Emmerson Mnangagwa – Zimbabwe’s ‘crocodile’ who wants another bite

What drives Robert Mugabe's ouster, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as he seeks a second term in office?

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa attends the event to commission a lithium mine and processing plant in Goromonzi, Zimbabwe - July 2023IMAGE SOURCE, REUTERS

When Robert Mugabe was ousted as Zimbabwe’s president in 2017, his replacement, Emmerson Mnangagwa promised a new start for his country’s people.

But as President Mnangagwa seeks re-election at the polls later this month, Zimbabweans are grappling with the same problems – high inflation, poverty and a climate of fear.

The Zanu-PF leader, who is rarely seen without a scarf in the colours of Zimbabwe’s flag around his neck, brushes such criticism aside, saying the nation will be “lost” if it fails to back him – his supporters pointing to a mining boom and other foreign investments during his time in office.

Known as “the crocodile” because of his political cunning, he came to power after a military takeover and mass demonstrations forced Mr Mugabe, long-time leader and Mr Mnangagwa’s former mentor, to resign.

The military revolt was sparked by Mr Mugabe sacking Mr Mnangagwa as his vice-president.

Mr Mnangagwa, who lived up to his nickname and snapped back, may have unseated Zimbabwe’s only ruler, but he is also associated with some of the worst atrocities committed under the ruling party since independence in 1980.

Some of his former comrades in the liberation struggle used to describe him as a “very cruel man”.

But his children see him as a principled, if unemotional, man. His daughter, Farai Mlotshwa – a property developer and the eldest of his nine children by two wives – once described him as a “softie”.

And as he sought to woo foreign investors and dispel his ruthless reputation in 2018, he told the BBC: “I am as soft as wool. I am a very soft person in life.”

Supporters of Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa cheer at a rally ahead of elections at Robert Gabriel Mugabe Square in Harare, Zimbabwe - 9 August 2023IMAGE SOURCE,REUTERS
His supporters still bring out a cuddly crocodile toy during Zanu-PF rallies

The exact year of Mr Mnangagwa’s birth is not known – but he is thought to be 80.

Born in the central region of Zvishavane, he is a Karanga – the largest clan of Zimbabwe’s majority Shona community.

Long before he came to power, he was seen as “the architect of the commercial activities of Zanu-PF”, a 2001 United Nations report said.

Despite his money-raising role, Mr Mnangagwa, a lawyer who grew up in Zambia, has a fearsome reputation that was cemented after independence during the civil war that broke out in the 1980s between Mr Mugabe’s Zanu party and the Zapu party of Joshua Nkomo.

As national security minister, he was in charge of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), which worked hand in glove with the army to suppress Zapu.

Thousands of civilians – mainly ethnic Ndebeles, seen as Zapu supporters – were killed in a campaign known as Gukurahundi, before the two parties merged to form Zanu-PF.

Mr Mnangagwa has denied any role in the massacres. As president he has tried to broach reconciliation. Some have felt his comments glib given the deep wounds in Matabeleland, but an initiative to allow exhumations and reburials has been agreed.

Elsewhere, he still enjoys the support of many of the war veterans who led the campaign of violence against white farmers and the opposition from 2000.

They remember him as one of the men who, following his military training in China and Egypt, directed the fight for independence in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘Torture scars’

Mr Mnangagwa’s official profile says he was the victim of state torture after being arrested by the white-minority government in the former Rhodesia in 1965, when the “crocodile gang” he led helped blow up a train near Fort Victoria (now Masvingo). He spent 10 years in prison.

A close friend of Mr Mnangagwa, who did not want to be named, once said: “He has scars from that period… perhaps that explains why he is indifferent. Horrible things happened to him when he was young.”

His ruthlessness resurfaced during the 2000 parliamentary campaign in Kwekwe Central when opposition candidate Blessing Chebundo defeated Mr Mnangagwa.

During a bitter campaign, Mr Chebundo escaped death by a whisker when the Zanu-PF youths who had abducted him and doused him with petrol were unable to light a match.

Eight years later Mr Mnangagwa reportedly masterminded Zanu-PF’s response to Mr Mugabe losing the first round of the presidential election to long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai.

The military and state security organisations unleashed a campaign of violence against opposition supporters, leaving hundreds dead and forcing thousands from their homes.

Mr Tsvangirai then pulled out of the second round and Mr Mugabe was re-elected.

Ice cream plot

Mr Mnangagwa was seen as Mr Mugabe’s right-hand man – that is until the former first lady Grace Mugabe became politically ambitious and tried to edge him out.

Robert Mugabe (C) holds hands with Emmerson Mnangagwa (L) and Grace Mugabe (R) at the Great Zimbabwe monument in Masvingo - February 2016IMAGE SOURCE,AFP
Emmerson Mnangagwa, pictured here in 2016, was close to Robert Mugabe (C) until the former first lady (L) eyed the presidency

Their rivalry took a bizarre turn when he fell ill in 2017 at a political rally led by Mr Mugabe and had to be airlifted to South Africa.

His supporters suggested that a rival group within Zanu-PF had poisoned him and appeared to blame ice cream from Mrs Mugabe’s dairy firm.

Mr Mnangagwa referenced this plot himself and also blamed a group linked to the former first lady for an explosion at a Zanu-PF rally in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo, in which two people died.

Their rivalry has continued – and when Mr Mugabe died in 2019, President Mnangagwa wanted him interred at the national Heroes Acre burial ground, but Mrs Mugabe refused.

But his overtures on the economic front have been welcomed by some businesses.

In 2017, Zimbabwe’s GDP was $17.5bn (£13.7bn) and has since averaged at $25.31bn.

The government has also attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, mainly in mining. For example, platinum giant Zimplats will invest $1.8bn over the next 10 years, following negotiations with government.

With the largest lithium reserves in Africa, the government also hopes to profit from world demand for the key component in batteries – and last month a Chinese firm opened up a lithium processing plant in Goromonzi.

The president’s supporters are confident about his place in the history books, with the government renaming 10 streets Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa Rd in a 2019 project to honour African icons rather than British ones.

But critics say most changes introduced by President Mnangagwa have not benefitted the ordinary Zimbabwean.

Zimbabwe had one of the highest inflation rates in the world last month – prices in July had rocketed by 101.3% since the previous year. Unemployment also remains rife, with only 25% of Zimbabweans holding formal jobs.

His vow to guarantee human rights appears hollow, with little changing in this regard since Mr Mugabe’s departure.

Critics continue to be arrested and taken to court for insulting the president – an offence punishable by one year in jail or a fine or both. A man in Harare was charged in April after allegedly being overheard by a policeman saying that Mr Mnangagwa would lose the next election.

Members of opposition party the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) have also been convicted in the run-up to the vote on what they describe as fabricated charges aimed at weakening the party. The party says the police have banned several of its meetings since July, and nearly 100 gatherings since it was formed in January last year.

This week 40 CCC members, including an parliamentary candidate, were arrested while campaigning in the capital Harare – and remain in custody. The recent killing of a CCC backer, allegedly by Zanu-PF supporters, further raised concerns about rights.

International outlook

Mr Mugabe’s removal raised hopes that Zimbabwe would rebuild its relationship with the West.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa listens to an engineer as she explains the systems of a recently upgraded coal powered electricity generator in Hwange, Zimbabwe - August 2023IMAGE SOURCE,AFP
A coal powered electricity generator, funded by China, was opened this month

Under Mr Mnangagwa, the country has applied to be readmitted to the Commonwealth. Mr Mugabe’s government pulled Zimbabwe out in 2003 after the nation was suspended for human rights violations.

“Zimbabwe had made progress in its journey to re-join the Commonwealth family”, with an encouraging assessment visit last year, a Commonwealth Secretariat spokesperson told the BBC.

A Commonwealth observer group was also in the country to obverse the coming elections, seen as a “significant step in the country’s democratic governance”, they added.

Despite this apparent thawing in relations, Zimbabwe still remains under US economic and travel sanctions and a European Union arms embargo.

Mr Mnangagwa, however, has bolstered ties with China and Russia – and has also hosted Iran’s president for a state visit last month when he said they were both “victims” of Western sanctions.

Civil society groups and the opposition doubt the election on August 23 will be free or fair. They also point out that 43 years in power and access to state media gives Mr Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF party a huge advantage over its opponents.

A bullish Mr Mnangagwa told supporters at a rally earlier this month: “No-one will stop us from ruling this country.

“You will be lost if you don’t vote for Zanu-PF.”

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