George Mason University
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George Mason University

A new beginning or return to autocracy in Zimbabwe?

February 28, 2018

No to Mugabe sign by Flickr user mrgarethm

"No to Mugabe sign" by Flickr user mrgarethm

By Tompson Makahamadze, PhD Candidate

The fall of Mugabe was prompted by growing factionalism in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) party. Although Mugabe had been in power for more than 30 years, he and the ruling party had not put in place mechanisms for choosing a successor, which caused many within ZANU PF to speculate and align themselves with potential contenders. This development took a new twist after the end of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in 2013.

The GNU was a coalition government that involved ZANU PF and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition political parties. This government was formed following the controversial run-off election in June 2008, which the MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai boycotted citing massive violence against his supporters (Masungunure 2009; Chigora and Guzura 2011).

Two hostile factions emerged; one involving supporters of former vice president Joyce Mujuru dubbed Gamatox and the other headed by Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa’s supporters, derogatively described as Zvipfukuto (weevils) by supporters of Mujuru (Nyambi 2016). Both Mnangagwa and Mujuru were viewed as potential candidates for the top post. Gamatox is a popular pesticide used to kill weevils and other pests in Zimbabwe, thus implying that the relationship between the two camps was rather hostile.

Another faction aligned with the First Lady Grace Mugabe, called Generation 40 (G40) and the Women’s League teamed up with the Mnangagwa faction to oust Joyce Mujuru. G40 was supported by ZANU PF youth, Mugabe’s family members, and a few political elites (Chitiyo, Vandome and Vines 2016; Ward 2016). Mujuru was eventually expelled in December 2014, and her expulsion triggered massive purges of her supporters, most of whom had fought against the colonial regime in the 1970s (Chitiyo, Vangome and Vines 2016; McGrath 2017). In December 2014 Mnangagwa replaced Mujuru as Vice president at the ZANU PF Congress.

After the ouster of Mujuru and her cabal, Grace Mugabe and her Generation 40 faction mobilized ferociously against Mnangagwa and his faction dubbed, Team Lacoste. Team Lacoste drew support mainly from people who had participated in the war of independence (McGrath 2016). The faction considered many followers of the Generation 40 cabal ‘mafikizolo’ (newbies) in ZANU PF politics. The army generals covertly sided with Mnangagwa’s group, a development which Mugabe denounced in public. He reportedly stated, “The military yese (whole of it) has no right, you know, to interfere in political processes; theirs is to support. They can give their own views within the constitution and according to, also the principle that politics shall always lead the gun; and not the gun politics” (Zhangazha, Chidza and Ndebele 2017).

The First Lady, Professor Jonathan Moyo, and Saviour Kasukuwere, architects of the G40 accused Mnangagwa of plotting a coup against Mugabe and verbally assaulted at every public gathering. Grace Mugabe ordered him to step down as vice president or risk expulsion (Kwaramba 2017). She even announced his expulsion before it officially took place (Vikilahle 2017). The behavior of the First Lady led some critics to conclude that she was the de facto president (Jakes 2017). The expulsion of Mnangagwa on November 2017 paved the way for Mugabe’s wife to become vice president, and the only possible candidate to succeed Robert Mugabe. Unfortunately, Mugabe was forced to resign and power was handed to Mnangagwa when the military leadership intervened in November 2017, in what they termed “Operation Restore Legacy,” as the leader of the Zimbabwe Liberation War Veteran Association (ZLWVA), Christopher Mutsvangwa, mobilized huge solidarity demonstrations against the Mugabe regime.

Prospects for democracy, peace and economic development during Mnangagwa’s tenure

Many people wonder if Mnangagwa can usher democracy in Zimbabwe given his background and close relationship with Mugabe. In the name of the ruling party he organized and led violent campaigns against opposition activists across the country in the 1980s and early 2000s. During the Gukurahundi operation, Mnangagwa served as minister of state security although he denied any role in the massacres. As Minister of Justice he helped Mugabe violently crackdown on opponents and rig elections (Share 2016). Mnangagwa was also one of the ZANU PF’s high-ranking members who have been under the U.S. and EU travel restriction since 2002 for human rights violations.

Despite these, many Zimbabweans still view the new President, as the person to usher in a new dawn and enact a unity government to spearhead economic and political reforms. Nonetheless Zimbabweans seem to be oblivious of the fact that what transpired in Zimbabwe was a military coup, and not a social revolution. Military takeovers generally lead to authoritarian regimes, and unfortunately, initial signs are not promising as Mnangagwa has assigned ministers who not only served in Mugabe’s government, but also have a track record of human rights violations, corruption, and incompetence, to his cabinet.

He also shocked many people when he included members of the military and leaders of the ZLWVA who had propelled him to power in his cabinet. For example, one of the appointees Air Marshal Perrance Shiri was commander of the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade which caused mayhem in the regions of Midlands and Matabeleland in the 1980s (Godwin 2011; Vambe 2012). He also directed the FTLRP land invasions in the 2000s which destroyed the economy of Zimbabwe. Moreover, the armed forces and the war veterans played a critical role in propping up the former president (Kriger 2005). Therefore, one might argue that the new government has no aspirations to engender democracy or development in the country. 

The kind of transition that occurred also speaks volumes about the undemocratic character of the Mnangagwa administration. The transition was not the result of people power, although protesters took to the streets in their thousands to express solidarity with the army and veterans. Moreover, the army generals unequivocally stated that they intervened to restore the legacy of the liberation struggle and people who fought the colonial regime (Thornycroft 2017). Democracy and economic development were mentioned in passing simply to legitimize the military putsch. The army exclusively targeted followers of Grace Mugabe, which implies that their mission was aimed at settling scores with the First Lady and G40 cabal and protecting their interests. This implies that social movements, civil society and the generality of Zimbabweans do not have much say in the new government.

Way forward

The resignation of Robert Mugabe following the military putsch was considered good news by the generality of Zimbabweans. Many saw it as an opportunity to rebuild the country after decades of economic and political malaise. However, the exclusive approach of the Emmerson Crocodile Mnangagwa’s administration left opposition parties, civil society groups, and critics wondering if the post-Mugabe government would introduce credible reforms. Zimbabweans could encourage the new government to introduce reforms through civil resistance. Although Zimbabwe needs financial assistance, the international financial institutions should not hasten to provide such assistance until it is clear that the regime is committed to rebuilding the country.

Generally, civil society groups, social movement groups, and opposition political parties have adopted a wait-and-see approach in Zimbabwe. While this approach may keep activists and ordinary people out of trouble, it indirectly legitimizes the putsch and extends ordinary people’s misery. Opposition parties and social movement organizations should mobilize and exert pressure on the new government to introduce reforms using nonviolent approaches. Since the expected unity government did not materialize, the only viable option for these groups is to challenge the regime through petitions, defiance, picketing, lobbying and protests. As the Shona proverb goes, “Simbi inorohwa ichapisa” (Strike while the iron is hot). The more Zimbabweans delay to take appropriate action, the more entrenched the regime will become.

There is also no doubt that Zimbabwe needs the international community and investors to recover from decades of bad governance. However, the international financial institutions should not rush to provide financial assistance until the regime shows genuine commitment to political, economic, human rights and media reforms. Although Mugabe is gone, the system that had kept him in power for 37 years is still there, and the people who participated in ruining the country are still in power. Providing monetary aid directly to the government could help consolidate autocracy and delay democracy in Zimbabwe. However, the international community may provide developmental and humanitarian assistance, as well as business advice and training to Zimbabwean entrepreneurs.


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