The new Old Man in Zimbabwe

From the perspective of the past, there is little evidence to invest much hope in the “successful transition” trope still reverberating in the international media about Zimbabwe.

Emmerson Mnangwagwa, Zimbabwe's new president.

‍Watching the unfolding events in Zimbabwe, the world media has given an impressive amount of focus on the military coup that was not a coup, and then to the drama of President Robert Mugabe’s resignation under pressure of impeachment. It was a surprisingly quick process after years of feeling that Mugabe would die in office, as he himself had predicted. The “quickness” of the process fit nicely with the attention span of the western media in particular, as events had all the requisite dramatic moments to keep it at or near the top of the newsfeed while it lasted, and media coverage wrapped up before it became uncomfortably dragged out.

Friday’s inauguration of new Zimbabwe President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, provides a convenient and predictable place for the media to leave the story behind. Just as many reporters and announcers had started to learn how to pronounce his surname (it’s muh-nahn-GAHG-wah), these news agencies will now seamlessly move on to new crises and new stories.

The ending of Mugabe’s rule was the typical African event from Western media’s perspectives — dramatic because it risked violence, and uplifting because it avoided violence while seeming to please Zimbabweans in the streets. So after the transfer of power was made official yesterday, and with many outsiders left with the feeling that a “successful transition” to something more like democracy has occurred, it is fair to assume that it is already too late for the international media to invest much time or thought into the difficult road ahead for Zimbabwe as a nation and for Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s successor.

The whole process couldn’t have been scripted better from the perspective of Mnangagwa’s Lacoste faction and his supporters and allies in the military. That script should be familiar at the moment, and has been well established by the New York Times and The Guardian for example. The script looks less Disneyesque, however, for those who have been following developments in Zimbabwe for decades.

First of all, Mnangagwa’s presidency, while ending a destructive factional competition within the ruling party, ZANU-Patriotic Front (PF), has been first and foremost a victory for the old guard. Zimbabwean ruling party politics remains more or less petrified in a male-dominated world of former liberation movement fighters and generals. Zimbabwe is not experiencing, nor is the ruling party and military leading, an “Arab Spring” sort of democratic revolution — in either a neoliberal or socialist sense — as Zimbabwe remains a nation dominated by the remaining generations of liberation war veterans who have managed to survive and keep alive the ideology of defending “our revolution” over the past week.

While many young people took to the streets to express their emotional release of having President Mugabe step down, it is very unlikely that the “new” leadership of Mnangagwa, the same man who had been Mugabe’s main aid and supporter even before 1980, will be well placed to fulfill their dreams. As the BBC reported, Mnangagwa “struck a conciliatory tone” at his inauguration yesterday, stating: “The task at hand is that of rebuilding our country,” and that, “I am required to serve our country as the president of all citizens regardless of color, creed, religion, tribe, totem or political affiliation.” But how will this rebuilding process be possible without a more inclusive concept of governance?

The authoritarian state is not only still intact, but also has been strengthened by this brief but bold intervention. A state government controlled by the ZANU-PF Central Committee has managed to maintain the semblance of separation from the military, except, of course, at those moments when the political opposition had gained enough support to legitimately challenge ZANU-PF rule. The presidential elections in the 2000s were the main examples of this.

Each time, the opposition, represented by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), came close to winning (or, in fact, did win but had the election taken away from them by the ZANU-PF controlled state) the military would threaten the population with violent consequences for those who did not vote for the ruling party. Elections in 2000, 2002, 2005, and especially in 2008, were marred by vote rigging, violence, and threats of violence. Through all of this, the ruling party leadership coordinated with the military, the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission, and the Constitutional Court to shut down avenues for the opposition to appeal and find support against abuses by the ruling party.

Mnangagwa did not survive at the center of the ruling party during the 1980s and 1990s without knowing how to use the state and military for the benefit of the Party. The Gukurahundi period (1982-87), which witnessed extreme state violence against opposition and civilians in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces established the architecture for similar campaigns in the 2000s. Mnangagwa’s leadership role in this earlier period has recently been documented by Hazel Cameron and Stuart Doran. This history means that he is not universally accepted by all Zimbabweans as a reformed democrat.

A party that managed to use the state so effectively to guarantee their control of power in the face of a strong opposition is not now going to forget their past after a week and a few mass rallies, especially when the opposition is much less united and popular as it was a decade ago.

Similarly, the victims and relatives of the victims of 60 years of state violence going back to the Rhodesian period are not going to easily forget or forgive. MDC-T (MDC is split into two main factions) leader Morgan Tsvangarai was quoted yesterday by the BBC, that “the ‘culture of violence’ and ‘culture of corruption’ had to be changed ‘after so many years of Zanu-PF misrule.’” But can it be changed so quickly? Already, reports are surfacing of mistreatment of those in the ZANU-PF G40 losing faction associated with Mugabe’s wife, Grace. Some of them have been mistreated in their detentions, including that of the most recent Minister of Finance, Ignatius Chombo. Chombo was reportedly admitted to hospital yesterday for injuries sustain during his detention, according to his lawyer Lovemore Madhuku. During the past few days, while the spotlight was on Zimbabwe, few in the media asked about the fate of those on the losing side in this ZANU-PF internal war.

Given this long contestation for power by the opposition against the ruling party, the veneer of optimism is quite thin for the Mnangagwa presidency from the point of view of those who have observed the past decades of ZANU-PF’s hold on power. Commenting on the prospects of a Mnangagwa Presidency, noted political scientist Eldred Masunungure, stated in a recent Reuters’ article: “There are no arguments around his [Mnangagwa’s] credentials to provide strong leadership and stability, but there are questions over whether he can also be a democrat.”

Professor Masunungure’s comment points to the quandary facing Zimbabwe. Economic conditions in Zimbabwe are increasingly difficult. There is no clear vision on the part of ZANU-PF on how to get out of the economic crisis now facing Zimbabwe. For many, with the spirit of renewal the events of the last week have produced, there is a hope of some sort of technocratic push to “normalize” relations with China, South Africa, and the West in order to help Zimbabwe get out of this current economic tailspin. Former President Mugabe had a habit of contradicting and removing his Minister of Finance when they tried to suggest that excessive spending on populist projects were killing the economy. Only last month, Mugabe had removed his Finance Minister, ZANU-PF stalwart and Mnangagwa ally Patrick Chinamasa. It would not be surprising to see Chinamasa now returned to his former position, unless Mnangagwa reaches out to the opposition to bring in Tendai Biti, who had served as Finance Minister in the former GNU and who is popular in Washington.

There is then a guarded optimism from some quarters that Mnangagwa will be able to finally bring Zimbabwe back to reality in terms of government spending and foreign investment. It certainly won’t be easy, as any serious efforts to control spending will have to be made during an election year. Attacking corruption, something that has been successfully demonstrated in Tanzania and more recently in Angola, will also be seen as positive signs of a new dispensation in Harare. To do so will require going after ZANU-PF bigwigs who have benefitted from years of collusion in combined military and mining operations in the DRC and, more recently, in Zimbabwe itself, around the contested and highly profitable diamond trade. There is a lot of goodwill from Foreign embassies toward Mnangagwa, and he has been traveling to visit London, Beijing, and Pretoria to work out the future. The problem, of course, is that what he is asked to do now will go against the cronyism and corruption of the past 17 years and earlier. Most likely those put on trial for corruption will be those who were part of the G40 faction. Such moves to attack corruption will help make Mnangagwa more popular and perhaps electable in 2018, but these acts would directly challenge the alliances and client-patron relations that allowed for him to return to Zimbabwe this week. He already showed some of his old ways during his speech at Harare airport (now Robert Mugabe International Airport), when he invoked his familiar slogan, “pasi nemhandu” (“down with the enemy”), which in the Zimbabwean political context has been a popular refrain since the liberation war. It is not the phrase used by someone wanting to promote unity and a fresh start.

Given the opening last week’s events may seem to provide, some members of the opposition may be eager to participate alongside Mnangagwa in some sort of coalition or new Government of National Unity to help move towards the scheduled 2018 elections. In all this excitement, it is perhaps worth considering a wise dose of realism, which Brian Raftopoulos is always capable of providing. Writing last week on the Solidarity Peace Trust website, Raftopoulos considers the likely costs of Mnangagwa’s presidency for the nation and for opposition politicians:

The dominant mood of seeking economic and political stability at almost any cost in Zimbabwe has provided the space for the military to legitimise their intervention in favour of Mnangagwa. The opposition political forces, deeply divided as they are, will be further weakened by these events. They may be drawn into some form of Government of National Unity in which they will have a marginal and negligible role. The new face of Zanu PF, drawing on the massive popular goodwill displayed on the 18 November march, will use this time and space to rejuvenate Zanu PF’s fortunes. As a carefully choreographed scheme, this military intervention could prove a masterly stroke by Mnangagwa and his supporters. However this will be at a high cost for future democratic alternatives in Zimbabwe.

Mnangagwa is quite experienced at methodically working toward his goals. He had patiently withstood the attacks from the G40 over the past few years and quite possibly survived an attempt on his life in terms of an alleged poisoning incident in August of this year. He has clearly done his homework in terms of diplomacy, gaining the support of regional and international powers before he and General Constantino Chiwenga moved to regain control. Mugabe’s failure to gain support from regional powers was quite noticeable in the drama of his demise. Mnangagwa and his allies will have the support of China, the UK, and the US, but he will have to move quickly to impress Zimbabwe’s many critics that this is indeed a new Zimbabwe. The sad reality is that given Zimbabwe’s relatively low strategic importance, the bar for reform will once again be set low from the perspective of the international community. As long as Chinese and British economic interests are protected — mostly in platinum mining and Chinese agricultural projects — there will be little concern for the way Mnangagwa governs. It will be interesting to see what the next few weeks and months will bring to Zimbabwe in a post-Mugabe world. But from the perspective of the past, there is little evidence to invest much hope in the “successful transition” trope still reverberating in the international media.

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