Zimbabwe’s opposition have declared victory, but will its establishment relinquish power?

Nelson Chamisa, 40, is facing the incumbent 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has close links to the military.

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Zimbabwe’s opposition, Movement for Democratic Change, is already triumphant. Nelson Chamisa, the MDC candidate, has already tweeted:

Chamisa’s enthusiasm is understandable. This has been – by a long chalk – one of the fairest elections Zimbabwe has seen in decades. Many voters say they believe the election was indeed free and fair. The opposition was allowed to campaign across the country, largely unimpeded. And they even had some airtime on state radio and TV.

The results that have so far been announced have come from the urban areas: most of them opposition strongholds. It was here that the MDC was founded, based on the trade union movement.

But Zimbabwe is predominantly a rural country. A smidgen under one-third of its people live in the urban areas. And it is in the countrside that ZANU-PF – the party that was led by Robert Mugabe until he was removed during last November’s coup – has its supporters. 

Chamisa – a smooth operator, with a legal background – has, like his predecessor as MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, paid a price for opposing the government. In 2007 he had his skull broken open by thugs. It did not prevent him from joining a government of national unity in 2009 as minister of information, communications and technology.

Chamisa is not beyond making some pretty wild claims: including one that President Donald Trump, had “promised” to pump $15bn (£11.3bn) into the cash-strapped country should the MDC win the July elections. He was forced to withdraw the claim and apologise.

Chamisa, 40, is facing the incumbent 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, along with 21 other candidates who have no chance of winning. Mnangagwa is very much part of the military-elite that has run Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. Tough, ruthless and a survivor, he learnt his politics, as well as his military tactics, from the Chinese. In 1966 he was sent to the Nanking Academy, where students were taught everything from military intelligence to guerrilla warfare.

Mnangagwa was at Mugabe’s side during the Lancaster House talks that led to independence. He was also among those who oversaw the notorious murders among the Ndebele in the 1980’s during the campaign called Gukurahundi – literally, “the rain that washes away the chaff”.

Thousands were killed in a ruthless reign of terror.

Mnangagwa was also a key beneficiary of Zimbabwe’s participation in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was named in a UN report as one of the beneficiaries in a mineral scam that saw at least $5bn in Congolese state assets transferred to private hands. As the UN report put it: “The key strategist for the Zimbabwean branch of the elite network is the speaker of the parliament and former national security minister, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa.”

Mnangagwa was left an immensely wealthy man. He has one other asset: the support of the British ambassador to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing.

As my colleague, Sue Onslow has pointed out, since Laing’s arrival in the country in September 2014 she has made no secret of her preferences. Laing arrived in Harare with riding instructions to improve the lamentable state of British-Zimbabwean relations. However, in the view of many opposition spokespersons in Harare, she greatly exceeded her brief; indeed, the ambassador has been publicly accused of actively ”meddling” in Zimbabwean politics, and in adopting a highly partisan public stance (such as wearing ”That Scarf”, in Zimbabwe flag colours, on the steps of 10 Downing Street).

The counting of votes in the presidential election could take some time. A presidential candidate must receive more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round to secure an outright victory. It is – of course – possible that Mnangagwa or Chamisa might succeed in achieving this, but it may be more likely that we will have to wait until the runoff on September 8 before we know who will lead the country.

But even if he loses, will Mnangagwa and his cronies in the army really be willing to step down? They might: but as one rather cynical Zimbabwean put it: “If this guy loses there is no way they will hand over power,” Gift Machekera told Reuters, pointing at a huge banner of Mnangagwa hanging on a building in Harare. “Those who have the guns have the power. This is Africa.”

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.