Who is Emmerson Mnangagwa? The “Crocodile” with Robert Mugabe in his jaws

Mnangagwa embodies the link between the party, the army and the para-state.

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After a week in hiding, Emmerson Mnangagwa may have returned to Zimbabwe as the successor to President Robert Mugabe. This is the culmination of a power struggle over who should take his place. It may have finally been settled.

The man who has ruled Zimbabwe for almost 40 years is under house arrest, while his wife Grace is reportedly in Namibia. Ironically, Namibia is another country where the national liberation movement has ruled since independence. The difference is SWAPO has so far been able to transition smoothly between different leaders.This is evidently not the case in Zimbabwe.

Nicknamed “the Crocodile”, Mnangagwa embodies the link between the party, the army and the para-state. He has all the credentials of a strongman, as a participant in the armed struggle. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for bombing a train in the early 1960s.

This is why the army wants Mnangagwa and not Grace Mugabe. The armed struggle provides legitimacy for the ruling order in Zimbabwe. General Constantino Chiwenga made this explicit in his press conference. It is the only legitimacy available to the political class, and conveniently provides a cover for the elite and its vast networks of patronage.

In another sense, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) needs Mnangagwa because they cannot assume direct control over the country without costing Zimbabwe its regional alliances. It’s not like Zimbabwe can afford to become even more isolated on the world stage. So the best answer for the ZDF is to put together a civilian government.

What this means in the short-term is finding a way to legitimate the transition. One possibility is to restore Mnangagwa as vice president until the party congress in December, where the ruling party will decide to appoint “the Crocodile” as acting president. Next year the interim government will face an election while the opposition is far from united.

It’s fair to say that the ruling party structure is here to stay. This coup d’état was really about the future of ZANU-PF and who will hold the strings. The conflict between the patronage networks around Grace Mugabe and Generation 40 on the one hand, and Mnangagwa and the so-called “Lacoste” faction on the other. But, in the end, only one side was likely to come out on top.

Although the overthrow of Mugabe has been welcomed by many of his victims, the truth is that the coup was launched to ensure continuity and not change. The status quo is reproducing itself by any means it can. It’s no accident that Mnangagwa is implicated at every step in the atrocities of the Mugabe era.

During the Gukurahundi campaign in the 1980s, Mnangagwa was the security minister in Mugabe’s cabinet. He was embedded in the state repression against the Ndebele with the aim of crushing the rival nationalist party ZAPU. By conservative estimates, the killings left around 4,000 people in mass graves. Others put the figure at 20,000 dead.

At the end of the campaign, Mnangagwa helped bring Joshua Nkomo, the leader of ZAPU, into government with Mugabe. Once the social base was terrorised, the party was absorbed and its brave leader turned into a mascot. The same fate would meet Morgan Tsvangirai, who was brought into a coalition government – but only after the brutal violence of the 2008 election.

It’s possible that this method will be repeated. Mnangagwa might be brought into the fold along with Joice Mujuru, a former ZANU-PF stalwart turned dissenter, and other figures, perhaps even opposition politicians. Whatever the next government looks like, there will be continuity for as long as the Lacoste faction calls the shots.

When it came to the need for land reform, Mnangagwa was heavily involved in the farm invasions and the indigenisation programme to seize assets. The spoils were redistributed along party lines, but this cost the government its international allies. Yet this section of the ruling class has been eager to shift gears for precisely this reason.

In recent years, Mnangagwa has been close to the efforts of Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa to win over international creditors and secure desperately needed aid and loans. Chinamasa has been instrumental in signing the country up to secure a new round of loans from the International Monetary Fund. But these funds could only be gained through reform.

The IMF demanded that the Mugabe government pass austerity measures, cut the public sector wage bill and compensate the white farmers with the rent paid by black farmers. Chinamasa was later purged by Mugabe and replaced with Ignatius Chombo (who is now detained by the army).

Naturally, the Mugabe government was slow to enact any reforms because it did not want to open up the economy for fear its side would lose out. Yet Mugabe continued to pursue nationalisation. Last year, the government nationalised the diamond mines as a way of divvying up more resources to the elite based around the party.

The looting of resources and assets can only go on for so long before there are dire consequences. The balance of forces behind the coup may hope that they can stabilise the system by restoring their credibility with the West. But this is the same party that has blocked democracy for four decades. In short, the hard times are far from over for Zimbabwe.