BSR: Mugabe-Mnangagwa - end of a "special relationship"?
I wrote the following article in February 2016. It was one of the first BSRs. Unfortunately, when the blog was moved to another platform, this and other BSRs were lost. Some people have been asking for it. It is only fair that we bring it back, for the record. But given what has transpired since then, I have added a postscript, which in some ways is an obituary of the so-called “special relationship”. If therefore, you have already read last year’s BSR, you may skip the first part and go to the part headed “Post-script – the end of a special relationship”, which contains the fresh material. But for others, the post-script will make sense after reading the original BSR.
Mugabe & Mnangagwa: A Special Relationship
On 13th April 2008, heads of state and government in the SADC region met at Mulungushi in Zambia for an extraordinary summit. The subject that brought them to the emergency meeting was the election crisis Zimbabwe. Things were not well south of the Zambezi. Two weeks before, on March 29, the country had held relatively peaceful harmonised election. But this had been severely diluted by an inordinate and suspicious delay in the announcement of the presidential election results. One familiar figure at such meetings, Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe was conspicuous by his absence. The elder statesman of the region was burdened and immobilised by the crisis in his country, the very reason for the extraordinary summit.
Nevertheless, he sent a delegation to represent him. The man who led the delegation was Emmerson Mnangagwa, an interesting choice, because just three years before he seemed to have lost favour and had seemingly been demoted to the very modest office of rural affairs minister. It was not, as might be expected at such meetings, the foreign affairs minister or one of Mugabe’s two vice presidents. All were overlooked in favour of Mnangagwa.
The choice of representative at such a crucial juncture was, in part, reflective of a special relationship which exists between Mugabe and Mnangagwa and the pivotal role the younger man plays in the political affairs of his long-standing boss. When it comes to the crunch, Mugabe turns to his younger lieutenant. He trusts him, more than others to represent his interests.
An understanding of this special relationship could help shed light on why, despite recent tensions, it will take something extraordinary to break them apart – why, indeed, Mugabe will be reluctant to fire Mnangagwa or why Mnangagwa himself has always hesitated and will continue to shy away from openly challenging his mentor.
The two men’s relationship goes back a long way, perhaps even to a time before Mugabe met Mnangagwa himself. A couple of years ago, Mugabe gave us a limited account of the origins of this relationship, which revealed that his connection to the Mnangagwa family pre-dates the liberation war years. It was at the burial of his younger sister, Bridget Mugabe, when Mugabe narrated how as a twenty-year old he was deployed to teach at a school in Mapanzure in rural Zvishavane. This happens to be Mnangagwa’s home area. There, the young Robert met an uncle to Mnangagwa, who, upon seeing the young man, took pity upon him and offered to accommodate him in his home. “He said I could not stay alone at my age”, Mugabe said, recalling the generosity of the Mnangagwa family.
Mugabe did not say he met Mnangagwa at the time, but if he was 20 then Mnangagwa, who says he was born in 1942 (not 1946 as is often reported), would have been a mere toddler. But the kindness of the Mnangagwa family appears to have left an indelible imprint on Mugabe’s heart. This is a man we already know had felt neglected and burdened by responsibility when at just 10, his father deserted the family after the death of his elder brother Michael. Now here he was, a young man with huge responsibilities, far away from home in unfamiliar territory, meeting an older man who gave him the treatment that he had missed from his own father. This familial love must have made a long-lasting impression upon Mugabe. It could be that to Mugabe, Mnangagwa is no ordinary politician, but family.
It has also been said that fate later brought them together again when Mugabe and a young Mnangagwa met in prison where both were detained by the colonial regime. One unverified version says the two shared a cell and that the younger man benefitted from the tutelage of his elder, while he provided some assistance. Conditions of confinement are tough, but they can also help groom durable and long-lasting relationships between inmates, based on trust, confidence and loyalty. Perhaps, the young Mnangagwa made a good impression of a loyal and diligent lieutenant during those days in prison.
Mnangagwa’s role as Mugabe’s most trusted lieutenant formally begins in 1977, when he becomes Special Assistant to the newly-installed Zanu President at a special congress. This earned him a seat on the Dare reChimurenga (War Council) the special committee that directed the war effort. He is one of only three remaining members of the Dare, the others being Mugabe and Rugare Gumbo. In another interview, Mugabe narrated how Mnangagwa become the party’s chief of intelligence in the wake of an internal rebellion when Cletus Chigowe, the then intelligence head was ousted. This role in intelligence would become crucial to their relationship in the years after independence.
As special assistant to Mugabe, Mnangagwa would have done everything from preparing Mugabe’s reports to making sure his boss was well-presented. He would have been more than a brief-case carrier. Those in politics or business know the special bond that exists between principal and special assistant. Sometimes, the principal becomes utterly dependent upon his or her special assistant. This day-to-day interaction would have helped solidify the bonds, building an enduring fraternal relationship. Indeed, in most cases the special assistant gets to know more about the principal than the latter’s spouse. Mugabe himself might have picked Mnangagwa as his special assistant because he trusted the younger man, perhaps on account of his old relationship with the Mnangagwa family and their time together in prison. Mnangagwa was probably the closest he had to a brother in active politics.
The “water carrier”
In football language, the “water carrier” is the less-decorated but hard-working, loyal and effective player in the team. His talents may be of modest quality, but he more than compensates for these inadequacies through sheer industry and dedication to duty. He knows his role and does the job to near-perfection. No fancy skills or tricks to please the crowd, but he knows his job is to win the ball and to deliver it to the more celebrated members of the team, who often earn the individual accolades. Politics has its own equivalent of the water-carrier – the quietly effective and efficient characters who get the job done, whatever job it might be. For Team Mugabe, Mnangagwa is the water-carrier, with Mugabe as the star player. Mugabe gets the individual glory, but Mnangagwa is the man behind him - the quiet, loyal, obedient and hard-working grafter of the team. For more 40 years he has put in a shift for Team Mugabe, doing much of the less enviable tasks, and getting blamed for it, sometimes on his own account, other times on behalf of his boss. This capacity to take the bullet on behalf of the principal is a rare quality in politics.
After the struggle, the post that set him on this water-carrier path was his appointment as Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of state security in Mugabe’s first cabinet in 1980. In that role he controlled state security – an area that he dominated and left a permanent footprint. The Home Affairs Ministry, which Mugabe had given to his old rival, Joshua Nkomo in the first government was stripped of some core functions, such as operational authority over the police, which was transferred to Mnangagwa’s command. As a minister in the PM’s office, it meant he worked very closely with Mugabe. Being given responsibility for that sensitive portfolio at that critical time meant Mugabe could trust him. In many ways, giving him charge of security meant Mugabe was trusting the younger man with his own life.
In that role, Mnangangwa chaired initially the Joint High Command (JHC) of the armed services and from 1982, he chaired the Joint Operations Command (JOC) a broader version of the JHC which now included intelligence (the CIO) and the police. JOC grew to become the most influential committee in Zimbabwean politics and Mnangagwa was right at the centre of it. That role meant Mugabe entrusted Mnangagwa with the highly sensitive role of overseeing operations carried out in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions in the wake of alleged security risks arising from sporadic dissident activities. This became the darkest chapter of independent Zimbabwe, during which thousands of civilians lost their lives, limbs and livelihoods. Mugabe has admitted that it was a “moment of madness”.
Burden of blame
There is something about facing an accusation in common that connects and binds the accused together, probably, a realisation that they stand or fall together. Here, it is probable that Mugabe and Mnangagwa are united by this burden they carry, the burden of accusation over Gukurahundi. Besides, if there is another person apart from Mugabe who is in possession of the most intimate details from this dark chapter, it would be Mnangagwa. It was Mnangagwa who, as security minister announced in 1985 that the Chihambakwe Report, a commission investigation into the events in Matabeleland, would never be made public.
Mnangagwa’s long history with the security forces and his role as finance boss in Zanu PF for a long time have placed him in a position of strategic importance to Mugabe which cannot be underestimated. As Secretary for Finance, Mnangagwa helped to build ZIDCO, Zanu PF’s holding company, which was heavily invested in various commercial companies, among them Catercraft, First Banking Corporation, Treger Holdings, Jongwe Printers, etc. In this role, as party finance chief, Mnangagwa also formed key business relationships with wealthy individuals, including the Joshi family, who had a big part in ZIDCO, John Bredenkamp, for military supplies, Billy Rautenbach, etc. All this ensured party financing for elections and other political activities and Mnangagwa was right at the centre of it.
The DRC war brought new opportunities and a new matrix of military involvement in business and in building the strategic vision, Mnangagwa was at the centre of it. It is hardly surprising that this earned him a place in the UN list of persons accused of illegal exploitation of DRC’s natural resources in 2002. This strategic role in the civilian-military complex means Mnangagwa has an important part to play in Mugabe’s power-balancing efforts. Overall, Mnangagwa’s central role and close involvement in party financing, which also explains his key role as Mugabe’s chief election agent for many years have placed him in close professional proximity with Mugabe. Professionally, the two share too much to the extent that Mugabe could not remove Mnangagwa without prising away a part of himself.
In the past, when Mugabe has felt uncomfortable with his younger ally’s ambitions, the worst he has done is to demote him. In 2005, Mnangagwa found himself in trouble after the collapse of the Thoslotsho Declaration, the name given to a plot by which Mnangagwa was to be elevated the vice presidency ahead of Joice Mujuru, succeeding the late Simon Muzenda. This would have positioned Mnangagwa closer to the Presidency. To register his displeasure, Mugabe demoted Mnangagwa to a backwater ministry in charge of rural affairs.
Yet, although the demotion was evident, what was more significant about Mugabe’s handling of the Tsholotsho debacle was that he chose to accommodate, rather than discard Mnangagwa. Others, including the architect of the Tsholotsho Declaration, Professor Jonathan Moyo and several Zanu PF provincial chairmen were sacked, but Mnangagwa stayed. His demotion to the rural affairs ministry was in fact a rescue after Mnangagwa had lost for the second time to MDC’s Blessing Chebundo. Mugabe had previously rescued Mnangagwa after he become one of the high profile casualties of the 2000 elections when he first lost to Chebundo. At that time, he became the Speaker of Parliament.
In both cases, Mugabe came to the rescue of his long-time personal assistant, when he could have let him sink into political oblivion. Having lost constituency elections, Mnangagwa could hardly been regarded as a threat to Mugabe, and if he did, this could have been a way to let him go. Yet Mugabe chose to keep him close, rather than let him drop into the wilderness. Perhaps to Mugabe, if Mnangagwa had become the enemy, keeping him nearer was consistent with the old wisdom of keeping your enemies closer. Another reason is that Mugabe has always thrived on pitting junior rivals against each other, and he knew that a competitor would keep Joice Mujuru, his new deputy, in check. As it turned out, this worked out pretty well for Mugabe.
Events in 2008 demonstrated once more why Mugabe chose to keep his lieutenant nearer. After the 2008 elections, Mugabe faced a serious crisis, in which the presidency was slipping away. Who else to turn to than the quiet enforcer and strategist, Mnangagwa? And so it was that when the SADC heads of state and government met for the emergency summit at Mlungushi, in Zambia it was Mnangagwa who led the delegation, ahead of Mugabe’s deputies. It was Mnangagwa too who is credited with masterminding the violent comeback ahead of the run-off election on June 27, which rescued Mugabe. When President Mbeki mediated the dispute between Zanu PF and the MDCs, it was Mnangagwa who led the negotiations on behalf of Mugabe.
When Mnangagwa has needed a political life-jacket, Mugabe has provided it. Likewise, when Mugabe has needed a hand when he has found himself in a spot of bother, Mnangagwa has been there to help his old mentor. As we saw, when Zimbabwe undertook the DRC war adventure, it was not Moven Mahachi the then defence minister at the centre of activities, but Mnangagwa who effectively took charge and became the fulcrum.
Mix and Match
Perhaps the formula to their relationship is their different qualities. Nature has bestowed upon Mugabe the gift of eloquence, a quality which Mnangagwa is woefully short of. Words flow effortlessly from Mugabe’s mouth, but they struggle when issued by Mnangagwa. But what he lacks in speech, Mnangagwa more than makes up for it in doing, whereas Mugabe seems the reluctant doer. Mugabe seems more cautious and hesitant, whereas Mnangagwa is the quiet but effective Rottweiler who will bark if the master so commands and bite if such is required. Mugabe values loyalty and obedience above all else and Mnangagwa understands this too well, having been by his side for more than 40 years. It is this knowledge that prevents him from challenging his master or even doing anything that would suggest he is threatening his power.
The irony though, is that despite knowing his boss’s insecurities, Mnangagwa’s recent troubles appear to stem from strong suspicions that he is after Mugabe’s job and the favour that he has lately received from Western countries – Mugabe’s arch-enemies. It has been said that Western countries have described Mnangagwa as a pragmatic leader, despite misgivings about an alleged darker past. Western favour is a poisoned chalice, as Mnangagwa should know from the experience of his predecessor Joice Mujuru. Mugabe in 2007 accused Mujuru of “cutting deals” with the West and saw the succession battle as an avenue for Western access and control in Zimbabwean affairs. That was the beginning of Mujuru’s troubles. The more Mnangagwa is seen as a Western favourite, and the more he is talked about in those terms, the more he will lose the favour and trust of his long-time boss. It didn’t help when one of Mnangagwa’s lieutenants’ referred to Mnangagwa’s wife as the ‘acting First Lady’. Mugabe might tolerate him as he did with Mujuru for 7 years before sacking her, but he may eventually find his moment. Meanwhile, Mnangagwa will have to do more to cleanse himself of this emerge as a favourite of the West.
The relationship between Mugabe and Mnangagwa is a complex and special one. Mnangagwa is a quiet man but one of Mugabe’s most unsettling qualities is his quietness and he is fully aware of its force. It is hard to know what he is thinking as he rarely gives much away, not even hints. In this way, he keeps friends and foes alike guessing as to his next move. Mnangagwa has been with this man for more than 40 years, as his personal assistant and he knows him more than most. It is possible too that there are fewer people that Mugabe knows more closely as he does Mnangagwa. That relationship was built in the cells of colonial Rhodesia, in the trenches of the liberation war in Mozambique and in the corridors of power in Harare – for 36 years they have served together, in a principal-agent relationship, as boss and loyal subordinate. But it has its roots in a very personal encounter, one that Mugabe remembers fondly, when as a 20 year-old he was given sanctuary in the Mnangagwa home. These are deep roots.
Yet now, however, Mugabe must negotiate a tripartite arrangement which includes his young wife, Grace Mugabe, who appears to have different ideas about Mnangagwa. It looks like a classic case of a relationship between two brothers, now affected and diluted by the arrival of the older brother’s spouse. The relationship between the brother’s wife and the brother-in-law does not enjoy good health. The brother must please his wife, while at the same time maintaining a relationship with his younger brother. It is a tough balancing act – hard to manage for any man, but harder still for a man in the twilight of his life.
When all is said and done, perhaps the best image of the relationship between the two men is that of the water-carrier and the star player in a football team. Mnangagwa is the water-carrier who dutifully executes his functions, tackling opponents, winning the ball and delivering it to the star man who goes on to score and claim all the glory and admiration. He might want some of that glory one day, but he knows as long as the star man lives, he will have to serve and remain in the shadows.
Post-script: The end of a special relationship
On Monday 6 November, one of the most dramatic days in Zimbabwean politics in recent years, Emmerson Mnangagwa as fired by his boss Robert Mugabe. It marked the end of a special relationship. The relationship had broken down irretrievably. It could no longer be rescued. It was so bad that not long after his sacking, Mnangagwa sneaked out of the country, allegedly seeking refuge from threats to his life. A few months back he had survived alleged poisoning.
Two days after his sacking, writing from his safe sanctuary, Mnangagwa issued a damning five page statement reacting to his new circumstance. In it, Mnangagwa went down memory lane, reminding his old boss of the long, arduous road they had travelled together and the sacrifices he had made for the liberation of Zimbabwe. It was almost nostalgic. The words revealed a man in utter pain, a man who felt betrayed and let down by someone he had served with great loyalty.
But there was also a note of defiance – an expression of independence. He had joined the independence struggle of his own volition, starting in Zambia where he had grown up before joining ZAPU and later ZANU, he says. He was at pains to demonstrate his liberation war credentials – that he was a self-made cadre, not an invitee to the party as Mugabe has suggested in recent weeks. For the first time, Mnangagwa is trying to assert his independence, to give his own narrative of his role in the struggle challenging Mugabe’s version. Yet all along, while he was inside, he allowed Mugabe’s version of history to take the limelight.
The statement itself in parts read like a desperate plea for answers, the kind of questions a son would ask of a father who has disowned him: what did I do wrong, father? “I have been very close to the President ever since [1976). We have avoided life-threatening situations together. I even doubled up as his personal bodyguard. In return, the President has passed on life skills which have put me in good stead throughout my long period in government. Our relationship has over the years blossomed beyond that of master and servant but to that of father and son. My mouth has never uttered a single foul word against the President nor have I contemplated bringing him harm in any way …” Here, Mnangagwa is merely confirming that he was nothing but a loyal water-carrier. “My service to the party and government of Zimbabwe and my public and private posture towards my boss are well known. No amount of convoluted thinking can diminish my loyalty to my party and the President.”
The problem, as Mnangagwa sees it, is coming from his old boss’ wife, whose sanity he questions. “I find it preposterous that any sane person can lyrically direct such accusations towards me” he says, referring to allegations of disloyalty which have been levelled against him principally by Grace Mugabe. She accuses her of colluding with and being influenced by characters who “plunder public funds and are used by foreign countries to destabilise the Party”. He also accuses Grace Mugabe of “brazenly” protecting people who are destroying the party. It is reasonable to surmise that the people Mnangagwa referred to are Professor Jonathan Moyo and Saviour Kasukuwere, two pillars of the G40 faction whom Grace Mugabe has publicly protected in recent weeks despite accusations levelled against them. In his dossier presented to the Politburo, Mnangagwa had also accused Moyo of being a CIA agent. He also accused Grace Mugabe of “[spewing] fake news” at the church gathering last Sunday, where she also attacked Mnangagwa. If Mnangagwa’s relationship with Mugabe has broken down, it is fair to say there is no love lost between him and Grace Mugabe.
But as the statement went on, Mnangagwa could not hold back direct punches against his boss, signifying the depths to which the formerly special relation had sunk. He accuses him of allowing the party to be infiltrated by “novices and external forces as well as individuals who have a proven track record of treachery,” a circumstance which he regards as “sad and deplorable”. Mnangagwa goes on the offensive, accusing Mugabe of privatising the party. “This party is NOT PERSONAL PROPERTY for you and your wife to do as you please” he charges, the capital letters being emphasis, but could also be interpreted as literally shouting to his old boss. He ends by calling on fellow party members “to say NO to Demi Gods and people that are self-centred and only think of themselves and their families”. He accuses Mugabe of refusing change and being stuck in the past – language the ironically matches persistent calls by the MDC over the past two decades, the same MDC he and ZANU PF suppressed with brutal means, especially in 2008. But the style and tone of language reflects a man in a combative mood, ready and willing to not only defend his corner but to attack his former boss.
As for his rivals, he has no kind words at all. He refers to them disparagingly as “G40 boys”. Speaking like a true patriarch, he refuses to accord them the title of manliness. To be called a boy when you are an adult male is to be disrespected in a fundamental way. It’s the language of exclusion. In colonial Rhodesia, black men were generally referred to “boys”. It didn’t matter how old they were. They were boys. It was so entrenched that it became part of language and culture. Today, “mabhoyi”, derived from the word boy is a term that black people appropriated to refer to themselves. But even in African culture, to be classified as a boy is to be excluded from the political community of elders. Hence the retort “ngaaende kunovhiya mbudzi” (He must go and skin the goat) is used against a male adult who behaves childishly at the court of elders. The task of skinning the goat, a small animal, is usually reserved for boys so when one is told to go and skin the goat he is being told that he is a boy and does not qualify to sit with elders. There are similar echoes in Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart. The tragic hero of the novel, Okonkwo is a hard-working and successful man. But he dislikes laziness and is rude to men who are unsuccessful. At a meeting of elders in the village, Okonkwo mocks Osugo by calling him a woman after the latter contradicts him. The meeting is “for men” Okonkwo says rudely in response to Osugo. Osugo’s crime was that he had differed with Okonkwo but unfortunately without any title, he was an unsuccessful man. So when Mnangagwa refers to Moyo, Kasukuwere and others in G40 as “boys” it is a sign of the contempt in which he holds them.
It might be a little late but the statement shows that Mnangagwa is not ready to go without a fight. “I will go nowhere,” he says, ensuring the words are captured in bold print for emphasis, just in case someone takes it lightly. “I will fight tooth and nail against those making a mockery against ZANU PF founding principles, ethos and values. You and your cohorts will instead leave ZANU PF by the will of the people …” It remains to be seen what action he will take in “the next few weeks” as threatened in the statement. Some may say they are just desperate efforts to be seen to be saying something. But having made the threat, it is important that he fulfils it otherwise no one will take him seriously. Meanwhile, Mugabe has made the first move, with the party’s politburo voting to expel Mnangagwa after the provinces made resolutions to that effect.
It is interesting of course that Mnangagwa refuses to be fired. This is not new. Didymus Mutasa and Rugare Gumbo also tried to fight their expulsion from ZANU PF in 2015, even taking their cases to court. It was a wasteful effort. Once an organisation has decided to expel you, it does not matter how many battles you fight. No court can force an organisation to associate with you unless there are contractual arrangements and there are alternative remedies, such as compensation. The courts will simply remind you that freedom of association also includes freedom of disassociation. Mnangagwa may find that he will be fighting a losing battle.
The reaction of Mutasa, Gumbo, Mnangagwa and others who refuse to be sacked from the party is a curious case of a person who refuses to leave an abusive situation. In the Game of Thrones, Theon Greyjoy is tortured so badly that when his sister comes to rescue him, he refuses to leave the horrible situation he is in. He refuses to be called by his name, Theon, having been forced by his tormentor Ramsey Snow to accept a new identity: Reek. People like Mnangagwa do not seem to be able to identify themselves apart from the abusive environment they have been part of for so long. Here is a chance to leave and move on to other things, but they insist on staying. They insist on declaring their loyalty to Mugabe, the author of their torment and predicament. Joice Mujuru was the same. She continued to call him “baba” (father) even after the abuse to which he had subjected her. They insist that they are ZANU PF even as ZANU PF is rejecting them. It’s a pitiful situation.
Yet despite all the combative language in the statement, Mnangagwa, like others before him who became estranged from ZANU PF, seems to forget that he’s being eaten by the monster that he co-authored. That he is one of the very few people who have had a long and sustained relationship with Mugabe is undoubted. 37 years in the corridors of power is a long time. He has been his special assistant for more than 40 years, playing the water-carrier role with some distinction. He was never the commander but the enforcer who dutifully executed his master’s orders to the letter. It is easy to see why he is in so much pain. He feels betrayed, having served for so long and hoped he would earn some reward in due course. Now, though, he is out in the cold, sacked from the party he co-founded.
But he was there when ZANU PF championed the “One Centre of Power” doctrine. In fact, he oversaw the constitutional amendments. And just a few months ago, against all reason, as Justice Minister, he championed a highly retrogressive constitutional amendment which saw Mugabe getting exclusive powers to appoint the Chief Justice and his deputy – centralising powers that the 2013 Constitution had decentralised. He was the beneficiary of Joice Mujuru’s sacking – even mocking and kicking her when she was already down. He was there in 2008 after Mugabe lost to his nemesis, Morgan Tsvangirai and had to be rescued by violent means. How then does he complain that the party has been captured? That the party has been privatised? Indeed, that the party has become Mugabe and his wife’s personal property.
The truth is, for most Zimbabwe, the things that he complains of happened to the country a long time ago. The country was captured long back. And as Mugabe’s water-carrier, he too carry the cross. Mugabe may have chucked him out but people will not stop associating the two men as having acted in common purpose to the misery of the nation. He’s being devoured by the monster he helped create, when everyone else was telling them that they were making a grave mistake. If anything, he should be writing a lengthy note of confession and apology to the ordinary men and women of Zimbabwe. He needs to have a word with his old comrade Runaida Joice Mujuru. She will tell him that Zimbabweans will not take him seriously until, at the very least, he addresses his own role as Mugabe’s enforcer.
But when all is said and done, it is fair to say the special relationship that formerly existed between the two men is at an end. There is no room for recovery. No middle ground. It has been said of international relations that there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. It is an adage that applies with equal force in the arena of politics, a bitter lesson for Mnangagwa, the man who spent most of his wife playing the role of water-carrier for Mugabe only to be discarded at the most crucial moment.