That was until last month when the army turned on the 93-year-old president.
Under military house arrest, he was first fired as leader of the ruling ZANU-PF party, then caved to mounting pressure from parliament and announced his resignation.
Observers say Mnangagwa, much like his predecessor, appears to be consolidating his power by rewarding the key military generals who supported his rise to power with important party and state cabinet positions.
Most recently, Constantino Chiwenga, the army chief who led the operation resulting in Mugabe’s resignation, was appointed as a ZANU-PF deputy. He is also tipped to become one of the two national vice presidents.
Al Jazeera spoke to Piers Pigou, senior consultant for southern Africa for the International Crisis Group (ICG), to discuss the possible role Zimbabwe‘s security elite could play in the country’s post-Mugabe future.
ICG recently published a report on Zimbabwe’s “military-assisted transition” and its prospects for governance reform and economic recovery.
Al Jazeera: Why do Zimbabwe’s leaders – previously Mugabe and now Mnangagwa – appear to depend on the army’s support to cement their rule?
Piers Pigou: This is largely a product of an entrenched historical relationship. ZANU-PF’s political trajectory into an independent Zimbabwe was predicated on its armed struggle.
Although not a homogenous entity, the military and war veterans have been key mobilisers and enforcers of political hegemony and central in internal and factional dynamics within the party.
Al Jazeera: Could the military’s role in Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe transition be a help or hindrance to Mnangagwa’s inaugural promises of “a new democratic era”?
Pigou: On the one hand, the military can bring command management and discipline into a corrupt and venal political and economic environment, although numerous unanswered questions and unresolved allegations remain about the involvement of senior military and other security sector figures in corruption, self-enrichment and other violations.
The jury is out on whether the new political configuration can deepen or further deviate from the democratic project.
Comparative experience does not inspire confidence, and the blatant partisanship of Zimbabwe’s military has yet to be addressed by the new leadership.
|From left to right: Newly appointed ZANU-PF vice president Constantino Chiwenga, new ZDF leader General Philip V Sibanda and Minister of Agriculture Perence Shiri [Tendai Marima/Al Jazeera]|
Mnangagwa and the new administration should take an unambiguous public position on ensuring the security sector is excised from the political playing field.
It is, however, difficult to see how this will happen given that the new power configuration is predicated on an attempt to legitimise military interference.
Al Jazeera: Does Mnangagwa risk being beholden to those who helped him to rise to power, like Chiwenga, at the expense of creating a more democratic environment in Zimbabwe?
Pigou: This is an important question. Where does power really lie, especially with the shift of military leaders into the politics hierarchy under the rubric of defending Zimbabwe’s revolution? Why did Chiwenga’s appointment as vice president [of ZANU-PF] take so long to finalise?
It raises all sorts of questions about the content of backroom deals and internal power dynamics within the new administration that remain shrouded in mystery.
How do these developments strengthen prospects for constitutionalism and the rule of law which appear to remain elastic and selectively engaged concepts, a hallmark of the Mugabe dispensation?
The military can bring command management and discipline into a corrupt and venal political and economic environment
PEIRS PIGOU, SENIOR CONSULTANT FOR SOUTHERN AFRICA, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP
Al Jazeera: In the past, the military’s partisanship and Mnangagwa’s role as a ZANU-PF chief campaign election agent have been accused of compromising the outcome of elections, especially in the 2000s. If former military figures continue to play a role within ZANU-PF and the government’s electoral structures, what hope is there that Zimbabwe can hold credible elections in 2018?
Pigou: Credible elections are possible with the implementation of appropriate electoral reforms, a more even political playing field and a thorough and impartial election observer process.
An independent verification of Zimbabwe’s new biometric voters roll is critical, and an extension of the vote to the diaspora, underwritten by international support, would help ensure a solid and credible outcome.
Al Jazeera: Is there a risk that overthrown figures linked to the pro-Mugabe G40 faction in the security services could pose a threat to Mnangagwa’s presidency?
Pigou: He’s called for no vengeful retribution, but there may be those who feel bitter about how the Lacoste [pro-Mnangagwa] faction came to power, so what threat, if any, could they pose to the transitional administration now or in future?
Their removal from the levers of power and resource manipulation reduces any ability to pose a serious risk to the new government.
Their efforts to delegitimise the new order, arguing it is the product of a coup, rightly or wrongly, is struggling to gain traction.
The African Union (AU) and South African Development Community (SADC) have accepted the new order, as have the international community.
|A woman holds up a poster asking Chiwenga to assure a free and fair election at a protest in the capital just hours before Mugabe announced his resignation [Tendai Marima/Al Jazeera]|
The 2018 elections will determine the extent of its domestic credibility. The old order may well be able to expose complicity in past violations, but as with others purged from ZANU-PF in the past, they will not be able to do so convincingly without taking their share of responsibility.
In terms of immediate electoral politics, they are likely to complicate an already messy oppositional political environment.
Al Jazeera: What role could the political opposition, as well as SADC and the AU, play in monitoring the post-Mugabe transition to ensure Zimbabwe does not end up being a country run by and for the security elites?
Pigou: Their role is an essential component for the building of a solid foundation for a credible, accountable and inclusive political dispensation, critical for facilitation of a sustainable and broad-based economic recovery.
Al Jazeera: Apart from avoiding labelling the military operation a “coup”, has the greater international community shown willingness to be patient and start anew with Mnangagwa as he has asked?
Pigou: The international community is not a homogenous entity. In general, there is significant goodwill, and there will be patience with the Mnangagwa government.
Expectations vary, as do approaches to calibrating further support.
Mnangagwa’s administration must be seen to deliver – determining how and for who in a flexible and transparent way would provide a helpful framework for assessment and augment the credibility of such constructive engagement.
Follow Tendai Marima on Twitter and Instagram @i_amten