The ‘Crocodile’ Emerges as the Improbable Savior of ZimbabweBy and
Emmerson Mnangagwa due to be sworn in as president Friday
Mnangagwa has been Mugabe’s right-hand man for half a century
Zimbabwe is turning its weary eyes to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man known as the crocodile who was Robert Mugabe’s right-hand man for much of his 37-year rule.
The former spy chief, who returned to the country Wednesday and is due to be sworn in as president on Friday, has signaled he’d move to woo investors from Asia and the west to help rebuild a shattered economy. But he isn’t likely to dismantle the security apparatus that was used to carry out repression during Mugabe’s administration before he resigned Tuesday as president.
Nicknamed, ngwena, or crocodile in the Shona language, during the war against white-ruled Rhodesia, Mnangagwa, 75, has been at the center of power during some of Zimbabwe’s darkest moments. He joined the insurgency in the 1960s, received military training in China and Egypt, and allied himself with Mugabe’s faction of the liberation movements.
After independence in 1980, he was security minister as North Korean-trained troops carried out massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s that claimed as many as 20,000 lives, according to human-rights groups. He was also in the cabinet when Mugabe authorized the seizure of white-owned farms that led to agricultural production, export earnings and tax revenue being slashed, and during the 2008 election campaign that saw almost 100 opposition supporters killed.
“The tyrant may have fallen but we may not have ended tyranny,” said Showers Mawowa, the Zimbabwean director of the Southern African Liaison Office, a civil-rights group based in Pretoria, the capital of neighboring South Africa. “The infrastructure of violence is still there. We know that it is the military and the police that have kept Mugabe in power and these are the same securocrats that have supported Mnangagwa.”
Mnangagwa’s enduring power was the key to Mugabe’s downfall. The decision to fire Mnangagwa as his deputy on Nov. 6 after the president’s wife Grace Mugabe accused him of plotting a coup prompted the armed forces generals to take power and put the only leader Zimbabweans had ever known under house arrest.
After he fled Zimbabwe, citing “incessant threats” against him and his family, Mnangagwa issued a defiant statement, pledging to return to lead the country.
“Let us bury our differences and rebuild a new and prosperous Zimbabwe, a country that is tolerant to divergent views, a country that respects opinions of others, a country that does not isolate itself from the rest of the world because of one stubborn individual who believes he is entitled to run this country until death,” he said.
The armed forces commander, Constantino Chiwenga, a Mnangagwa ally, made his move in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 15 in Operation Restore Legacy, a military action that Zimbabwe’s allies including China and Angola were briefed about, according to two people familiar with the situation. Less than a week later Mugabe was gone, resigning under the threat of impeachment.
Mnangagwa inherits power in a country on its knees. An estimated 95 percent of the workforce is unemployed, public infrastructure is crumbling and there are widespread shortages of cash.
“There does seem to be a feeling of optimism that anything is better than what is persisting at the moment, given the profound economic problems and political impasse and lack of progress in Zimbabwe,” Steven Gruzd, head of the South African Institute of International Affairs’ governance program, said by phone from Johannesburg. “Mnangagwa has been seen as a survivor and a pragmatist, despite being very deeply steeped in the ruling party.”
— With assistance by Godfrey Marawanyika, Desmond Kumbuka, and James Hertling