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Big Saturday Read: Why the crocodile still divides opinion

On 5 January 2018, Emmerson Mnangagwa made a surprise call on an old rival. Morgan Tsvangirai, for years the iconic face of the opposition movement, was in desperately poor health. Two years before, he had been diagnosed with cancer of the colon. He had been in and out of hospital for treatment. Images of Mnangagwa and his deputy, Chiwenga meeting Tsvangirai at his home were pitiful. The battle-hardened former miner was frail and vulnerable, a shadow of his old self. Just over a month after that visit, Tsvangirai lost his battle at a hospital in South Africa.

Mnangagwa’s visit had a mixed reception among Zimbabweans. Some thought it was a warm and compassionate gesture - one man showing empathy towards another despite the walls of political rivalry. It was said Mnangagwa also undertook to arrange Tsvangirai’s long-delayed pension following his tenure as Prime Minister during the GNU between 2009 and 2013. He also promised to pay his medical costs. Tsvangirai did not live long enough to enjoy his pension. It came too late.

Others though, were skeptical. They weren’t amused that the visit was turned into a public spectacle, with cameras capturing key moments for the whole world to see. Critics thought Mnangagwa was milking the opportunity for his own benefit. Others went further and thought Mnangagwa was well aware that Tsvangirai was on his last legs. He was no longer a political threat and Mnangagwa could therefore afford to look magnanimous. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain from Tsvangirai’s predicament, they argued.

The judgment upon Mnangagwa by his critics may be unfair, but that his act of apparent kindness would generate so much controversy symbolises the deep division of opinion that exists among Zimbabweans when it comes to his presidency. And the lack of trust that surrounds him as a person. Is he really genuine or is he merely playing a pretentious game to win hearts and minds before his true self emerges after the elections? Has the old dog learnt new tricks or it’s just the same old trick where appearances matter more than reality?

Mnangagwa has struggled to shake off a notorious reputation earned during his time as Mugabe’s trusted lieutenant for more than four decades. Of the many charges in the court of public opinion, Gukurahundi remains the most heinous. Looking back, he might regret some of his statements made at the time. “Blessed are they who will follow the path of the Government laws for their days on earth will be increased. But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents for we will certainly shorten their days on earth,” Mnangagwa is quoted as having said on 4 April 1983.

He also described alleged dissidents were described as “cockroaches” who would be wiped out by “DDT”, a metaphor for the notorious 5th Brigade, the North Korean-trained crack unit, which stands accused of killing thousands of innocent civilians during its operations. Asked about these atrocities, Mnangagwa’s response has been to urge people to leave the past behind. “Let bygones be bygones” encapsulates his attitude towards this dark patch of history.

There are those who have bought into his new mantra. They are are prepared to look beyond the past and believe he is a changed man who ought to be given a chance. Not surprisingly, most of those who are prepared to forget are neither victims nor survivors of these past wrongs. Some of his close associates swear he means well and that he has learnt from past mistakes. He lived for so long under the shadow of his old boss, Mugabe that he was never able to show what he can do, and now is his chance, they say in mitigation. Their view is that he is ready to take Zimbabwe in a new direction. This view does have traction among some Zimbabweans.

On the other hand, there are many who are unconvinced that he is a changed man. They don’t see anything in his 37 year record under Mugabe that suggests that he is a progressive man. After all, they argue, he played an active role in keeping Mugabe in power, especially in 2008 when Mugabe should have left power after he lost to Tsvangirai. Many don’t believe there was need for a run-off but that the delay in announcing results was carefully managed to massage the results to give Mugabe another go. They blame Mnangagwa and allies in the military of overseeing this operation which kept Mugabe in power another decade.

No wonder then, that seven months into a militarily-acquired presidency, Mnangagwa still deeply divides opinion. He has won some new fans but he has also lost some old ZANU PF supporters who left with Mugabe and the vanquished G40 faction. Unsurprisingly, these former allies have become his staunchest opponents. Meanwhile, the opposition which looked weaker and unsure of itself during the last days of its iconic founding leader has been rejuvenated under the leadership of its new leader, Nelson Chamisa. True, there have been leadership squabbles in the opposition, but a campaign blitz since February has re-established the party as a formidable force which cannot be ignored.

Notwithstanding the failure to solve the most pressing economic challenges, neutral observers would disagree that Mnangagwa’s short presidency has been a total disaster. To be fair, there have been some positives. Political space has opened up since the coup with the opposition parties holding political rallies and demonstrations freely without undue hindrance as was the case in the past. The broad recognition of political freedoms has enabled political activity while freeing up individuals to express themselves.

The efforts towards re-engagement with the international community have also been positive. Zimbabwe may soon rejoin the Commonwealth if the forthcoming elections meet the minimum standards. The thawing of relations with Western nations represents a change from the Mugabe era when there was deep antagonism which left the country isolated and imperilled. The call for international observers and foreign media has also been positive, another change from the past. On the business front, the call for foreign investment and the amendment of the indigenisation policy and law has shown a new approach which is encouraging.

These changes have caused some previous sceptics to become enamoured of Mnangagwa. They see these as signs of a pragmatic and progressive leader who is ready to change course from the past. Now that he is in charge, they say, he will be able to influence the course of events in a manner that he was never able to do under the shadow of Mugabe. Others are just resigned to the fact that with the military seemingly behind him, he is not going anywhere soon. They have surrendered and think the best way to hedge their bets is to go with the most powerful.

Nevertheless, despite the rhetoric, the new administration has failed to address the most basic issues affecting citizens. Cash shortages which haunt the public on a daily basis have worsened and currency trading on the streets has become big business, with the politically-connected elites benefiting immensely. The administration hopes that the election will unlock funds that might help address the economic challenges.

Unfortunately, it is not doing enough to ensure a free, fair and credible election which would guarantee legitimacy. Instead, there has been inertia when it comes to electoral reforms. Institutions that are supposed to guarantee a free, fair and undisputed election, such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) continue to be hampered by inefficiencies, lack of fairness and apparent bias in their operations. A key player in the international community, the US remains unconvinced and this is causing discomfort in the corridors of power where there’s desperation for international acceptance. They must ensure ZEC and other institutions perform their roles with more fairness and impartiality than they have demonstrated so far.

What would a Mnangagwa presidency look like? What does the future hold with him in charge? Would it be open, transparent and fair government in which power is limited by the constitution and the rule of law? Does he prefer centralised power over a devolved system in which power is shared with local communities? Would it be an authoritarian system or one that is based on the key tenets of liberal democracy? These are important questions which might be answered by taking a look at some of his actions and policies in the past.

When Mnangagwa was Vice President and Justice Minister during the Mugabe era, he moved the first amendment to the Constitution which was adopted in 2013.The amendment conferred greater powers to the President to appoint senior judges, including the Chief Justice. Previously, the Constitution required all judges to undergo a public interviewing process before names were submitted to the President for appointment. This change from an open and transparent process towards a closed and opaque process which centralised power in the presidency was retrogressive. The removal of important checks and balances suggests a leader who wants total control, a quality largely associated with authoritarianism.

This penchant for centralising power and undermining constitutional institutions is also evident in the President’s proposition to establish a special anti-corruption unit in his own office. The Constitution confers prosecution authority to the National Prosecuting Authority, which is supposed to be independent. It is fundamentally retrogressive and an assault on the principle of separation of powers for the President to usurp the prosecution powers from the Prosecutor General by placing prosecutors in the proposed anti-corruption unit in his office. How does an anti-corruption unit located in the most powerful office in the land take action when persons in that office are involved in corrupt acts?

Old habits die hard and improper acts are still going on regardless of the anti-corruption mantra under the new administration. It was recently revealed that a business entity controlled by the wife of a Vice President was awarded a contract to manage the President’s travel without following laid-down procedures. This was confirmed by a Deputy Secretary to Cabinet during court proceedings. Abuse of state institutions and improper awarding of state contracts was a serious problem before the coup that catapulted Mnangagwa into power. Promises to clamp down on corruption ring hollow in the face of these instances. In any event, how would an anti-corruption unit in the Office of the President be expected to deal with corruption in the same office?

Denialism and the refusal to admit to past mistakes and wrongs is also unedifying. A few months ago, in an interview with The Economist, a British magazine, Mnangagwa made an astonishing claim that the 2008 elections had been free and fair and denied that there had been any violence. This was patently false given the abundant and well-known evidence of violence in which many opposition supporters were killed, raped, maimed and had their properties destroyed in a military-led operation. Indeed, the elections could not have been free and fair since it was the lack of legitimacy which eventually led to a coalition government under the guardianship of by SADC. His view that bygones should be bygones in relation to such violence and Gukurahundi does not inspire confidence.

But it was his failure to weed out notoriously corrupt elements from the Mugabe era which dampened many spirits. It was a case of old wine in new bottles, many concluded when Mnangagwa announced his Cabinet after the coup. People had looked forward to the new dispensation with renewed hope that Mnangagwa would have a new team with fresh ideas. They saw the same old recycled faces and increasing numbers from the military in his Cabinet.

His supporters argue in mitigation that faced with an imminent election, Mnangagwa had little choice to but not to rock the boat too much. Realpolitik meant he had to keep some of the unsavoury elements on his side but that he would get rid of them after the elections. But what guarantee is there that he will disappoint these allies? Politicians never reach a point of total security and if he feels insecure now, there is no reason to believe that he will be more secure after the election. Hopes that he will exclude the notorious elements after the election may be totally misplaced.

Part of the scepticism stems from the apparent contradictions. “I’m as soft as wool,” Mnangagwa is fond of saying in response to charges that he is a hard man. He is on record as opposing the death penalty. Yet he was the Justice Minister in the late eighties when the government pre-empted a proposed constitutional challenge by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace against hanging as a method of carrying out the death penalty. Besides, his critics charge, the so-called anti-death penalty stance does not sit comfortably with the extra-judicial killings during Gukurahundi and the 2008 election violence. Perpetrators were given amnesty. Demands by human rights advocates for reports on the Gukurahundi atrocities have been rejected.

Earlier this year, he announced a new asset declaration policy among his ministers and senior public officers. Nothing has been heard about it since that announcement. Whatever declarations were made, if they were made at all, are a secret affair. Parliament is not involved. There is virtually no transparency, accountability or checks and balances in the assets declaration process. It’s another example of a policy designed to please the public that something is being done, when in reality, it’s vacuous.

Likewise, much was made of the amnesty for the return of funds and other assets which had allegedly been externalised during the Mugabe era. Mnangagwa threatened to name and shame all those who had failed to comply and take advantage of the amnesty. When the date came, the issue was dramatized as he added two more weeks to the amnesty period. However, when the deadline arrived and the list was made public, it was a damp squib. In any event, no legal action was taken against those who had been named for alleged externalisation. In fact, one of the named externalisers went on to contest and win ZANU PF primaries and is one of the party’s candidates in the general election.

There is also a threat to the devolution model of government under the new administration. Chapter 14 of the Constitution provides for devolution. However, the Mugabe regime ignored this part of the constitution and never implemented it. When Mnangagwa took over, he followed suit. ZANU PF never agreed with devolution, preferring a centralised system of government. Governors of provinces have no power and are mere puppets of the President. They are now referred to as Minister in charge of provinces, circumventing devolution provisions which require provinces to be headed by elected chairpersons. Mnangagwa’s Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa announced in his first budget after the coup an intention to amend and remove the devolution provisions. This is a worrying sign which demonstrates an inclination towards centralisation of power.

There is also the issue of accountability to Parliament especially in matters involving finance. Section 300 of the Constitution provides that within 60 days of concluding a loan agreement or guarantee, the Finance Minister must publish the terms in the Government Gazette. Despite a number of loan agreements or guarantees being concluded and announced as “mega-deals” their terms remain secret and opaque, contrary to constitutional requirements. Reports to Parliament on the performance of the loans and guarantees have not been forthcoming in the terms required by the Constitution. This opaqueness in the handling of public funds was a feature of the old regime and has continued under the new administration.

The problem for Mnangagwa is that he inherited and is part of an entrenched political and military elite which is deeply wedded to the political and economic system. There is a layer of kleptocrats who feed off the national resource base using a variety of corporate vehicles. How does he reform this system without causing danger to his hold on power? The excuse by his apologists is that he could not do it before the elections because it would affect his chances of winning. Yet, as sure as day follows night, there will be another excuse after the election, should he prevail. Every new stage brings its own set of challenges and if he wins, he will want to ward off new threats and that will be a new excuse to retain the same old corrupt elements in his government.

What Zimbabwe needs is a total revolution in the way it is governed. It is hard to see how a set of old characters who are used to their ways for 38 years can lead this charge of change. In his bid to present a new, tolerant face different from what the public thought of him as a hard man, Mnangagwa has neglected the law enforcement function. The newfound freedom without adequate policing among the public has led to reckless behaviour and new forms of lawlessness throughout the country. This is causing problems and leading to social decay, particularly in the urban environments.

Freedom has limits, particularly when it starts to encroach into other people’s freedoms. This is why the State must exercise its policing function. Previously, police were criticised for being corrupt and abusive. Now they have veered to the extreme end of the scale, where they are not performing their duties, leaving a yawning gap which needs to be filled. But does Mnangagwa have the appetite to be tough at a time when he prefers to be seen as a gentle and loveable uncle?

In his autobiography, Joshua Nkomo described an incident in which he waited in vain for Mnangagwa and Simon Muzenda after his escape to Botswana in 1983. Nkomo had fled Zimbabwe, fearing for his life in the wake of Gukurahundi. The Botswana government has given him temporary sanctuary. British businessman Tiny Rowland, an old friend of the nationalists, had intervened to help the situation. While in Botswana, Nkomo spoke to Muzenda and Mnangagwa (Mugabe was away in India for a conference). The two promised to come and see him in Botswana, to settle the issue and the Botswana government made arrangements to receive them. So they waited.

“The first telex said the visitors were due at 3 p.m. The time came, but not the people,” wrote Nkomo, recollecting events of that day. “Three-thirty came, then four o’clock and another telex saying the visit was off. I tried to telephone Mnangagwa: every time I said who I was the line was cut off. With Muzenda it was the same.”

Nkomo must have felt let down and exasperated. Frustrated he went to Britain where he sought sanctuary for a while.

This was Mnangagwa in his younger days. It paints a picture of a man whose word could not be trusted, a man who said one thing but did another. His supporters might say he was not his own man and that he might have been stopped by his boss. His critics however will find it difficult to believe that he has changed. For them, he is still playing the old trick: making people what he wants them to believe while in reality pushing his own agenda.

If Mnangagwa does prevail, which Mnangagwa will Zimbabwe see: the cunning, hard character of notorious reputation or the soft as wool character that he wants to present? Can Zimbabweans afford to take a chance? That is the question Zimbabwe must answer on 30 July.


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