All eyes are on 71-year-old Emerson Mnangwaga, the new leader of Zimbabwe, to help salvage a country that has retrogressed in recent times due to the diosyncrasies of his co-revolutionary and former President Robert Mugabe. Mnangwaga would need to prove that his rule will bring the new dawn Zimbabweans and much of the world hope to see, rather than an extension of the 37-year reign of his predecessor, writes Demola Ojo
The past 10 days in Zimbabwe have been extremely dramatic. Penultimate week, the military took control of affairs in the country, precipitating a chain of events that resulted in the forced resignation of former president, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe, who was a fixture in global affairs for nearly four decades, was toppled in a move that was sudden, swift and bloodless.
Replacing the only president Zimbabweans had known until last week is Emerson Mnangagwa, a former revolutionary alongside Mugabe, a former security chief and until last month, a former vice-president.
Nicknamed the “crocodile” because of his political cunning, Mnanagagwa was instrumental in the overthrow of Mugabe. Originally designated as the president-in-waiting, Mnangwaga was sacked unceremoniously by his erstwhile principal (Mugabe), as the first step in handing power over to his wife, Grace. But Mnanagwaga’s allies in the military were having none of it, thus the multiple events that have seen him return from a brief self-imposed exile to become only the second president since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.
Mnangwaga has taken to his new job like someone prepared, making the right noises as he hailed a “new and unfolding democracy” and promising to provide “jobs, jobs, jobs” to resuscitate an ailing economy, with some estimates putting unemployment rate at a staggering 90 per cent.
He also told supporters at the headquarters of the ruling Zanu-PF party that he had been the subject of several assassination plots and thanked the army for running the “process” of removing Mugabe peacefully.
According to reports emanating from the ruling Zanu-PF party, Mnangagwa, 71, would serve the remainder of Mugabe’s term until elections due to be held by September 2018. A few days ago, thousands of party supporters waited for hours to welcome him in his first public appearance since coming out from hiding.
During his 20-minute speech, he corrected himself at least once for referring to Mugabe as president rather than former president. His message was largely conciliatory. But he also relished his stunning return to power and successful removal of Mugabe, when he brought up a speech Grace Mugabe gave a day before he was removed as Vice-President. In the speech she said, “we must deal with the snake by crushing its head.”
In reference, Mnanagwaga said, “I wonder which snake’s head was crushed,” as the crowd cheered loudly.
Under the constitution, the role of successor to Mugabe would have normally gone to a serving vice-president, which was Phelekezela Mphoko, Mnangwaga’s replacement and an ally of Grace Mugabe. However, he was fired by Zanu-PF, thus paving the way for Mnangwaga.
New Leader, Same as Old?
While many are excited and overjoyed at seeing the back of Mugabe – who before his resignation was the world’s oldest president at 93 – a valid question is whether the handover to Mnangagwa will bring about the real change Zimbabwe craves.
The soft landing afforded Mugabe – he would be granted full immunity – attests to the relationship the previous president has with the current dispensation.
Mnangagwa’s loyalty to Mugabe long preceded his appointment as vice-president in 2014. The two have been comrades for more than three decades, with Mugabe making him the country’s first minister of national security in 1980.
A leading guerrilla fighter during Zimbabwe’s War of Liberation in the 1970s, Mnanagwa’s powerful hand in government following independence saw him rise to top spymaster of the country’s Central Intelligence Organisation.
In the 1980s, he oversaw the Gukurahundi massacres, a civil conflict during which thousands of Zimbabweans from the ethnic Ndele group were killed. Still feared by many and largely believed to be responsible, he has denied any responsibility.
Veterans of the liberation war have long dominated Zimbabwean politics. Mnangagwa’s leadership of the Joint Operations Command kept him in good stead with the country’s security forces, whose support paved the way for his impending accession to the presidency.
David Coltart, a founding member of opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, tweeted: “We have removed a tyrant but not yet a tyranny.”
However others are more optimistic. Analysts have suggested major economic growth potential for the southern African nation following years of damaging economic mismanagement and international sanctions.
Zimbabwe is one of the world’s top producers of platinum and lithium, among other highly valued extractives. Currently, poverty exceeds 70 per cent and Zimbabwe ranked 154 out of 176 nations in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.
“Mnangagwa’s apparent support for pro-business reforms is cause for cautious optimism after decades of mismanagement under Mugabe,” said Ryan Turner, analyst at Protection Group International.
And while speaking with CNBC last week, Jean Devlin, a partner at Control Risks explained: “It’s unrealistic to expect you’d get anyone who hasn’t been a significant political influencer in the last 20 years coming in as leader.
“There certainly is a strong element of continuity but we can’t underestimate the fact that anyone who’s going to come in is a different character and will be able to exercise leadership in a different way.”
The hope for Zimbabweans is that the former vice-president, who snapped back crocodile style to become interim president, would come into his own and be the breath of fresh air that Zimbabwe so badly needs.