If a bird stays for too long in a tree, it attracts stones says a Ghanaian Proverb: as hundreds of thousands Zimbabweans flood the streets of Harare to celebrate the demise of Robert Mugabe, no words seem more appropriate than the universal truth of proverbial wisdom to explain the fall of the nonagenarian leader, one of Africa’s longest serving Presidents and oldest Head of State.
After 37 years of ruinous tenure, first as Prime Minister and since 1987 as President, Mr. Mugabe – the ‘Old Man’ who had blown hot and cold in the country by virtue of his liberation credentials and of the staunch support of the military – eventually resigned last Tuesday, November 21st, 2017. The announcement came eight days after a military takeover which placed him under house arrest and expelled him from his own party, ZANU PF. The subtly contrived coup was masked under the fiction of a legitimate military intervention called ‘Operation Restore Liberty’, carried out – according to Army Chief Gen. Constantine Chiwenga – with the aim of ending the purge of liberation fighters from the party and root out the counter-revolutionary elements fomenting instability. These words sounded like a not-so-veiled allusion to the ousting of former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa (occurred on November 6th) and to the risk arising from the presidential ambitions of the President's wife, Grace. Mugabe’s expeditious downfall was indeed triggered by an internecine battle for succession within ZANU-PF that saw Mnangagwa’s Lacoste Team - named after the merciless temper of its leader, popularly known as “The Crocodile” - opposing a cabal of young politburo members, the G40 group, gathered around the First Lady.
Widely known as a fine tactician, for many years Mugabe deftly maneuvered his big-wigs and turned them on each other to control internal factionalism and maintain power. And yet, his pendulum politics eventually backfired: as soon as he tipped the balance in favour of his wife, the military toppled him to prevent the instauration of a ‘Mugabe dynasty’. Being a former spymaster closely connected to the country’s intelligence and a veteran of the liberation war, Mnangagwa was undoubtedly the preferred option to secure the army’s interests.
As Mugabe falls, the Crocodile rises: after returning from his two-week exile, the former VP sworn in as new President on Friday, November 24th, marking the beginning of a new era in the history of post-colonial Zimbabwe. However, with an exorbitant public debt, crippled infrastructures and services, and an imperversing cash crisis, Mr. Mnangagwa has pressing challenges to face.
From the frying pan into the fire?
Whilst the sheer jubilation and enthusiastic dances of Zimbabweans exhale a contagious hope for a new beginning, objectivity urges us to remain vigilant and not forget Mnangagwa's dark past and his role in ZANU PF’s wrongdoings.
Many observers wonder whether the Crocodile will really change his scales, and fear that a Mnangagwa presidency will be marked, once again, by blood and violence. His words during the inaugural speech, affirming his commitment to protect the rights of Zimbabweans, sounds hard to believe knowing his direct involvement in many of Mugabe’s ruthless policies: he presided over manipulative and intimidatory practices during past elections, notably the crackdown against opposition supporters in 2008. Mnangagwa is also accused of having played a pivotal role in the “Gukurahundi”, the ethnic cleansing of over 20,000 people perpetrated by the Fifth Brigade in the early 1980s. Yet, he has always denied any involvement, blaming the army and implying that it was a deliberately State-orchestrated massacre. According to local activists and human rights organisations, Mnangagwa’s strong ties with the army and Chinese military-owned diamond companies operating in the country have ensured him the necessary resources to support ZANU-PF repressive machinery against the opposition and mining communities.
At the same time, Mnangagwa is not a fool: he is aware that the world is watching him. To legitimise his tenure, he needs to re-engage with donors and ‘walk the talk’ embracing the so much awaited economic reforms. On the other hand, the international community has tacitly accepted the military intervention as extrema ratio to end a 37 years disastrous one-man rule, and welcomed the new leadership as a move away from immobilism. In his inaugural remarks, Mnangagwa cleverly distanced himself from the heavy legacy of his predecessor, while speaking the “language of the people”: he vowed to create thousands of jobs for desperate Zimbabweans, to deal with long-standing land issues and lead the country towards free and fair elections in 2018.
What is next for Zimbabwe?
After decades of daft policy-making, Mugabe’s ousting rises a wind of change, showing that the country cannot attract the foreign capital it desperately needs to rebuild its nosediving economy if an unbridled patronage system persists. Mnangagwa’s ascendancy to the much coveted throne can hardly be seen as the resounding victory of a democratic process: yet, it irreversibly opened Pandora’s box, as it galvanized the hope for a brighter future, emboldened the electorate and sowed the seeds for a bolder re-engagement of citizens in Zimbabwe’s political life.
While taking the oath of office, Mnangagwa pledged to maintain elections in August 2018, as scheduled: whilst this promise undoubtedly reassures disheartened Zimbabweans and cautious investors, it is hardly possible that the necessary reforms will be carried out in few months. The tentacular permeation of ZANU PF and the military across the whole electoral machinery raises serious doubts on the quality of the upcoming elections. Without dismantling the repressive edifice built by Mugabe, the 2018 polls would be little more than a rhetorical exercise. Undoubtedly, creating a transitional authority inclusive of all political players can be the first step to ensure an environment conducive to regain credibility, restore constitutional order, and prepare a more fertile ground for next elections.
Over the next months, the interim government has a monumental task: translating these promises into concrete actions, implementing investor-friendly policies, paying the arrears to unlock financial assistance, as well as strengthening fiscal discipline and cut an unsustainable wage bill eating 90% of government budget. More importantly, for any meaningful change to happen, the government should improve the legislation governing the extractive sector, halting the relentless looting of country’s wealth and start channelling revenues from natural resources to finance an inclusive development, more sensitive to the needs and rights of marginalized communities. International and regional stakeholders need to carefully monitor this process and condition their assistance to an effective commitment to structural reforms, constitutionalism, and a full restoration of the rule of law. At the same time, mainstream and new emerging political constituencies should seize this moment of rejuvenation, developing a critical opposition and finally propose concrete pro-poor and more equitable socio-economic alternatives after decades of ideological bankruptcy.
The next months will tell whether Mnangagwa, despite the dark shadows of his past, can be the statesman the country needs to overcome the current mayhem and pave the way for a true and people-led democratization process. Hopefully this won’t be just another ignis fatuus: Zimbabwe cannot miss this opportunity to rise again.