Emmerson “Crocodile” Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s crafty new interim President, is known as a ruthless, deeply unprincipled and a political infighter. He has lost several recent parliamentary elections but retained his party positions over four decades largely because he was ex-President Robert Mugabe’s chief enforcer and tribute collector.
But now President Mnangagwa has a golden opportunity to leave that unsavoury reputation behind and revive Zimbabwe’s economy and spirit. It is not unlikely that he could recast his legacy and even become genuinely electable in next year’s national presidential poll.
Governance in Zimbabwe is terrible and the rule of law is mostly only honoured in the breach. Mismanagement throughout the entire apparatus of administration, and outright theft by political and military elites are the ingrained, Mugabe-imposed, impediments to Zimbabwe’s regrowth.
If Mnangagwa can truly break from those inherited modes of rule – and if he has the inner strength to do so – his interim presidency could really become a leadership that all Zimbabweans, even nominal opponents, could celebrate.
To achieve this transformation Zimbabwe’s new leader needs to shake off his infamous reputation and the suspicion that he is merely another Mugabe in a younger frame. He would need to appoint a cabinet of all talents rather than one composed of compromised politicians from his side of Zanu-PF’s recent internal succession sweepstakes.
If Mnangagwa foreswore business as usual and appointed, say, opposition leader Tendai Biti as finance minister and Nelson Chamisa, another opposition leader, as minister of home affairs, he would depart strikingly from the desolate, destructive path followed by the Mugabe regime.
He would exit from this path followed by Mugabe if he also reached out to former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangerai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Giving prominence to some of his own key Zanu-PF supporters like former finance and justice minister Patrick Chinamasa and Chris Mutsvangwa, leader of the War Veterans Association, would be easier but also important. It’s telling that he’s appointed Chinamasa as acting finance minister.
Making those, or analogous, appointments would give support and substance to his inaugural pledges to end the country’s appalling cash shortages and “ensure financial sector stability.”
He also promised to crack down on corruption, one of the leading causes of Zimbabwe’s fiscal instability and its widespread loss of liquidity. Further, as he has hinted, Mnangagwa could compensate the 4 000 or so white farmers who were driven off their land.
Seeing is believing
Seeing is believing, of course, so Mnangagwa’s early moves will be watched closely. If the government-owned press and national broadcaster lose some of their shackles, that would also be an encouraging sign.
But an even more significant indication of whether the new Mnangagwa will be strikingly different than the old Mnangagwa is what relationship he has with General Constantine Chiwenga. The head of the armed forces was the chief architect of the military coup that ended Robert and Grace Mugabe’s gambit and brought Mnangagwa back from the outer rings of purgatory. The ouster of the Mugabes was precipitated by Grace’s intention to deprive Chiwenga and Mnangagwa of the privileges and lavish perquisites. And, since the coup cemented their continued control of illicitly-derived riches, how can Mnangagwa’s promise to curb corruption be achieved? He promised
Swift action will be taken … to weed out corrupt elements.
If he cracks down only on the small fry, Zimbabweans will lose heart. But, if he really means to weed out the main malefactors, then he will have trouble with his generals and many of his own close followers.
Mnangagwa’s potential break with the past, and with his own service to Mugabe, could transform his interim presidency from a mere cynical holding operation into a major transformative revival of Zimbabwe’s much battered sense of itself. He could infuse the country with a sense of purpose, and with the ability to resume its rightful place as Africa’s agricultural and industrial success story. Zimbabwe could rise from the ashes, but only if Mnangagwa clearly rejects the ways of Mugabe.
As Deng Xiaoping rewrote Mao Tse-tung’s baleful prescription for China and Mikhael Gorbachev realised that Soviet Communism was a fraud, Mnangagwa has the capacity as a determined pragmatist to focus forward on the new Zimbabwe, not the old.
With the securocrats behind him and his party position buttressed by a Zanu-PF vote of confidence, he can immediately take progressive steps to right the economy and lift the curtain of fear that has long enveloped his country. If so, he will begin the arduous trek back toward national stability and prosperity, and be regarded as the saviour of the nation.
Mnangagwa could indeed be such a man for all seasons. That would surprise longtime observers of Zimbabwean political machinations (like myself). But, he possesses the inner grit and the inner sense that, post-Mugabe, he and Zimbabwe can only advance if there is a decisive, open, and firm departure from the sleaze and sheer opportunism of the past.
In an important sense, no one else at this time has the stature to build the new Zimbabwe effectively. No one else can rely on military support. No one else can face down those in the ruling party and the police who backed Grace Mugabe, and lost. It is not that Mnangagwa will suddenly regain a long lost sense of commonweal, but instead, it is that he knows that Mugabe’s removal must mark the end of the bad old ways that Mugabe orchestrated and from which he himself profited.
Mnangagwa knows what Zimbabwe desperately now requires. Having struggled to ascend to the top of the country’s political tree, he may well be poised to perform responsibly in ways that, a few weeks ago, would have been wholly unexpected and wildly out of character. But it is never too late to change.
The author’s most recent book is The Corruption Cure: How Citizens and Leaders Can Combat Graft (Princeton, 2017). He was in Zimbabwe in October
Robert Rotberg, Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Kennedy School, Harvard University