A drawn-out coup in Zimbabwe has now culminated in the resignation of Robert Mugabe and the elevation of his former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has already been named ruling party chief and the party’s 2018 presidential nominee. Mnangagwa’s rise to the nation’s highest office is not surprising, for all of its bizarre behind-the-scenes orchestration. But it isn’t particularly promising for those who care about democratic progress, either.
Despite Mnangagwa’s track record of employing all forms of state power over the past 37 years to enforce the will of the ruling party—often by brutal means—his checkered past is not eliciting much serious criticism. That may be because alongside human rights abuses, Mnanagagwa has shown a willingness to leverage his international connections for economic growth at home—promising, it now seems, to put the onetime “breadbasket of Africa” back on track after decades of neglect under Mugabe.
This agenda derives not so much from Mnangagwa’s concern for his country’s future as from his recognition that he is no Mugabe. Though a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation war—still the greatest mark of legitimacy in Zimbabwe—he lacks his predecessor’s iconic status, not to mention the mostly unified party backing that enabled Mugabe’s long rule. To maintain a tight grip on power, Mnangagwa knows he can’t be a lax autocrat; he’ll need to perform in a way Mugabe never found necessary—at least, perhaps, until his toppling.
Mnangagwa finds himself in a post-Mugabe world of active citizen engagement at home and economic opportunities abroad. His domestic and international goals will be mutually reinforcing: with the support of key international partners, he hopes to grow the economy, earning sufficient domestic support. And with enough domestic support, he wants to avoid the sort of Mugabe-esque political violence that might keep Zimbabwe a pariah state, and in so doing facilitate foreign investment and trade.
Mnangagwa needs to achieve at least a semblance of democracy in order to achieve the requisite stability that makes these goals—and his sustained power—possible. But we can expect that a truly representative and responsive state will be postponed under Mnangagwa in favor of economic reform. There are few signs that this power-hungry, longtime Mugabe loyalist will put Zimbabwe on a path to free elections and government accountability. In fact, when it comes to establishing democratic norms, it is likely that the Mnangagwa presidency will replicate the same concentrated power and sham rule of law that characterized Mugabe’s rule.
A veneer of democracy and a promise of growth may appease those eager to see any positive change to the collapsed economy, but things could easily go awry for the new leader if his foreign benefactors, elite supporters, or constituents become disillusioned and turn against him.
Tapping foreign ties for growth
China is Mnangagwa’s inspiration and model, and this hints at the type of economic transition he might try to emulate. Mnangagwa received military training in China early in his career, and has since helped facilitate cooperation between the two countries’ militaries while maintaining financial connections there. Beijing may have even known of Zimbabwe’s coup before it happened: military chief Constantino Chiwenga, who is loyal to Mnangagwa, met with Chinese counterparts in China on November 10th, just before leading the military takeover.
Perhaps taking a page from East Asian strategies of state-led growth, Mnangagwa has become an increasingly vocal supporter of agricultural reform as an important step in Zimbabwe’s path to recovery. State-enforced political stability reminiscent of modern China’s approach also figures prominently in Mnangagwa’s thinking. A carefully managed coup to remove an increasingly destabilizing dictator may have appeared to China the best way to protect its many investments there (if indeed it did intervene); Mnangagwa’s contingent would have proven loyal partners in this effort.
He also hopes to maintain the support of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a body established to promote cooperation between 16 states in the region. For what it’s worth, the organization’s representatives have appeared in the past to favor Mnangagwa, who previously served as chair of its committee for ministers of justice and appears best poised to resuscitate Zimbabwe’s economy—though they cannot openly support a coup.
Mnangagwa appears to prioritize Zimbabwe’s special relationship with the Chinese, but there is evidence that he also hopes to cultivate ties with the West. In recent years he has reached out to foreign investors and international institutions, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, likely angling to receive aid upon implementing requisite reforms. He has long been London’s preferred successor, and he granted a rare, candid interview earlier this year to a British journalist.
The painstaking way Mnangagwa’s faction has managed the recent “change of power” demonstrates the new leader’s desire to uphold a veneer of constitutional order that will earn his government the respect of regional and certain international powers. For a reformer who wants to leave his options open, it is far too early to burn bridges.
Ensuring domestic stability
Mnangagwa’s growth agenda is impossible without a degree of domestic support to make his rule appear credible. He already commands the loyalty of many elites within the ruling party—he is probably behind the arrests this past week of many potential adversaries—but opposition leaders are poised to challenge him at the polls in 2018. Even if Mnangagwa maintains the party’s support, he must placate an increasingly demanding civil society.
Given these political constraints, Mnangagwa is likely to ensure his foes within the party—those most likely to present a serious challenge—remain out of the picture. He will probably continue to order unconstitutional arrests and sentencing, while seeking to convince the world of his targets’ criminality. The long-term support of seemingly loyal elites is no guarantee; party factionalism is a fixture of Zimbabwean politics, and has previously led Mnangagwa himself to orchestrate political violence surrounding elections. He will need to award the spoils of his rule to the right supporters if he is to remain the party’s chosen leader.
Outside the party, Mnangagwa will likely attempt to draw key opposition figures close to him in a transitional unity government leading up to Zimbabwe’s next election, or an eventual coalition government—all while denying them real power. Morgan Tsvangirai and Joice Mujuru, two prominent leaders of opposition parties, are among the probable candidates for subordinate positions. Bringing them onboard would signal to voters that Mnangagwa is serious about unity, while keeping potential enemies close. But true power sharing and accountability are likely anathema to a man whose career is defined by consolidating power around his erstwhile boss.
Using violence if power is threatened
If Mnangagwa’s tactics fail to produce the requisite semblance of support, past actions suggest he would employ violent force against competing parties or factions, momentarily forgoing positive foreign and domestic relations to secure his own power. Once the primary enforcer himself, Mnangagwa now commands his own loyal network of enforcers—primarily from the security sector—who are almost certainly open to doing the dirty work of intimidating or eliminating rivals while their leader’s hands remain clean. Even now, General Chiwenga is the one holding talks with Mugabe while Mnangagwa waits in the wings.
Earning support at the polls will be a challenge. It is said that Mnangagwa inspires more fear in the people of Zimbabwe than even Mugabe. Mnangagwa is widely believed to have directed a series of massacres in western Zimbabwe beginning in 1983 against the Ndebele people, of whom 20,000 perished. In 2008, he contributed to another violent campaign against his party’s political opposition, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of people forcibly displaced. It is these and other campaigns, along with his political shrewdness over the years, which have earned him the nickname of the “Crocodile”—and his supporters, “Team Lacoste.”
But a history of violence as a loyal subordinate does not portend violence as president. Power is of utmost importance to Mnangagwa, but he knows that meaningful economic recovery—and a concomitant democracy that elicits international respect—is the only way to assure it. He almost certainly does not want to resort to violence, but is also likely to direct subordinates to use force to prevent any one person or group from encroaching upon his own power if he perceives an existential threat. Mnangagwa undoubtedly believes that after decades of faithful service, his time has finally arrived. For this lifelong party loyalist, the stakes are simply too high to risk an ignominious early retirement now.