Grace Mugabe, who would have purged the military and replaced top commanders with her supporters.
There is little reason to believe Mnangagwa will take what U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called an “extraordinary opportunity” to set Zimbabwe on a “new path’:
Mugabe’s signature move was seizing land from white farmers and claiming to redistribute it to poor blacks. (In fact he used the land to reward his allies and supporters.) He crippled the economy with hyperinflation, imposed tariffs that dried up trade, and increased government spending from 32.5 percent of GDP in 1979 to more than 44 percent in 1989. Meanwhile he capped interest rates and borrowed liberally to cover his spending, fueling more inflation and making capital hard to access for those not favored by the regime. His labor rules made it virtually impossible to fire workers, which hurt independent businesses but didn’t keep the official unemployment rate from reaching 60 percent. Indeed, his party went out of its way to suppress the creation of independent African businesses, fearing that they would threaten its political power. With the economy devastated, Zimbabweans have had to rely on black markets to stay afloat.
Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate is roughly ninety percent according to some estimates, so the economy would seem to have nowhere to go but up. Zimbabweans should demand better than just a younger, less dotty tyrant who manages to create a few jobs here and there.
Opposition leader David Coltart worries that “much of our current euphoria is misplaced” and notes that Mugabe was ultimately deposed by the same military and war veterans association that put him in power, kept him there for four decades, and violently overturned the election that would have lawfully removed him in 2008. He further notes that the military junta has thrown aside due process and the court system to arrest disfavored politicians for corruption, which is not a promising start for the new Zimbabwe.
“So our message to the military must now be: thank you for cleaning up the mess you created but you must now return to your barracks as soon as possible and never again get involved in the electoral process. The real danger of the current situation is that having got their new preferred candidate into State House, the military will want to keep him or her there, no matter what the electorate wills,” Coltart warns.