/ 15 December 2017

Mnangagwa tightens grip on power

Takeover: Emmerson Mnangagwa promised much at his inauguration but didn’t mention military control.
Mnangagwa of the ruling ZANU-PF party won the election with 50.8% of the vote. (Mujahid Safodien/AFP)

It’s early days yet, but already the outlines of the post-Robert Mugabe era in Zimbabwe — an unimaginable thought just a month ago — are beginning to take shape. President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the generals who backed his power grab are firmly in control.

Mnangagwa’s first Cabinet included several generals and stalwarts of the Mugabe era, immediately dashing the hopes of those in the international community who expected him to usher in political and economic reforms. Those reforms may yet come — they may have to if the new administration is to access sorely needed international funding — but they are clearly not the new president’s first priority.

Besides, some money taps have already begun to open. The African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) has pledged up to $1.5‑billion in loans and financial guarantees to Mnangagwa’s government. It’s not enough to drag Zimbabwe out of its economic crisis, but it will certainly stave off a total meltdown. Afreximbank has previously financed the introduction of the controversial “bond notes”, a pseudo-currency introduced in Zimbabwe in 2016 to address liquidity issues.

It is also obvious that the military is going to play a more active role in everyday life. Soldiers have been setting up roadblocks, previously the preserve of the police (and a major money-spinner for underpaid police officers). Several reports suggest that live ammunition has been used against drivers who failed to stop at these roadblocks.

Ominously, the new Cabinet minister for Masvingo province, Josiah Hungwe, said the army would be used to campaign for the ruling party ahead of the 2018 elections. “In the Bible, the kings ruled with the army on their side. When we campaign in 2018 … we will move side by side with the military,” said Hungwe.

Fears about the military’s continued involvement in politics has tempered the excitement generated by Mugabe’s departure. “As reports of abuses by the military since the takeover began to emerge, the excitement and euphoria [with which] many Zimbabweans greeted the end of Mugabe’s rule quickly fizzled out, to be replaced by uneasiness and uncertainty,” said Human Rights Watch’s Dewa Mavhinga, addressing the United States Senate’s foreign relations committee this week.

“Allegations are rife that, between November 14 and 24, the army arrested and detained a number of Mugabe’s associates without providing information about the arrests, or places and conditions of detention,” said Mavhinga. “Since the military takeover, soldiers have not returned to the barracks but instead are now involved in policing the streets. This is the same military that has been credibly implicated in rights violations against the general population during the Mugabe years.”

Mnangagwa will secure his take-over at the Zanu-PF conference on December 15, where there are just three items on the agenda: the confirmation of Mnangagwa as first secretary and president of the party, the endorsement of him as the party’s presidential candidate for the 2018 election, and the rubber-stamping of the resolutions that ousted Mugabe and key supporters from the party.

But although it is now Mnangagwa’s face on the rolls of chitenge fabric that have been printed specially for the conference, not everything has changed: delegates this year are meeting in Harare’s Robert Mugabe Square.

Mnangagwa’s consolidation of power has been aided by typical disarray in the ranks of the opposition, which has failed to come up with a cohesive response to the momentous events of the past month.

Recently, opposition leaders, including MDC-T deputy Nelson Chamisa and former finance minister Tendai Biti, spoke alongside Mavhinga in the US Senate, arguing for the continuation of sanctions against Zimbabwe. The decision by these senior opposition figures to appear before US lawmakers before meaningfully engaging with Mnangagwa’s new administration attracted fierce criticism at home.

“Biti and company have energised the hardliners in President Mnangagwa’s ruling party,” said journalist and documentarian Hopewell Chin’ono.

“Instead of giving ammunition to the reformers in Zanu-PF, they have made it difficult for such people to have a case and to convince their colleagues to push the required electoral reforms through. This now has the effect of the opposition not having a seat at the table that will be directing political change in Zimbabwe.”

As it turns out, the post-Mugabe era looks an awfully lot like the era that preceded it.