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Emmerson Mnangagwa, the disgraced Mugabe loyalist who took his revenge

Zinyange Auntony , AFP | Protesters hold a protrait of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe's new leader in waiting, during a rally in Harare.

Emmerson Mnangagwa had seen his political fortunes rise and fall more than once during Robert Mugabe’s quixotic 37-year rule. But when his nemesis, Grace Mugabe, pushed him too far, the “crocodile” snapped back.


Twice Mnangagwa was touted as Mugabe’s heir apparent, and twice Zimbabwe’s liberator-turned-autocrat dashed his hopes. The second snub would prove fatal for the world’s oldest ruler, egged on by his ambitious wife.

Hoping to succeed her husband, the reviled first lady engineered Mnangagwa’s removal on November 6. But it was without counting on the military, with whom the ousted vice-president had cultivated close ties over a decades-long career as Mugabe’s ruthless enforcer.

Within two weeks of Mnangagwa’s sacking, his allies in the army had confined Mugabe and his wife to their home and arrested the “criminals” in her clique, forcing the seemingly untouchable 93-year-old out of power.

Mnangagwa, who was at Mugabe’s side in prison, in wartime, and in government, will now succeed his former mentor. Having returned from exile, he is set to be sworn in on Friday and serve out the remainder of Mugabe's term until the next election, due by September 2018.

"We are witnessing the beginning of a new democracy"

Addressing a huge crowd in Harare on Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s president-in-waiting praised the army for ensuring a peaceful transition in the country, urging "all patriotic Zimbabweans to come together, work together".

He added: “Today we are witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy.”

Reason for hope?

While few in Zimbabwe will regret Mugabe’s departure, Mnangagwa’s own record casts doubt on his ability to unite a fractured nation, and rebuild its shattered economy.

“There is a lot of hope but also many questions about his future conduct in power,” said Virginie Roiron, a Zimbabwe expert at Sciences-Po Strasbourg University, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Will he become another autocrat? Will international pressure push him to reach out to the opposition? Will he make concessions to attract investment from abroad?”

Mnangagwa’s enthusiastic support for Mugabe’s economic nationalism, including the drive to “indigenize” the economy by expropriating white farmers and forcing foreign firms to hand over majority stakes to locals, is likely to dampen the enthusiasm of foreign investors.

But it is the dubious human rights record of the man nicknamed “the crocodile” that has attracted most scrutiny.

Mnangagwa was in charge of internal security in the mid-1980s, when Mugabe unleashed his crack units against supporters of rival Joshua Nkomo. Rights groups say 20,000 civilians – mostly from the Ndebele tribe, who were seen as Nkomo supporters – were killed in the brutal conflict.

While Mnangagwa has denied responsibility for the massacres, his later role in silencing Zimbabwe’s opposition has only enhanced his fearsome reputation.

Chinese training

"There are no arguments around his credentials to provide strong leadership and stability, but there are questions over whether he can also be a democrat," Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, told REUTERS.

According to the Atlantic Council, a US-based policy institute, Mnangagwa was targeted by US sanctions in the early 2000s for undermining democratic development in Zimbabwe.

Back when they were friends: Emmerson Mnangagwa (left) and the Mugabe couple hold hands during celebrations to mark the president's birthday on February 27, 2016.
Back when they were friends: Emmerson Mnangagwa (left) and the Mugabe couple hold hands during celebrations to mark the president's birthday on February 27, 2016. Jekesai Njikizana, AFP

Sources close to the former vice-president have suggested he was hardened by the country’s bloody independence struggle and the suffering he endured, rendering him largely insensitive to violence.

He was only 19 when he was arrested and sentenced to death in 1965, by the white-minority government of what was then Rhodesia. His “crocodile gang” had helped blow up a train as part of the guerilla war against colonial rule.

A law prohibiting the execution of convicts under 21 meant he was instead sentenced to ten years in jail, where he shared a cell with Mugabe, eventually becoming his personal assistant after they were freed. According to his official profile, Mnangagwa was tortured while in custody, “resulting in him losing his sense of hearing in one ear”.

Before that, Mnangagwa had travelled abroad for his guerilla training, attending camps in Egypt and China, where he also enrolled at the Beijing School of Ideology, run by the Chinese Communist Party.

First Joice, then Grace

Since the country’s independence in 1980, Mnangagwa has held a string of posts in the Mugabe administration, including minister of state security, defence and finance, as well as speaker of parliament.

According to a leaked US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks, he has amassed considerable wealth through Zimbabwe’s military intervention in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s, which saw Zimbabwean businesses take part in the looting of Congolese natural resources.

But his rise to the top suffered a first blow in 2005 when he was fired from the influential post of Zanu-PF secretary of administration, amid reports of a fallout with Mugabe. His appointment as minister for rural housing that year was widely seen as a demotion.

Three years later, Mugabe’s shock defeat in the first round of a presidential election gave his former right-hand man another opportunity to prove his worth. As the veteran leader’s election chief, he is widely credited with masterminding the campaign of violence and intimidation that forced opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai out of a run-off, thereby ensuring Mugabe’s re-election.

Mnangagwa got his reward in 2014 when he took the vice-president’s job from his long-time rival Joice Mujuru, a fellow veteran of the independence fight, who was accused by Grace Mugabe of plotting to overthrow the president.

Eventually he would become another obstacle for the fiercely ambitious first lady, 41 years Mugabe’s junior, backed by her faction of young and brash politicians dubbed the G40.

When Grace Mugabe persuaded her aging husband to sack Mnangagwa and accuse him of “treachery”, it seemed Zanu-PF’s generational war would go her way. But when push came to shove, the army chose the veteran over the upstart, putting an end to Mugabe’s reign before it became a dynasty.

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