Zimbabwe’s New President has the same Troubled History as his Predecessor
Zimbabweans poured into the fields surrounding the National Sports Stadium. I made my way through the crowds, vendors selling corn on the cob and kids hawking yellow berets, trying to reach the building. I, along with everyone else was hoping to see one man: Emmerson Mnangagwa, the soon to be president of Zimbabwe and the country’s first new leader in 37 years.
Mnangagwa had returned to the country two days earlier. Being sworn in as president marked his triumphant return from a brief exile in South Africa, where he fled in early November after a serious rift developed between him and long time president, Robert Mugabe. Fired from the position of Vice President by Mugabe, Mnangagwa was now offered a hero’s welcome.
Patriotic Pop Music thumped from speakers around the stadium. The red, green and yellow flags of Zimbabwe were draped around dancing shoulders as more and more supporters filed in through the security checkpoint. As I pushed my way towards the building the excitement increased. I was pressed against dancing bodies, singing and moving in celebration. Yelling over the music, a young man said to me, “this is our moment of Independence!” He smiled, “We are free!” He closed his eyes in joyous conviction, dancing with arms upraised, letting the sway of the crowd pull him away.
It had been only 62 hours since Robert Mugabe had resigned, an act, which to many, seemed impossible only days earlier. Despite the fact that he had been ousted by Military intervention Mugabe’s presence is so ingrained in the Zimbabwean psyche that up until the last moments some were certain that it was all a trick that would, in the end, play to Mugabe’s favor. “After so long it can be hard to imagine anything different,” said Matthew, a taxi driver.
Mugabe’s departure from office set off celebrations throughout the country. A man who was once a revolutionary hero, who had fought for independence and who had helped forge a new nation is now remembered for his corruption, violence, economic failures and emblematic brand of strong-man leadership. Having lost savings to hyperinflation and with clear memories of voter repression during the 2008 and 2013 elections, many people were quick to denounce Mugabe. “He is a devil,” Matthew told me. “That man deserves death,” said Thomas, an IT worker. “To be removed [from office] is not enough!”
Inside the stadium, I made my way to the press box, as Mnangagwa’s security detail emerged from a side entrance. I rushed over with the other reporters. Secret service agents and military police swatted photographers out of the way, clearing a path for the soon to be President. I fought towards the front. There he was. Mnangagwa was making his way to the podium in a slow, deliberate manner, pumping his fist, looking at the crowd with satisfaction. Mnangagwa’s supporters were going wild, chanting his name and sounding vuvuzelas. The president-to-be took his place onstage.
When Robert Mugabe stepped down from office, Mnangagwa was chosen to fill not only the role of president, but to fill the role as leader of the ruling political party, the Zanu-PF. Zanu-PF stands for Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front and is the party that Mugabe championed and led during his career as president. Like its leaders, the Zanu-PF emerged from the independence war and became a ruling force with the establishment of an independent Zimbabwe in the 1980s.
Both Mugabe and Mnangagwa were critical to the development of the party. Mnangagwa worked under Mugabe, earning his favor and learning from the leader. Some went as far as to call Mnangagwa Mugabe’s enforcer .
Mnangagwa suffered and fought for his place within the party. He was a freedom fighter at the age of sixteen, jailed under colonial rule and nearly executed by the British. In prison he studied law and upon release became a lawyer. Mnangagwa studied military tactics in China and Egypt. While in exile he met Mugabe, becoming the leader’s bodyguard and assistant. This lead to Mnangagwa’s appointment as a commander in liberation struggles during the 70s and to his role in the Zanu-PF, post independence. When pressed, a number of Zimbabwean’s I spoke to admitted that they were concerned about Mnangagwa’s connections to Mugabe and his loyalty to the Zanu-PF party. “Will he bring change if he’s one of them?” asked a mechanic named Patience.
Seated with the Chief Justice, Mnangagwa raised his right hand and was sworn into office. Generals filed before him and saluted the leader. Artillery fired and helicopters buzzed over the stadium. With every artillery shot, the crowd’s cheering grew.
Mnangagwa began his speech. He took care to thank the military, yet also affirmed Mugabe as a hero and founding father of the nation. Next he thanked the revolutionary war veterans (Mnangagwa is one himself), for their hand in shaping the country. Throughout the speech, Mnangagwa emphasized reform. He pledged his service to the country and expressed the importance of rebuilding the country’s economy. At one point he exclaimed that the “the culture of government must change and change now!”
Not only was Mnangagwa crucial to Mugabe’s success, he was also “central to some of the worst atrocities of the Mugabe regime,” according to Mondi Makhanya. Mnangagwa was appointed leader of the Central Intelligence Office (CIO) during the 1980s and was in power during the ethnic cleansing of the Ndebeles minority. In response to a rebellion by former Zipra combatants, up to 80,000 people were killed in the Metabelaland region of Zimbabwe. The violence was indiscriminate. Families were burned in their houses. People were buried alive and rape was widely used as a political tool of intimidation. The violence continued until the opposition leader, Joshua Nkomo, agreed to join the Zanu-PF. Though Mnangagwa denies involvement, he is accused of overseeing this as leader of the CIO
Troubling tendencies appear in more recent history as well. In 2008 the Zanu-PF refused to relinquish control after Morgan Tsvangirai won the election, instead deciding to hold a runoff vote. In the lead up to this vote, challengers and rivals of the Zanu-PF were intimidated, kidnaped, tortured and murdered. To avoid further bloodshed, Tsvangirai pulled out of the race, leaving Mugabe to run unchallenged. Mnangagwa is seen as widely responsible for these deadly acts of voter suppression. Even though he denies this, there is no debating the fact that when Mnangagwa lost his Parliamentary position, Mugabe stepped in to reappoint him. This is why “we need a coalition,” Thomas told me. If Zanu-PF tries to rule alone, he continued, we will protest. “Mark my words!”
I joined people watching the inauguration from the bleachers and struck up a conversation with two students, Jacob and Eugene. Look at Mnangaga’s son, they told me, showing me a screenshot of an Instagram page. In the photos was a young man, maybe 20, holding stacks of cash up to his ear. His feet were up up on the seat of what appeared to be a private jet so you could see the expensive footwear he had on. “Look at his necklace,” they said, “how can he wear that when we don’t even have hospitals?”
The Zanu-PF has taken a hard stance on corruption in recent weeks, arresting the minister of Finance and seizing $10,000,000 from his home. Yet as leader of the party, Mnangagwa has been, implicated “in some of the worst looting of state and mineral resources.” Mnangagwa’s fortune comes directly from illegal gold and diamond mining. These dealings have taken place while Zimbabwe experiences intense economic difficulty.
According to some, unemployment hovers around 90%. Meanwhile Zimbabwe is recovering from the collapse of the Zim-Dollar, which was primarily the fault of the Zimbabwean government. Mugabe’s regime printed money to stave the effects of sanctions, the global recession and disastrous land redistribution programs implemented by Mugabe and supported by Mnangagwa. By the end of the collapse, the currency had inflated by 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000%. Zimbabweans without external assets lost everything. The answer to this has been to issue bond notes which are tied to the US dollar. These notes are theoretically exchangeable for their equivalent in Dollars. However in practice the bills are essentially worthless.
“We just want jobs,” said Jacob. And to vote next year, added Eugene, “for now we are waiting.” They seemed content with this. Waiting is nothing new. Enduring uncertainty and hoping for better times is what Zimbabweans have been doing for years. Though tyranny is likely with Mnangagwa, it is not certain. For many I spoke to, this fact came with giddiness and nausea. Everything was tossed into the air. The swearing in of Mnangagwa signaled the peak and now it has started to fall back towards earth.