In November 2017, President Robert Mugabe’s decades-old grip on the Zimbabwean state was brought to an abrupt end by the military. An unremarkable but powerful politician, who since 1980’s independence had doubled up as the nonagenarian’s henchman, Emmerson Mnangagwa, assumed the presidency.
With Mugabe out of the way, a vast re-branding exercise was initiated by international public relations firms telling the world that the Zimbabwean Midlands' strongman was a changed man; that he was not the callous man the image of which dominated public imagination. At hearing this, those realistic found it easy to laugh. But, somehow, others chose to believe him.
As it has since turned out, those who scorned at the idea that Mnangagwa had undergone transformation during his brief exile seem to have been on firmer ground than their counterparts who had fallen for the public relations line.
In a move that stunned even those who are keen on his politics, in the week that was supposed to ‘legitimate’ his rule through the 2018 elections, Mnangagwa did the unthinkable: he deployed the military onto the streets of Harare resulting in the killing of seven civilians. The soldiers used live ammunition on fleeing civilians, some of whom were shot at the back.
Turning out out to be a tumultuous first year of his government, within a few months, Mnangagwa responded in an even more aggressive manner never seen before even under Mugabe’s late autocracy, when again, angry at what was seen as unjustified fuel hikes, Zimbabweans took to the streets. This time, more protesters were killed by the security forces.
However, most disturbing were reports that security forces had used rape as a political weapon, with underage teenage girls being among the victims. Again the security forces used live ammunition resulting in more deaths and injuries to civilians. Opposition and civil society activists, including Members of Parliament, were forced to flee to safety.
This is not 1963 where violence was apparently ‘legitimate’ against those civilians seen to be supporting Rhodesian armed forces. Nor is it 1986 where it was against the excuse of alleged armed ‘dissidents’ of the opposition Zimbabwe African People’s Union – Patriotic Front (PF Zapu), leading to serious human rights violations. It is nearly four decades after independence with the atrocities being committed against unarmed civilians and in full view of international news outlets and social media, and this time without the implicit support of the British as alleged to have been the case in the 1980s.
But, should these ruthless clamp-downs have come as a surprise?
The answer should be no. Casual cruelness seems to have never left Mnangagwa’s politics as claimed by public relations firms and his administration. As his response to the August 2018 and January 2019 protests attest, it is still very much alive. To be outed, it only needs ‘right’ circumstances. Only recently at a rally he boasted that he had deployed the army and warned that he would do so again to silence protesters against his rule. That people had been killed in those deployments matters little to him. If anything, it is par for the course.
What Does Mnangagwa want?
Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, it still appears that analysts who observe Mnangagwa’s politics continue to fall back on the reform narrative. To those who support him, the president needs a little more time since the damage done by Mugabe, ‘opposition distractions’ and Western sanctions cannot be undone overnight. And to the opposition, ‘legitimacy’ and governance issues and the president’s extensive interests in the status quo act as disincentives to any meaningful reforms.
However, it could be argued that the reality is that Mnangagwa has little, if any interest at all in reforms. Instead, his government should be seen as a close knit organisation that focuses on its fortunes and defending Zanu-pf’s rule.
But, whereas his predecessor had a sophisticated way of attaining and maintaining these twin objectives, so far, Mnangagwa has had to rely on a set of crude political philosophies and practices that he has perfected over the years.
What are they?
Criminalisation of the State as an Instrument to Power
Those who grew up in 1980s and 1990s Zimbabwe would have got accustomed to the street talk that the Midlands godfather was ‘the most’ corrupt person in the country – Former finance minister in the government of national unity, Tendai Biti, calls him the ‘bishop of corruption’. Even as president, the label of Mnangagwa as the capstone of a corrupt political system still persists.
As a politician who is aware of the limitations of his mobilisational capacities and national appeal, in order to build social and political bases, Mnangagwa has relied on extensive corruption. Over the years, he has awarded state contracts to and either appointed or instigated the appointment to state institutions, those in his inner circle in return for loyalty and ‘political services’.
Those rewarded conform to the rules of the ruling party and his government – that is those who loudly profess belief in party creed such Energy Mutodi; those who don’t miss party meetings, conferences or congresses, such as Joseph Chinotimba or Owen ‘Mudha’ Ncube, and those who participate in public displays of enthusiasms such as businessmen Busisa Moyo or Shingi Munyeza (the two were recently appointed to presidential advisory council).
In an unrestrained attack, Arendt observed as early as the 1940s that in such a corrupt political system, first rate talent is invariably replaced ‘with these crackpots and fools [who]…lack intelligence and creativity...’
Such a political system has resulted in decisions being increasingly made not based on the spirit of the rules, laws and policies, but what political elites want – one leading Harare lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa has alleged that recent sentencing and rulings are being made based on the preferences of the political elites, who derive their authority from the president – in other words, what we now have under Mnangagwa’s administration is an accelerated primitivisation of the state and the degradation of societal mores.
Bloody Coercion and Fear
‘Kutonga kunoda sviropa pano neapo!’(To effectively rule, blood must be shed!). Ruling party supporters have repeatedly delivered versions of this crude statement when questioned why the ruling party uses violence. There is still debate as to who it originally came from. Some attribute it to Eddison Zvobgo, a former cabinet minister. Considering Mnangagwa’s lack of interest in histrionics associated with accommodation of alternative political persuasions in politics and his alleged involvement in some of the worst government atrocities, others contend that it was the current president.
Whoever said this statement, it appears that it acts acts as some acknowledgment by ruling party supporters that violence is an important part of its rulership.
Indeed, since the 1980s, the ruling party elite has regarded violence as a ‘legitimate’ instrument to creating and reinvigorating a state that is suited to dealing with opposition and dissent. As security minister, Mnangagwa himself regarded opposition leaders and activists as ‘cockroaches’ that had to be crushed to death. Indeed, any talk of post-colonial Zimbabwe’s most ruthless atrocities that were designed to beat the opposition into submission is incomplete without acknowledging Mnangagwa’s central role in them.
If the dictum, history is a good predictor of what is likely to happen in the future, then it could be argued that it is Mnagagwa’s experience as a lead member of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) and his roles during Gukurahundi and Murambatsvina must have laid predicate for his most recent killings.
As a complementary strategy, Mnangagwa has also relied on a dialect of intimidation. At times through his lieutenants, he has resorted to hate-laden and anger-spiked threats – for example, Masvingo’s Provincial Affairs Minister, Josiah Hungwe, warning the opposition that ‘Mnangagwa will shoot to stay in power’ or Zanu-pf national political commissar Engelbert Rugedye, reminding rural voters that the government would unleash violence reminiscent of 2008 hecatomb if they voted unwisely.
With his recent threats to doctors and lawyers who treated and represented protesters, respectively, Mnangagwa himself seems to have dropped all pretence that he intends to reform the political landscape. The mask has come off, notwithstanding the efforts of his international public relations machine.
But, the deployment of fear by the state, on an occasional basis, is not unusual as Frank Buredi acknowledges, in How Fear Works: Culture of fear in the 21st century. However, it appears that Mnangagwa believes that it should be central to any rule. It seems, to run a country effectively, the president has to be feared, his party has to be feared and even the nation that he presides over has to be feared. He has, on a few occasions, issued dire warnings to rivals of the futility of life outside ZANU PF, likening it to bare condition of a leaf once detached from the mother tree.
The World Doesn’t Matter
As with most Zanu-pf’s elites, the long snub by the West had an inflicting damage on Mnangagwa’s psychology leaving him with an enduring ambition to hobnob with Westerners, especially the British. Watching his behaviour on New York’s news television stations and at World Economic Forum last year shows that he clearly enjoyed interaction with the world’s most elite. He had arrived where his master had long been banished and he was proud of it.
Indeed, some of his engagement pronouncements were personal – for example his expression that he wanted to meet current British prime minister, Theresa May, since on previous occasions another female conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, ‘had been good’ to Zimbabwe.
However, his romance with the international community turned out to be brief. Following the shootings in January 2019, Britain and much of the West turned against his government. He had already done it once and they had thought it was an aberration instigated by another force. The second time was hard to dismiss as a mistake. The condemnations were sterner and more pointed. In response, Mnangagwa adopted tasteless denunciations of the British and the West, evidencing that he was yet to master contemporary and sophisticated language in which to speak to foreign nations.
The United Kingdom should shoulder most of the blame for a hurried embrace of a man who has a difficult history. Following the coup, the then British ambassador, Catriona Laing exhibited a strange liking of a man who ironically, had been chemically attached to a Mugabe whom her government had detested for years.
She ignored the maxim that is used to guide and warn the West’s intelligence community, ‘Beware of false mirror images,’ ‘Do not think and act in the same way you would in similar circumstances. You will likely misread the other if you do’. But that’s exactly what the British did. They thought that by dangling the carrot of financial aid and promise to re-join the Commonwealth, logically, Mnangagwa would carry through his promise of political and economic reforms.
As it turned out, they were dead wrong. Mnangagwa has since demonstrated that he doesn’t care about how the British think about him, what their values are, and how their foreign policy systems work.
The British should have taken into account that they were dealing with; in the words of a former US Defence Secretary, an ‘unknown’. Indeed, there is no reliable record of consistent interactions between Mnangagwa and the British political establishment throughout key phases of his political life. Unlike his contemporaries in Zanu-pf such as Hebert Murerwa, Sydney Sekeramayi and Edgar Zvobgo who all studied, lived and worked abroad, the president had little opportunity to directly interact and socialise with the British and Westerners in general.
And, unlike Mugabe, who loved cricket, tea and had English sartorial habits, Mnangagwa has not showed any particular curiosity about Britain and the West in general beyond their leaders. After all, it is a distant and alien place less interesting than his farms in Masvingo, or artisanal mines in Kwekwe. Sadly, what he has for his experience with the West over the years, notably efforts by London and Washington to undermine the Harare government through sponsoring the opposition, has been negative, leaving him with a harsh view of the West.
Because of this deep mistrust, and lack of experience in dealing with them any relations that Mnangagwa was to have with Britain in particular and the West in general were bound to have a short shelf life. It was a serious miscalculation by the British government or at least their highest representative in Harare.
Mugabe’s truculent political style – which was an important source of his support – was anchored by local intellectuals. Formed in an atmosphere of naturally ongoing conversation during his leadership, these intellectuals provided a board for ideas of sound propaganda. As renowned scholars, mostly with academic careers and some with numerous books to their names, the Mugabe-era intellectuals could interpret politics and other states to Mugabe and explain Mugabe to others.
Notably Nathaniel Manheru (widely believed to be George Charamba), Isheunesu Mpepereki, Jonathan Moyo and Tafataona Mahoso, amongst many gifted intellectuals, these polemics provided Mugabe’s rule with a clear ideological foundation. And, the central character of this ideology after 2000, can be described as ‘mobilising the nation against the West’ who were bent on regime change and stealing Africa’s resources.
Mnangagwa has attempted to follow this ideological ambition. However, his talents have been lesser and the limitations of his team apparent. This deficit of talent has been noticeable through a poorly messaged voice of the president. For example, recently, the president expressed solidarity with India following bombings by alleged Pakistan militants. This went down like a storm by the public after he had not showed similar compassion towards the deaths of artesanal miners in his home country, forcing him to embarrassingly delete the tweet. Here was a leader who was embarrassingly detached from his own nation.
As a result of this dearth of talent and a casual disregard and disinterest in letters and intellectualism, under his leadership, his party has had to rely on cruder, rougher and more corrupt methods. Thus, whereas Mugabe’s regime could be said to have been two parts rougher and two parts intellectualised propaganda, under Mnangagwa the regime has become three rougher and one poorly executed propaganda.
Deception as a Basis for Prudent Political Practice
Anyone wanting to understand Mnangagwa’s own version of history begins with a farrago of outlandish claims and heroic myths about his role in the liberation struggle – such as bombing trains when he was a teenager and being a member of the famous Crocodile gang – and lately, a grotesque exaggeration of his achievements – such as his ‘movie style’ escape to Mozambique after having been defenestrated from the vice presidency by Mugabe in late 2017.
But as a spy, trained in the art of deception, he seems to be bad at launching believable lies. This is because lying requires someone who is capable of forming whole sentences and having facts on issues to be lied about, so that he or she can depart from them cleverly. Because of his inarticulacy and poor knowledge of facts Mnangagwa’s lying comes across as internally incoherent and crude. Most of the lies have been disprovable. However, even when caught out, the president still remains steadfast no matter ridiculous and embarrassing it is.
Why does he insist on continuing to do something that he is bad at? It appears that the president continues to lie because he seems to regard his capacity to assert obvious lies as truth as a display or an exertion of his power. Only powerful people can steal, kill and in his case, also lie and get away with it. Also when a president lies, it lays the groundwork for further lies by others in the administration.
Taking a cue from the president it’s no wonder that the military has lied that the MDC was responsible for looting armoury, army uniforms and vehicles, raping and shooting civilians. It is also of no surprise that his ministers will lie about billion dollar investments that come to the country every day.
But, people are not sure that the president understands that when he and his administration continue to lie on a daily basis, there develops, amongst citizens a contemptuous suspicion of his government and refusal to believe anything it claims, proposes and promises. This is explains why each time there is an announcement of a mega deal, citizens dismiss it with contempt.
History is not important
Students of politics understand that history is central to state-making and nation-building. It is no wonder that at one time, Harvard professor, Graham Allison and his colleague, Niall Ferguson proposed creating a presidential council of historical advisors. The purpose of the council would have been to analyse history to help the United States president avoid future mistakes.
Wouldn’t it be wise for our bureaucrats to steal this idea? The reality is that it would be foolhardy to propose such an idea, for it has become clear that no other leader in post-colonial Zimbabwe is afraid of the past–real or imagined, than Mnangagwa.
A quick rundown of some of the rhetoric that he has made against memorialising the history of Zimbabwe attests to this: ‘Let bygones be bygones,’ ‘We cannot live in the past’, and ‘it is those who live in the past who will be left behind.’ This is probably because a quick look at history shows that Zimbabwe’s record has not been kind to him. The man is scared of a past whose closets carry too many skeletons.
Indeed, Mnangagwa’s detest for history is understandable. Bringing up the past threaten to undermine his legitimacy as people might question whether he is fit to be president given the fact that he has been at the centre of some of the worst atrocities in Zimbabwe. It will also raise the prospects of considering criminal charges against him, particularly the hecatomb of 2008.
Mnangagwa and the End of Zimbabwe
A sniff around the streets and suburbs of Harare, one gets the sense of a nation that is teetering towards what Lord Salisbury described more than a century ago as ‘dying’ nations. And, nothing brings out this sense more than a leader who turns a relatively popular coup into an opportunity to create the only platform, in the form of government, upon which Zimbabwe’s worst villains – Constantino Chiwenga and Perence Shiri, and Mnangagwa himself – to occasion through plunder and murder.
Simukai Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political scientist