Zimbabwe’s new president Mnangangwa says he is a democrat. Is he?

March 4, 2018
| Report Focus News
WILL parliamentary and presidential elections, which must be held by late July, be free and fair? If so, will Emmerson Mnangagwa and his Zanu-PF party, which has run Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, win? And if they lose, will they hand over power to the victors, as they have brazenly failed to do in the past? This set of questions hangs over the country. One certainty, however, is that Zimbabwe is better off now that it is no longer under the thumb of Robert Mugabe, who ruled it for 37 years. Even better is that it has not fallen under the sway of his greedy wife, 52-year-old Grace Mugabe, whose tightening grip over her then 93-year-old husband prompted the army to step in, shove the old man into retirement and lift Mr Mnangagwa into the top spot in November.

Yet the new 75-year-old leader, known as the Crocodile, remains an enigma (see article). He has made some sensible noises, promising to amend a law that declares that businesses should be at least 51% owned by black Zimbabweans or the state. He wants to compensate the 4,000-plus white farmers whose land has been confiscated since 2000, and re-establish property rights (up to a point) by providing 99-year leases to commercial farmers, white and black. He has promised fair elections and says he and his party will bow out if they lose.

The mood in Harare, the capital, is jollier than it was under Mr Mugabe. The police, who routinely plundered drivers at ubiquitous roadblocks, are off the streets. Many Zimbabweans hope for a rosier future after decades of economic decline punctuated by bouts of horrific violence orchestrated by the ruling party. Foreign investors are sniffing around for the first time since the land-grabs began.

But old worries are creeping back. Is Mr Mnangagwa master or servant of the generals who made him president? Whereas many hoped he would widen his cabinet and kick out the worst rascals, he has kept some of the nastiest of the old guard. Constantino Chiwenga, the army commander who led the coup, is his vice-president.

The urge to purge

Mr Mnangagwa’s anti-corruption drive has so far been aimed entirely at his enemies in Zanu-PF, particularly Mrs Mugabe’s favourites, putting many behind bars. The reviled Obert Mpofu, who has been accused in parliament of demanding vast bribes when minister of mines, is now home minister. The Crocodile has not yet dared to scrunch the former first lady, even though he reckons she tried to assassinate him (with poisoned ice-cream).

The economy is still dire. About 90% of working-age people lack formal jobs. The legions reduced to hawking on the streets of Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, are preyed on by Zanu-PF thugs demanding pay-offs. Electricity and water are intermittent, even in hospitals. ATMs are empty. State workers’ wages are paid months late. In a residual population of 13m, 3m survive on food handouts from America and Britain. Perhaps 3m Zimbabweans have fled abroad.

The biggest question-mark hangs over the elections. The voters’ roll, which was manipulated in 2013, has been updated quite well. The electoral commission that used to pander to Mr Mugabe has a new chairperson claiming independence. Mr Mnangagwa has lifted Mr Mugabe’s ban on election observers from the West, including the European Union and the Commonwealth. “I’m very happy that the Doubting Thomases can come in,” he says.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been torn by infighting, before and even during the demise of Morgan Tsvangirai, its founding leader. His death on February 14th provoked a massive outpouring of grief in Harare that rattled the government. It may be easier for the main opposition, made up of three endlessly splintering alliances, to sort itself out now that Mr Tsvangirai is gone. Nelson Chamisa, 40, an articulate lawyer who appeals to young urbanites, could rally it ahead of the election. It may well sweep the cities, as it has done before.

But Zanu-PF’s brutally effective machine is expected to wrap up the more numerous rural populace, who are easier to intimidate. Civic groups say the party’s heavies have persuaded villagers that how they vote can be detected via the barcodes of their biometric registration slips. Joice Mujuru, a former vice-president now in opposition who fell out with Mr Mugabe (and whose husband, a former head of the army, was mysteriously burned to death in 2011), claims that 3,000 soldiers have already been sent to the countryside in civilian garb to campaign and bully. Villagers fear that rural chiefs and headmen will withhold food aid if they suspect them of voting the wrong way. Zanu-PF’s national political commissar menacingly told a rural gathering that people should remember 2008, when thousands of MDC activists in the countryside were set upon by Zanu-PF militias and hundreds were murdered. Many analysts think that Zanu-PF’s rural voting bloc should ensure victory for Mr Mnangagwa, even without resorting to violence. “Just the memory of 2008 is enough,” says a former MDC campaigner.

But that is no certainty. If it is a tight race, the ultimate question is whether the army will hold back. The new head of the electoral commission admits that 15% of the commission’s staff are retired military officers. In previous elections, army commanders declared that they would never serve under the MDC. Mr Mnangagwa insists that the generals are not involved in politics and that “those statements are dead.” But he rejects the idea that General Chiwenga and the new head of the army should publicly say so. Zimbabwe is in for a nervous few months.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The crocodile swims in murky waters”