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Zimbabwe: What's next?

Chloe Lyneham with dpa, AP, AFP and Reuters
November 24, 2017

Friday marks a new era in Zimbabwean politics as Emmerson Mnangagwa is sworn in as president. But will he usher in a period of change, or continue Mugabe’s rule marked by repression and violence?

Zimbabweans take to the streets of Harare to protest against President Robert Mugabe.
Image: Reuters/P. Bulawayo

Former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was accompanied by cheering crowds and honking cars as he made his way to ZANU-PF party headquarters. 

It was a dramatic turnaround for the politician who fled to neighboring South Africa earlier this month, in fear for his life. His dismissal as vice president — a move calculated to secure former First Lady Grace Mugabe's position as her husband's successor — triggered a coup d'etat and brought a sudden end to Robert Mugabe's 37 years in power.

Read more: Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe resigns

Jacob Mudenda, Zimbabwe's parliamentary speaker, confirmed on Wednesday that Mnangagwa's swearing-in ceremony would take place on Friday at the  60,000-seat National Sports Stadium on the outskirts of Harare.

A fresh start for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans have celebrated the end of the Mugabe era with emotional scenes that could be compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, or the Arab spring. After decades of being ruled with an iron fist, watching their once prosperous country fall into decline and economic ruin, people are talking about a new future.

Yet the man set to take over, who has long held the position as Mugabe's strongman, is known for his involvement in the ZANU-PF party's brutal repression of any opposition in the country. He is famous for his part in the genocide of the Ndebele people in the early 1980s, known as "Gukurahundi," as well as the more recent violent crackdown on the opposition in 2008. His ruthlessness and cunning earned him the nickname, "The Crocodile."

In recent days, though, Mnangagwa has spoken about moving forward as a united country.

In a statement issued from South Africa on Tuesday, he said: "My desire is to join all Zimbabweans in a new era, where corruption, incompetence, dereliction of duty and laziness, social and cultural decadence is not tolerated. In that new Zimbabwe, it is important for everyone to join hands so that we rebuild this nation to its full glory. This is not a job for ZANU-PF alone but for all people of Zimbabwe."

A portrait of Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, raising his hand and addressing a crowd.
Opposition leader, Morgan TsvangiraiImage: Reuters/M. Hutchings

It is not clear what this could mean for the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai. 

Read more: Zimbabwe coup: China's influence under scrutiny

ZANU-PF's difficult track record

Former Zimbabwe Finance Minister, and member of the opposition party MDC-T, Tendai Biti, spoke with DW about his concerns for his country's future. "He (Mugabe) did not do these atrocities on his own. There is still the machinery that he presided over. It was essentially a militarized state. The challenge is where do we move from here?"

But Zimbabwe expert James Hamill from the University of Leicester remained skeptical about there being any real change in Zimbabwe.

"I think most people will judge Emerson Mnangagwa on his record, rather than on any of the rhetoric that has accompanied this coup d'etat. And Mnangagwa's record is not an encouraging one. He has been with Mugabe every step of the way over the last 37 years during the misrule and dysfunctional governance," he said.

Any appearance of opening up a role for the opposition would be merely a token gesture — based on the previous modus operandi of ZANU-PF, Hamill believes.

"It will be largely a device to retain power, whilst appearing to broaden its base. The trick will be bringing other parties in, but without ceding any significant control," he said.

A tank and soldiers have stopped cars on a street in Harare, Zimbabwe.
The military took over and put Mugabe under house arrest, but claimed it was not a 'coup'Image: Reuters/P. Bulawayo

Biti disagrees with this. "If the opposition is not involved, then it is an illegitimate government born out of a coup — and we'll fight it. We are good at that."

It has also been pointed out that, while the army is enjoying a surge in popularity after liberating the country from a dictator, any real change in Zimbabwe would necessarily have to involve a restructuring of the military's role.

"The military has also been acting, for many decades, effectively as the armed wing of ZANU-PF. It is not a neutral state body. It does not see its role as the custodian of the constitution. It is interwoven with ZANU-PF. And to move towards a genuine democracy that would somehow have to be unpicked," Hamill said.

The concern is that, with the military's involvement in wide-reaching and corrupt patronage networks, it is unlikely to have any interest in real institutional reform.

A glimmer of hope?

With Mugabe having run the country into the ground economically and having allegedly stolen hundreds of millions of dollars, ZANU-PF now faces the task of having to rebuild the economy. This may have a silver lining for those seeking real reform, with the international community able to use financial carrots to push for real democratic change.

A graph comparing the GDP of Zimbabwe, Ghana and Kenya.
Mugabe oversaw Zimbabwe's economic ruin

"Mnangagwa, and the government he heads, are in a deep financial crisis," Hamill told DW.

He believes that, if the international community were to insist on wide-ranging structural reform such as an independent electoral commission, the right to freely campaign, for political parties to have equal access to the media and for a neutral judiciary and security force, then there could be a real chance for Zimbabwe.

For Tendai Biti, this must start at a regional level. "The South African Development Community (SADC) has been asleep. Jacob Zuma and the new Angolan president have been asleep. They have to provide leadership," said Biti.

Mugabe – war hero, autocrat