Zimbabwe: What kind of president will Mnangagwa be?

Profile: The man carrying nation’s hopes has had a long and turbulent career in politics

Zimbabwe's new leader Emmerson Mnangagwa told a cheering crowd in Harare that the country was entering a new stage of democracy following Robert Mugabe's removal as president after nearly four decades in power. Video: CCTV/Reuters


Emmerson Mnangagwa, the ruling party hardliner who is poised to take over from former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, has had his eye on the country’s top job for decades.

Earlier this month the then vice-president’s chances of achieving his long-held ambition appeared to evaporate when Mugabe’s wife, Grace, convinced her husband to sack him because of perceived disloyalty.

The development was the climax of a long-running feud in Zanu-PF between the first lady and Mnangagwa over who would replace the 93-year-old leader when he died or retired.

Mnangagwa, who is 75, fled Zimbabwe on November 8th after receiving death threats, but ominously promised to return “soon” to lead the nation. Two weeks later the man nicknamed “the Crocodile” because of his ruthless nature had made good on his pledge.

On November 15th, his supporters in the army and security forces intervened on Mnangagwa’s behalf and instigated a military takeover. Mugabe was placed under house arrest, fired as leader of Zanu-PF, and he eventually resigned as president rather than be impeached by his comrades in the ruling party.

Sabotage unit

Born in Zimbabwe’s southwestern Zvishavane district on September 15th, 1942, Mnangagwa first came to prominence in the mid-1960s when he became a member of a special sabotage unit during the independence war against the Rhodesian government.

He was arrested and sentenced to death for his activities, but this was later reduced to 10 years in prison because of his young age.

His official profile says that, during this time, the torture he was subjected to resulted in him losing his sense of hearing in one ear. “Part of the torture techniques involved being hanged by his feet from the ceiling. The severity of the torture made him unconscious for days.”

Mnangagwa’s critics warn that if his past is anything to go by, he is unlikely to embrace the democratic principles and human rights that most Zimbabweans yearn for as part of the new dispensation.

Shortly after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Mugabe appointed Mnangagwa, then a trainee lawyer, as state security minister, and it was during this time that he started to earn his fearsome reputation.

He worked closely with the army, and is accused of overseeing a military crackdown in the mid-1980s that left at least 10,000 Ndebele people dead in Matabeleland. The campaign effectively snuffed out a rival party to Zanu-PF called Zapu.

Mnangagwa’s association with these massacres is the biggest scar on his character for the majority of Zimbabweans. He denies any involvement in the attacks.

Falling foul

His sacking in early November this year was not the first time Mnangagwa fell foul of Mugabe over his political ambitions. In 2004 he was fired as the secretary for administration in Zanu-PF after he was accused of openly angling for the post of vice-president.

However, he managed to revive his political career in 2008 when he came to Mugabe and Zanu-PF’s rescue.

Mugabe lost the first round of the presidential election to Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai that year, but Mnangagwa allegedly supervised the wave of violence and intimidation that forced the MDC to pull out of the run-off vote.

Mugabe was subsequently reinstated as president and he promptly handed Mnangagwa control of Zimbabwe’s powerful defence ministry as a reward.

Water down

In 2014 Mnangagwa was appointed vice-president by Mugabe, but even then the old dictator, who refused to anoint a successor, tried to water down the position’s powers by creating a second vice-president role.

Now that Mugabe has gone, Mnangagwa’s plans to take the country forward will take centre stage. But before he spoke of a “new democracy” after his triumphant arrival in Harare on Wednesday, he provided little detail about his vision for the country, other than a hopeful statement on the day he fled.

“Let us bury our differences, and build a new and prosperous Zimbabwe, a country that is tolerant of divergent views, that respects opinion of others, that does not isolate itself from the rest of the world,” he said.

All Zimbabweans hope he will be true to these words.

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