/ 21 November 2018

The Year of the Crocodile

Well-suited? There are doubts that President Emmerson Mnangagwa will allow a fair election in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe's newly elected President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. (AFP)

It’s been exactly a year since Robert Mugabe resigned, but Zimbabwe is still the house that Bob built — and the new president has done little more than paper over the cracks.

News analysis

It is exactly one year since the resignation of Robert Mugabe, and it is still difficult to find the right terminology to describe the dramatic events that forced him to step down after nearly four decades in charge.

It was not a revolution, despite the scenes of thousands of delirious citizens marching for the first time on State House in Harare, because this was never really about the people. Only once the tanks had rolled in and Mugabe had been sequestered in his Blue Roof mansion — where he remains sequestered today — were ordinary citizens invited to participate.

Nor, at least according to the generals themselves, was this a coup. “We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover,” said Major General Sibusiso Moyo in a televised statement at the very beginning of the crisis, even as his uniform and his very presence in the studios of the national broadcaster sent a very different message.

It certainly was not an ‘orderly transition’, the product of cordial chats between Mugabe and his generals, as the African Union (AU) would have us believe. “It was just a dialogue between the leadership of the country and the president and they convinced him that maybe some of the actions taken, including around him and his immediate surrounding, were not good for the country, and he accepted to submit his resignation willingly,” said a credulous — or complicit — Smail Chergui, the AU’s peace and security commissioner.

In the long run, the terminology doesn’t really matter. What mattered then and what still matters now is that, for the first time in anyone’s lifetime, Zimbabweans went to sleep on the night of the 21st of November 2017 in a country that was not led by Robert Mugabe.

In the euphoria, not too many people minded that the new guy was not so different.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Crocodile, for so long Mugabe’s right-hand man and enforcer-in-chief, promised that his administration would not be the same old story. It would be less corrupt, and more efficient; less authoritarian, and more transparent. This was the new Zimbabwe, he said, and it was open for business.

To prove his point, Mnangagwa has worked hard to convince the rest of the world that old crocodiles can change their spots. He charmed the diplomatic circuit with his jazzy scarf and his business-friendly patter, hoping to attract the billions of dollars necessary to rescue the country’s failing economy. For a little while, he played nice with the opposition, allowing Nelson Chamisa — who snatched the late Morgan Tsvangirai’s mantle in a ruthless power grab of his own — to deliver his stirring speeches across the country with relatively little in the way of obvious intimidation.

But as the months wore on, so Mnangagwa’s hastily-applied make-up began to smudge and fade, and it became all too obvious that the new president was in fact moulded in Mugabe’s image. This was most obvious when it came to the general election in July, which were riddled with irregularities, from the ghost voters haunting the voters roll to the design of the ballot that defied convention to give Mnangagwa a starring role. He won, of course.

More serious still was the state’s response to angry opposition protests about the election result. In a democracy, of the type that Mnangagwa promised to deliver, citizens are allowed to voice their dissent in peace. In the new Zimbabwe, however, soldiers and armoured personnel carriers were deployed on the streets of central Harare to disperse opposition supporters, using tear gas and live ammunition to do so. At least six unarmed protesters were killed. And yes, it was Mnangagwa who ordered the troops in, according to the sworn testimony of his own police chief.

Meanwhile, across the country, prices are rising and cash is becoming even more scarce. There are long lines for ATMs and for basic foodstuffs, and it can take hours to fill up a petrol tank. Some shops are closed indefinitely. The economy appears to be in freefall, and the foreign investors who were supposedly ready to bring in their billions have yet to materialise, apparently unconvinced that Mnangagwa’s administration will create the conditions necessary to guarantee profitable returns. Instead, the vultures are circling around Zimbabwe’s minerals, especially its chrome, lithium and diamond deposits. It seems unlikely that these shady businessmen and dodgy governments have Zimbabwe’s best interests at heart.

A year into his administration, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s main virtue continues to be simply that he is not Robert Mugabe. For many Zimbabweans, scarred by a lifetime under the sclerotic thumb of one man, that is still enough. But for how much longer?