By Rutvi Saxena
Zimbabwe has undergone its biggest transition since its independence. Emmerson Mnangagwa has replaced Robert Mugabe to become the country’s third President. While the new President brings with him the promise of a different and evolving Zimbabwe, he is no newcomer to the country’s political arena.
Mnangagwa’s rise to power
Emmerson Mnangagwa was born in the central region of Zvishavane in 1942 (though certain sources claim it’s 1946). He belongs to the Karanga clan, which is the largest subgroup of the Shona community. Inclined towards political activism since childhood, he was recruited in the Rhodesian Bush War. He participated as a guerilla fighter in this war, which is also known as the Zimbabwean War of Liberation. He was sent to Egypt and China for military training in 1963. He returned in 1965 to lead the “crocodile gang“. This is the origin of his nickname, which is now used to refer to his political shrewdness. Involved in many bombings against the then ruling white minority, he spent 10 years in prison, where he befriended Robert Mugabe. After his release, he got a law degree from Zambia and practised law for a short period.
Once Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, Mugabe became the president and Emmerson Mnangagwa, his a long-time ally, the Minister of State Security. He had a portfolio that involved heading the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). During the Liberation war, two nationalist parties had emerged. These parties were Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). ZANU came to power with the presidency of Mugabe and yet, the threat of “dissidents” or supporters of ZAPU remained. The former party primarily comprised of the majority Shona community while the latter comprised of the minority Ndebele community.
In early 1983, a North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade began targeting Matabeleland. This was the home of the Ndebele community and the Brigade massacred them in large numbers. During the attack, the International Association of Genocide Scholars estimated that 20,000 people were killed. Mnangagwa was questioned on what has been called a genocide, or a Gukurahundi, which roughly translates to “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains“. However, it was claimed that the CIO was not involved with Gukurahundi. Rather, the army was. The foreign press was also criticised by the government for being hostile and not giving equal weight to the violence inflicted by the rebels.
The coup that wasn’t a coup
The political transition of Zimbabwe in November 2017 has been described as one of the most strange in the world. It had all the makings of a coup: The President was under house arrest and the airport was being manned by armed vehicles. Despite this, on 14th November, the military leaders announced on TV that it wasn’t a military takeover and that the president was “fine”.
There were no violent crackdowns or street curfews imposed; Mugabe even attended the graduation ceremony of Zimbabwe Open University that week. The uprising took place amidst tensions over the successor of Robert Mugabe, with Grace Mugabe (backed by the younger G-40 faction within Zanu-PF) and Emmerson Mnangagwa (backed by the Zimbabwe Defence Forces) vying for the position. The President faced two alternatives: Either resign or face impeachment. 20 minutes into the impeachment proceedings, the speaker read out a letter from Mugabe announcing his resignation.
The nation’s falling expectations
Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been fired from the post of Vice-President a week earlier, now came back to occupy the leading position. There was widespread celebration and hope in the country for a new Zimbabwe with the end of Mugabe’s 37 year-rule, reinforced by Mnangagwa’s swearing-in speech: “…We should never be hostages to our past…peace and harmony should be characteristic of how we relate to one another before, during, and after 2018 harmonised democratic elections next year.”
There was nationwide optimism that his presidency would herald a new era for the African country. There were expectations of a country full of jobs. However, the announcement of the new cabinet of ministers was seen as a disappointment. Key ministerial positions have been given to military figures, many of whom were in power during Mugabe’s time. Perence Shiri, head of Zimbabwe’s Air Force, for example, has been declared the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs. General Major Sibusiso Moyo, who played a significant role in the military takeover, was named the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Leading the war veterans, Chris Mutsvangwa will handle the Informations Ministry.
What will happen next?
Critics have called the cabinet “very disappointing”. Doug Coltart, a human-rights activist said, “Zimbabwe, you are right to feel betrayed. On 18 November, we ALL came out on the streets, united as a people around a common vision of a new Zimbabwe. This Cabinet does not represent a new Zimbabwe but the entrenchment of the old failed political elite.” Despite such misgivings, there is cautious hope that the country will move towards widespread reforms, into a more democratic era with an increase in employment and freedom of expression.
Emmerson Mnangagwa is about 20 years younger to his predecessor and has extensive political experience, having held portfolios such as the Minister of Finance (1995-1996), Minister of Defence (2009-2013), Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary affairs (2013-2017) and until recently, that of the Vice-President (2014-2017). Time will reveal whether his promises will be fulfilled.