Amid protest and unrest, Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa resorts to old tactics

The “crocodile”​ is biting back. 

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It is quite something when an old hand like Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has to break off a trip to Davos to rush home. Abandoning the opportunity to woo desperately needed foreign investors, he came scuttling back to try to halt protests that have already claimed at least 12 lives.

Ostensibly these protests have been about the price of fuel – which is the most expensive in the world. Doubling the price of petrol and diesel was the final straw for many Zimbabweans. Fares to work – for those lucky enough to have employment – have soared. With stagnant wages, they had become unaffordable.

Inflation has leapt to over 200 per cent, driving many into poverty. Little wonder, then, that people took to the streets. The government’s excuse that the protests were the result of manipulation by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change holds little weight.

On the face of it, President Mnangagwa is simply returning to his old ways. No Zimbabwean has forgotten that he led the crackdown in the 1980’s as Mugabe’s security minister, in what became known as Gukurahundi — the Shona word meaning, “the early rain that washes away the chaff”, events that later earned Mnangagwa the nickname “the crocodile”.

In March 1983, Mnangagwa delivered a threat in language that could have come from the Rwandan genocide. As a local paper reported at the time, “Likening the dissidents to cockroaches and bugs, the minister said the bandit menace had reached such epidemic proportion that the government had to bring ‘DDT’ [pesticide] to get rid of the bandits.”

Fast forward to December 2017 and an army coup was in the process of overthrowing Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa was out of the country at the time – seeking sanctuary in South Africa, justifiably fearing for his life after challenging Mugabe’s leadership. The army leadership turned to Mnangagwa after the coup succeeded. The new president rewarded the former head of the army, General Constantino Chiwenga, with ministry of defence before elevating him to the position of first vice-president.

A divided elite

Zimbabwe’s governing elite are rapacious. Under Mugabe they first took the best farms and then the diamonds. But their appetites have never been sated. The country’s chief justice, Luke Malaba, recently called for a speedy prosecution of those involved in corruption. The chief justice said extraordinary measures were required to deal with crimes perpetrated by sophisticated and well-resourced individuals. It’s a call echoed by the president – but there is little prospect of this taking place.

The ruling party, ZANU-PF is notoriously fractious, divided between the military and the president. There have been rumours that the president is determined to replace the former head of the army, Vice-President Chiwenga. These were followed by tales that Chiwenga had taken control of the state-run newspaper, the Herald – and was using it against the president. Amid this swirl of rumour and counter-rumour, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction.

All that is certain is that the government is using a range of measures to try to quell popular unrest. Internet blackouts have become a frequent occurrence, preventing protesters from co-ordinating on social media. Meanwhile, the security services have arrested over 600 people. The opposition MDC complain that at least four of their MPs are in detention. Live ammunition has been used – something seldom seen even during the Mugabe years.

Zimbabwe’s troubles have posed a headache for its southern neighbour. The last thing South Africa wants is a fresh exodus of Zimbabweans heading across the border. President Cyril Ramaphosa was left to plead for sanctions to be removed. At Davos, he told audiences that Zimbabwe faces “serious, serious, economic challenges and they can be assisted by the world if those sanctions are lifted.”

In the circumstances it’s unlikely world leaders will be listening. And Zimbabwe’s request to return to the Commonwealth is also likely to be put on hold.

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.