The elevation of Emmerson Mnangagwa to the presidency of Zimbabwe would amount to an act of political survival matched only by the man he’d replace, Robert Mugabe.
Until Mugabe fired him as Vice President last week, Mnangagwa’s entire political career had been hitched to Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old leader.
Now, with the military in control in Harare and Mugabe confined to his residency, Mnangagwa is believed to be at the center of moves to install himself at the head of a transitional government.
This wouldn’t be the first time Mnangagwa has been in line to lead Zimbabwe.
A core member of Mugabe’s ruling circle and a combat-hardened veteran of the struggle for liberation from white minority rule, Mnangagwa, now 75, was mooted as a potential presidential successor in leaked US diplomatic cables as far back as 2000.
Those cables, part of a huge cache leaked to whistleblowing website Wikileaks by US army soldier Chelsea Manning, paint a picture of a canny political operative, who has surfed the waves of Zimbabwean politics, navigating periods both in and outside of Mugabe’s trusted inner circle.
They also hint at Mnangagwa’s dark past. In late 2000, a cable written by Earl Irving, then a US diplomat in Harare, described Mnangagwa as “widely feared and despised throughout the country,” warning he could be “an even more repressive leader” than Mugabe if he were to succeed him.
Fear of Mnangagwa stems from his position as Mugabe’s enforcer and head of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), or secret police, and his alleged role in the 1983-84 massacres of the Ndebele ethnic group in Matabeleland, a region in Zimbabwe’s southwest that was a center of political opposition to Mugabe’s regime.
The International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), an international non-partisan organization, estimate at least 20,000 civilians were killed by the CIO and the armed forces.
“Most of the dead were shot in public executions, often after being forced to dig their own graves in front of their family and fellow villagers,” IAGS said in a 2011 report.
Mnangagwa’s elevation without an election would be viewed with suspicion abroad. Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary called for elections to choose a new leader. “Nobody wants simply to see the transition from one unelected tyrant to the next,” he told the House of Commons this week, hinting at years of allegations that Mugabe only won elections by rigging the votes.
“We want to see proper free and fair elections next year and that’s what we will be working towards.”
From low to high
Nicknamed the “crocodile” on account of his political longevity and survival skills, Mnangagwa has for years been thought to be biding his time, ready to takeover from Mugabe when the nonagenarian finally stepped aside, or died.
His impeccable revolutionary credentials, coupled with his strong support among key parts of Zimbabwe’s elite — specifically within the military and security services — singled him out as an obvious, and non-controversial, successor.
But this was to dramatically change earlier last week, when Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa in a move seen as shoring up the power of his wife and chosen successor, Grace Mugabe.
A statement from the country’s information ministry accused Mnangagwa of “disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability,” sending him into hiding amid reports he was attempting to build a coalition to take on Grace Mugabe in the next election.
“One after the other, (Mugabe’s) vice presidents and people around him were estranged by Grace Mugabe,” said Geoff Hill, author of “What happens after Mugabe?”.
“Nobody knows whether it was her, or whether he wanted a safe pair of hands. Either way it was a very unpopular move.”
After senior army figures criticized Grace Mugabe’s growing power earlier this month, they have appear to have removed her from the picture altogether — though they deny staging a coup.
“The army very quickly promised to restore the country to democracy, something Zimbabwe hasn’t seen for a long time,” said Hill. “They want to have a very inclusive government, possible even with (opposition leader) Morgan Tsvangirai coming in as vice president.”
Opposition party sources said on Thursday that talks were underway to join a new transitional government. With their help, and after three decades waiting in the wings, Mnangagwa could yet ascend to Zimbabwe’s top job.