Emmerson Mnangagwa: Old wine in new bottle?

Emmerson Mnangagwa

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. 

Photo credit: AFP

After taking power following a military coup in 2017, President Emmerson Mnangagwa received strong backing even from unlikely quarters.

Many in Zimbabwe and beyond saw him as a beacon of hope for restoring democracy after decades of the Robert Mugabe dictatorship. There were high expectations of a tattered economy being revived.

Western countries that had long cut ties with the southern African nation over Mugabe’s human rights record, including former colonial power Britain, and exiled Zimbabweans were eager to give Mnangagwa a chance.

Before the falling out that led to the military takeover, Mnangagwa was the strongman’s right hand man in the nearly 37 years the latter was in power. He was vice-president until days before the coup.

Many were willing to overlook his track record as a fresh wave of optimism swept across the country and beyond.

The new leader styled his administration as the “Second Republic” as he sought to distance himself from his predecessor’s excesses.

In his first speech as he prepared to take power after Mugabe was forced to resign on November 21, 2017, Mnangagwa told Zimbabweans that they were experiencing a “new and unfolding democracy”. Many believed him.

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One such prominent Zimbabwean, who was quick to return from exile in South Africa, was media mogul Trevor Ncube.

Ncube, who runs Zimbabwe’s most influential privately owned media house, was a fierce critic of Mugabe. He had been hounded out of the country more than a decade before the coup.

On his return, Ncube was drafted into Mnangagwa’s Presidential Advisory Council (PAC), a body made up of influential businesspeople and experts from various fields assembled to help in the reconstruction of the country.

A year later, Ncube had resigned from the PAC in frustration. He now says he was wrong to rally in the new administration’s corner “as it is the proverbial old wine in new skins”.

Ncube says President Mnangagwa wasted an opportunity to have a clean break from the past and turn around Zimbabwe’s fortunes “by becoming drunk with power and allowing corruption to fester”.

Besides Mnangagwa’s promises, little or nothing has changed in the way the country is governed, with its new constitution under fresh assault.

Critics say Mnangagwa seems to have picked up the Mugabe script.

“President Mnangagwa squandered the tremendous goodwill from millions of Zimbabweans and the international community, who saw the possibility of a better Zimbabwe,” Ncube wrote in an April 11 opinion piece published by his newspapers.

“When the military staged the ‘cool coup’, many Zimbabweans took to the streets in support and frenzied euphoria. Many took selfies with the military as part of this massive outpouring of support.”

Ncube, who was the PAC’s information chief, says he quit after realising the illusion that Zimbabwe had changed under President Mnangagwa.

“I genuinely believed that Mnangagwa’s desire to succeed Robert Mugabe was motivated by the public good,” Ncube wrote.

“I was convinced that he wanted to correct Mugabe’s mistakes of commission and omission and create a positive legacy for himself. But soon, a culture of human rights abuses emerged that troubled my conscience.”

He says Mnangagwa embarked on a systematic mutilation of the country’s constitution.

Barely three years after winning the disputed 2018 elections, the former justice minister had made more than 27 changes to Zimbabwe’s nine-year-old constitution to strengthen his hold on power.

The amendments restored the president’s power to appoint top judges, among other controversial clauses.

Critics say Zimbabwe’s judicial system is now open to political manipulation.

“The most frightening outcome has been the effective capture of the judiciary. A select group of businessmen and politicians dominate government decision-making and are milking the exchequer. They have cornered the country’s natural resources,” Ncube wrote.

“The lives of many Zimbabweans have got worse since Mnangagwa took over.”

The president has also been accused of using the judiciary to create a one-party state after the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that his rival Nelson Chamisa was not the legitimate leader of the country’s then largest opposition group.

A faction of the Movement for Democratic Change alliance was allowed to recall 28 lawmakers and more than 100 local government representatives.

Chamisa formed a new opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change, which almost made a clean sweep in by-elections held on March 26 to fill the vacancies.

President Mnangagwa spent millions of dollars on lobby firms as he attempted to win over Western countries in his bid to end Zimbabwe’s two decades of isolation under Mugabe.

The strategy seemed to work as the leader was invited to leading conferences like the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The tables turned on August 1, 2018 when soldiers shot six opposition supporters in the aftermath of a contested presidential election.

Subsequent killings of protesters, abduction of government critics and the shrinking democratic space have seen the US, the UK and other countries hardening their stance against Harare, with a fresh round of sanctions targeting Mnangagwa’s associates.

Zimbabwe has been under Western sanctions for nearly two decades over rights violations, election fraud and corruption.

The US on April 22 said Harare must hold credible elections next year as a path out of two decades of international isolation.

Mnangagwa will face Chamisa, whom he narrowly beat in the disputed 2018 vote.

The US embassy said the 2023 elections must be “widely accepted by international observers as free and fair” as it proposed steps that could lead to the easing of sanctions against Zimbabwe.

“To achieve this, we urge the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to publicly release an auditable electronic voters roll far in advance of the elections so citizens can help to strengthen the credibility of the register and reduce numbers of potential voters turned away from polling stations,” the embassy said.

The West says corruption is growing worse under Mnangagwa. Kudakwashe Tagwirei, a tycoon with close links to the president, has been sanctioned by the US and the UK for reportedly corruptly benefiting from government tenders.

The US, in its 2021 Human Rights Report for Zimbabwe, said violations are growing under Mnangagwa.

Ibbo Mandaza, a former civil servant and academic, was emphatic when asked if the country is worse off under Mnangagwa.

“He has no capacity to reverse the demise of the economy,” he said.

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