In 1983 a North Korean-trained unit of the Zimbabwe military, the Fifth Brigade, began a campaign against “dissidents” in the southern regions of the Midlands and Matabeleland. During the campaign, an estimated 20 000 civilians died, including women and children. This ghastly Pol Pot-style enterprise, which President Robert Mugabe has admitted as the Zanu PF government’s “moment of madness”, has consistently been associated with a man regarded as Zimbabwe’s most dispiriting politician — Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa.
Though the authorities appear, for now, to have succeeded in resisting — to borrow from Gore Vidal — the use of the most deadly word in the English vernacular, genocide, in describing the atrocities, attempts to extricate the Vice-President appear to have been futile. However, that hasn’t stopped Mnangagwa from steaming ahead with pursuing his lifelong ambition to become the southern African nation’s president.
Long regarded as the chief architect of the atrocities, now known as Gukurahundi, those who seek to make a diagnosis of Mnangagwa’s politics, his views on the economy or foreign policy, always do so within the prism of his alleged role in the atrocities. This is understandable. It is unusual in modern history that men burdened with such heavy allegations have not been arraigned before an international criminal court. It is even more remarkable that they have the nerve to want to lead a country.
But obsession with this one dimensional view can be limiting to our understanding of the man who by hook or crook, could be Zimbabwe’s next president. Without losing focus of the inextricable nature of his association with Gukurahundi, wouldn’t it be prudent to seek to understand this man from various angles — as an ally to Mugabe, as “a manipulator of history”, or an enlightened authoritarian?
Relationship with Mugabe
Though much has been said about this relationship by Mnangagwa’s allies, it is not known when and how it actually started. Neither has Mugabe talked much about it, apart from saying that he met Mnangagwa’s uncle when he was teaching at Mapanzure, a school in Zvishavane.
It seems, towards the end of the liberation war, Mnangagwa was incorporated into Zanu PF as Mugabe’s special assistant as a thank you to the Mnangagwa’s family who had acted as Mugabe’s guardian when he was teaching in remote Zvishavane. A couple of images of Mnangagwa with Mugabe which emerged after independence have since been used to claim that this special relationship is indeed old and strong too.
However, one thing that is known is that this relationship has not always been very special, at least according to leaked United States embassy diplomatic cables. Mnangagwa reportedly grabbed Mugabe by the lapels during a heated debate in 2008 or there was some nasty fallout like the one in 2004 when Mugabe accused Mnangagwa of trying to stage a palace coup in the aftermath of the Tsholotsho succession episode. But, unlike other party heavyweights such as Joice Mujuru or Edgar Tekere who have fallen from grace after confronting Mugabe, a master at reinventing himself, Mnangagwa has managed to survive such fallouts. He is good at reinventing himself by making himself useful to Mugabe. He is like a vassal.
Indeed, Mugabe’s relationship to Mnangagwa is instrumental. The nonagenarian sees Mnangagwa as a useful tool that can be deployed to undertake difficult tasks such as the quelling of the 1980s disturbances in Matabeleland and Midlands and the 2008 violent campaign against the opposition, unleashed by the Joint Operations Command (Joc), which Mnangagwa oversees. Mnangagwa has also, over the years, helped deliver electoral victories for Mugabe using Joc structures.
Joc was also deeply involved in Operation Murambatsvina in which shacks and vending stalls were destroyed in 2006 apparently to pre-empt a feared uprising in urban opposition strongholds. Mnangagwa was also involved in the DRC war between 1998 and 2002. In return, Mugabe has rewarded Mnangagwa handsomely with some of the important government portfolios such as ministries of defence, security and justice before appointing him vice-president.
In other words, the best way to understand their relationship is through the German notion of Nibelungentreue, unbreakable but unreasonable loyalty or gang honour, rather than an ethic of true friendship — as the boss you watch my back and I will look after you, and can give you everything you want in return. The unwritten promise of the ultimate prize, the presidency, probably explains Mnangagwa’s sometimes irrational loyalty towards Mugabe.
To cement his status in the ruling party, Mnangagwa has carefully cultivated an image of being the only one who has managed to penetrate the inscrutable Mugabe — a tactic that he also deploys against potential challengers within Zanu PF. However, the truth of the matter is Mugabe is an incomprehensible and unpredictable quantity. It’s even doubtful if his wife Grace can claim to understand him well.
Mugabe himself is not sure about Mnangagwa’s abilities to take over from Zanu PF. Nothing is more illustrative of this than the nonagenarian staying in power for so long while manipulating succession bidders to remain ensconced in power, instead of handing over to his anointed dauphin.
Mnangagwa’s involvement in Gukurahundi is a glaring blemish that he cannot just wish away. Thousands of lives were lost, bodies mangled and communities destroyed. Mnangagwa has never apologised for his alleged role. This could be because apologising can be construed as accepting responsibility and possibly its consequences: political, even more so, legal. Or as John Wayne says in the 1969 film True Grit: “Don’t apologise! It’s a sign of weakness”. Surely, an apology will be at odds with the personality of a strongman that he has so carefully constructed.
Instead of offering some kind of contrition, he does something considered dangerous; attempting to whitewash the events though with not very much artful reworking of the historical record. For example, in 2011, Mnangagwa attempted to dismiss the atrocities as a “closed chapter” in Zimbabwe’s history. In the game of politics, there is an understandable temptation to project the knowledge and emotions of today on the past events and thus rewrite history. But considering the atrocities a closed chapter in Zimbabwe’s history is seen as unacceptable.
But history can be stubborn in its details. Until recently, Mnangagwa was famed as one of the members in the “Crocodile Gang”, an influential political group during the liberation struggle. However, the Daily News recently furnished us with material that refutes the Vice-President’s version of events. Writing in the daily, journalist Fungai Kwaramba, contends that war veterans and one living member of the “Crocodile Gang” said Mnangagwa was never part of the group. Kwaramba also investigates other myths about the Vice-President and permits us to conclude that they belong in the realm of the not-quite-true.
It seems that when the Mnangagwa is not rewriting his history to elevate his status, he is seeking to denigrate other senior political figures. In an attempt to portray himself in the gallery of Zimbabwe’s great, interestingly and surprisingly, he singled out the former vice-president, Joshua Nkomo. In his ideal world, Mnangagwa attempted to cast Nkomo as a sell-out during the liberation struggle. But this alternative reality might prove hard to sell given Nkomo’s well-documented history.
Very much aware that consensus around him is not going to rest on popularity, his strategy on landing the presidency and sustaining himself in power is primed on satisfying human primordial needs of earthly happiness. Mnangagwa is keen on bringing in development and prosperity to the country.
In line with this vision, in January this year he argued that the country needed to recruit technocrats. In other words, he was attempting to tell the world that as part of rebuilding the economy and nation, he will incorporate progressive elements into the new order. Also at his instigation this year, the government hired Chinese state technocrats to advise the presidency on economic and social reform. Indeed, Mnangagwa is reported to be a fan of East Asian leaders such as China’s Deng Xiaoping and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.
But Mnangagwa’s approach, though welcome, also begs a larger question: why would an African leader seize upon East Asia models of social and economic development. The peculiar model of rigid autocracy and capitalism that the Chinese and Singaporean crafted for their countries are often regarded as something deeply specific to East Asia. Many authors have alluded to the centrality of what they call “Asian values”, a Confucian-inflected mindset based on respect for education, entrepreneurship and authority. Zimbabweans’ values don’t seem to fall within this paradigm.
This then brings another thinking onto the fora; though the nature of his country might not share the same values as China and Singapore, the truth is that the line between Mnangagwa’s two role models is thin. Both sought to introduce measures explicitly designed to salvage an ailing autocratic system. Mnangagwa’s vision for the country is not that different from these two leaders — political self-preservation.
Reportedly, Mnangagwa has recently been trying to make contact with Western governments. The purpose of these efforts apparently, are to raise the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the impasse that exists between Zimbabwe and the West
Indeed, the dominant narrative on Mnangagwa when it comes to his views on foreign policy is that the strongman, because of his business interests, is instinctively Western-oriented, only concealing his Western inclinations because of his boss, Mugabe.
Early this year, he told delegates celebrating a loan from the African Development Bank that Zimbabwe cannot do without the West. In other words, according to this narrative, Mnangagwa has no time for slimy, gibbering hydra of Mugabe’s nationalism: racist, anti-Western and a conviction that Zimbabwe has a different destiny from those of Western nations.
This view is too optimistic for a number of reasons. Firstly, supporters of this narrative easily forget that Mnangagwa is a pragmatist. His rhetoric about the West is meant to ascertain the level of concern or interest that the West has over his ascendancy.
Secondly, if Mnangagwa lands the top job, he stands to inherit the government and state structures that Mugabe would have left. Senior Zanu PF members in government and securocrats have remarkably changed little in the past 20 years. They still favour a hardline stance and they are likely to deliberately undermine Mnangagwa’s rapprochement efforts. He is therefore likely to be circumspect in his overtures in order to allay the concerns of the hardliners in the security sector and Zanu PF hardliners.
Thirdly, an extension of friendship ties and money by the West is likely to be associated with a corresponding request for liberalisation of the political environment. This will immediately set Mnangagwa’s administration on a collision course with the West. Mnangagwa understands precisely the dangers of opening the political space in Zimbabwe. He spent most of his career as minister of security stamping out dissent and locking up people in prisons.
If the pace and extent of political liberalisation is too much for him, Zanu PF’s number two can be relied on shelving rapprochement with the West.
In other words, Mnangagwa’s foreign policy will be based on pragmatism and deal-making rather than attempting to promote Western values of democracy and human rights. He is not going do anything that daring; a radical ideological and policy shift.
Indeed, despite his rhetoric on detente with the West, the fact that he has chosen to make the East as the site of all his foreign trips as vice-president is telling. For Mugabe, going to the East is safe and predictable; standard fare especially for someone who is still on British and EU sanctions and reviled in the West. Were Mnangagwa inclined to shake up things, he would have chosen London or Brussels, a move that no one would have expected of him. Doing so, would have highlighted his departure from Mugabe’s anti-Western policies.
No voter constituency
The biggest nightmare that Mnangagwa faces is that he is electorally weak. For anyone who wants to understand how unpopular the he is, they shouldn’t go to the Ndebele and urban electorate or MDC supporters, but Zanu PF supporters.
Mnangagwa is not popular with Zezuru Zanu PF voters who are prepared to derail his ambitions, nor is he popular with all Karangas, particularly older generation voters who identify with the cult image of Mugabe. Indeed, there even have been unexpected whelps of protests from unexpected quarters within an alliance of elites who are in or are affiliated to Zanu PF; some hardliners within the party, notably Jonathan Moyo, Saviour Kasukuwere, Patrick Zhuwao and Grace, who have threatened gunpowder plots; war veterans who have questioned his liberation war credentials; and youths who have threatened to stage a demonstration against him.
However, against all this, Mnangagwa has the military card. In the politics of Zimbabwe, it is a commensurate counterbalance.
Is he stoppable?
Mugabe is fast receding into the past. Mnangagwa is well positioned to take over.
But the absence of Mugabe presents more of a dilemma than an opportunity. Once Mugabe is gone, all bets are off on Zimbabwe’s political future, and no one will know who the political currents might wash up and to where. Even self-proclaimed managers of events such as Mnangagwa are aware that they might be caught by surprise.
Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political analyst based in London.