Give credit where it is due.
The coup d’etat orchestrated by former spy chief Emmerson Mnangagwa and his military compadre General Constantino Chiwenga two years ago was genius of a kind, a particularly malevolent kind.
Now the chickens are coming home to roost.
Mnangagwa is more excoriated than the man, his erstwhile chief Robert Mugabe, that he ousted. As 93-year old Mugabe was humiliated and harried from power by greedy politicians and power-hungry soldiers, a worse fate could await Mnangagwa as popular anger grows towards elite corruption and repression.
The putsch of November 2017 was orchestrated with marketing expertise.
General Sibusiso Moyo reassured an anxious citizenry that the threat to public order had been countered. A ruthless cabal around President Mugabe, the so-called G-40 which included his wife Grace and political dilettante Jonathan Moyo, had been defeated by ‘our heroic armed forces.’
In truth, it wasn’t a fight. Gens Moyo, Chiwenga and the other plotters called in a gullible commander of the presidential guard and then detained him. Yes, there were running battles between the G-40 factions and the so-called Lacoste group, as well as spies and soldiers, for control of ZANU-PF. It was all about factional rivalries.
The genius came in when the authors of the putsch persuaded Zimbabweans that the overthrow of Mugabe was being done in their name and persuaded tens of thousands of them to march in solidarity through the streets of Harare, Bulawayo, Gweru and all the main cities.
Meanwhile ‘our hero’ Mnangagwa had fled the country with his son. Tales of his derring-do sneaking across the border with Mozambique have been relayed in detail by a Rhodesian journalist in the interests of promoting a new liberation narrative.
So, was Mnangagwa really the man who risked his life to free Zimbabwe from the Mugabe tyranny?
On his triumphal return to his homeland, Mnangagwa told us with a straight face: “the voice of the people is the voice of God!”. How has that gone?
Mnangagwa was inaugurated as President on 27 November 2017, promising a cornucopia of political and economic reforms.
In front of regional leaders, foreign diplomats and opposition politicians, Mnangagwa pledged to undo the results of Mugabe’s 40 year rule: to fix the ruined economy, to open the isolated country for business, to restore democracy and the rule of law, to fight corruption, and to revisit compensation to white farmers for land.
But the main event was his commitment to free, fair and peaceful elections. Everything that Comrade Mnangagwa promised that day was what the country needed and had been long denied by Mugabe and Zanu PF. What went wrong?
Test One: Freeing the people
The first test for the post-coup regime was its openness to political reform. Under Mugabe, the ruling party had shown extreme intolerance. Witness Gukurahundi in which 20,000 opposition supporters in Matebeleland were massacred, forcing their leader Joshua Nkomo to capitulate and join a unity government under Zanu PF.
That was a template for Zanu PF’s treatment of oppositionists. By the 2000s, it had found ways to target the extreme violence more narrowly, then added a panoply of propaganda, spying strategies and artful electoral rigging.
Yet all that was not enough to stop Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) from getting more votes than Mugabe in the first round of 2008 elections. That prompted one of the most brutal fightbacks of murder and torture that a ruling party has wreaked on its opponents, anywhere.
Soldiers, police and youth militia were dragooned into the campaign run by the Joint Operations Command, which took power in the wake of Mugabe’s defeat. It succeeded because it forced Tsvangirai to withdraw from the second round of the vote. It failed because the elections has lost any legitimacy.
What did Mnangagwa do to break with this history in 2017? He promised to open up politics. He visited the terminally-ill Tsvangirai, offered state funds to pay for his treatment and a new house.
For a while, Mnangagwa tolerated criticism in the media and by civil society on subjects such as Gukurahundi. He, or his handlers, started posting on social media about the “new Zimbabwe”. Some foreign diplomats, especially Britain’s Ambassador, offered fulsome praise of Mnangagwa’s leadership.
Between the putsch and elections in July 2018, there was an outbreak of political liberalism. Opposition parties made full use of it. But inside the ruling party complex, Mnangagwa’s people purged all those associated with Grace Mugabe and her G-40 group, many were arrested and prosecuted on corruption charges. Others fled into exile. The restrictions on public meetings and protests remained. There was a feel good factor after the putsch but it wasn’t enshrined in law.
Test Two: Holding credible elections
Contrary to pledges for free elections, Mnangagwa and Zanu PF stuck to their old script.
They kept control of the Zimbabwe Election Commission and Secretariat with its compliment of state security agents directing operations.
The commission failed to release the voters roll in time. When they did, it was plagued with irregularities. Again, Zanu PF used the army whose presence in the countryside intimidated voters. It manipulated its subsidy scheme known as “Command Agriculture” to win support from rural farmers, the majority of the country’s workforce.
Zanu PF dominated the state media, denying equal time to its opponents. The panoply of Mugabe-era strictures on access to information and rights of assembly stayed in place.
The tabulation, transmission and announcement of elections results pointed to political interference. With all that help, Mnangagwa managed only to get 50.8% of the votes. There were far more protests than celebrations as the reality dawned on the country.
Responding to an appeal launched by opposition parties, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of Mnangagwa. But it took almost 18 month to explain why.
Test three: Respecting human rights
As Mugabe’s security capo, Mnangagwa struggled to convince the sceptics he was willing to respect human rights. The sceptics were soon proved right.
On 1 August in response to public protest against delays in announcing the election results, Mnangagwa sent in the military. Six unarmed civilians and scores more injured in full view of election observers and the international media.
As the furore grew, Mnangagwa appointed a commission of enquiry led by Kgalema Motlanthe, former President of South African. It recommended that the officers involved should be held to account. Instead, Mnangagwa promoted the commander of the unit responsible for the killings, and none of the other perpetrators were sanctioned.
In January 2019, citizens, angered by spiralling fuel prices, took to the streets. Mnangagwa sent in the army again. Under cover of an internet shutdown, hired thugs and soldiers beat, raped and tortured anyone they deemed linked to the protests. Mnangagwa would later boast that he had given the army instructions to use a “special whip laced in salty water.” After the protests, thousands of civilians were arbitrarily arrested and tried, and hundreds sentenced to years in gaol.
As the economy continued to nosedive and activists and the opposition organised protests, the state hit back with violence and abductions often using freelance thugs as a kind of third force. After public health sector workers mobilised in protest at wage cuts after massive devaluation of the currency, the leader of the doctors’ union Peter Magombeyi was abducted, detained for 5 days, tortured and then dumped in the outskirts of Harare.
The government blamed it on the “third force”. It then sacked thousands of doctors, paralysing the health service.
Activists for Gukurahundi accountability such as Zenzele Ndebele, Thandekile Moyo, Mkhululi Hanana were all harassed, followed and then received threats from unidentified individuals.
Others such as Tatenda Mombeyarara of the Citizens Manifesto and Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) leader, Obert Masaraure, Samantha Kureya, “Gonyeti,” a comedian and Ian Makiwa, “Platinum Prince,” a musician were abducted, beaten, tortured then released.
MDC activist Blessing Toronga was abducted from his house in Glen Norah Township after the protests on 24 January. Two months later his body was found in an advanced state of decomposition. Then the regime charged civil society activists and opposition leaders with treason, keeping them tied up in Kafka-esque trials.
Test four: Fighting corruption
Under Mugabe, a predatory elite of Zanu PF officials and their business allies prioritised personal wealth over public interest. After his promise to change all this, Mnangagwa’s appointments were scrutinised.
He appointed and retained corrupt ministers – some of whom, he has now sought to arrest. He set up an anti-corruption unit in his office which has delivered nothing.
He has allowed businsessmen such as Kuda Tagwirei and Sakunda, in partnership with the Dutch-based Trafigura Group, to retain a monopoly over fuel imports. The government’s business cronies have had preferential access to foreign exchange which they recycle into Zimbabwean dollars at hugely profitable rates.
Sakunda redeemed most of its government bonds at a preferential rate which involved the creation of over two billion Zimbabwean dollars without the foreign exchange to back it up – further weakening the revived local currency. Sakunda, which contributed to Zanu-PF’s election campaign, was a prime beneficiary of Mnangagwa’s Command Agriculture scheme.
The government hit rock bottom as the worsening regional drought meant that half of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people would face serious food shortages. When it emerged from international agencies that the government had signed a secret contract to import maize from Tanzania for the hungry masses over twice the market price, there was radio silence.
Test five: Fixing the economy
Chanting his “open for business” Mnangagwa pledged to turn around the economy, creating jobs and allowing its talented people to develop the country. Within weeks of taking over, he boasted that he was bringing in over $10 billion of new investments from his friends in the mining business.
Most of these “friends” turned out to be corrupt Rhodesians and their English associates. Almost none of the investment arrived.
Mnangagwa appointed Mthuli Ncube, a former Chief Economist at the African Development Bank, as Minister of Finance to preside over a reform programme, including more swingeing cuts to public spending and the reintroduction of the Zimbabwe dollar. But Ncube lacked any political muscle. Zanu-PF’s chefs and their business pals circumvented the reforms and continued the exploit the system. Bankers are placing bets on when Ncube will be fired – should he choose to take a stand on the glaring malfeasance – or resign.
The economic tally of Mnangagwa’s rule is a return to the hyper-inflation a decade ago, the reintroduction of the Zimbabwe dollar has been sabotaged by his business friends, and the health and education services, the best achievement of Mugabe early years, are in ruins. And tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs.
Any prospect of the government restructuring its foreign debt and bringing in new capital have receded into the distance.
After the meltdown
Not only has Mnangagwa’s regime failed all the tests he set out but the situation has reached breaking point. It has squandered the hope and the goodwill of Zimbabweans. It has run out of excuses. Beyond the sponsored Zanu-PF cheerleaders, no one believes sanctions are responsible for the latest economic destruction.
Can Mnangagwa stop the country veering towards the cliff’s edge? It’s possible but most unlikely. Nearly 80 years old, Mnangagwa might want to leave a legacy for his country other than misery and repression. But he shows no signs of it. In late November, he thought it a good use of state resources to have ten streets named after him in the country’s main cities.
The best way out for Mnangagwa would involve inclusive negotiations, preferably mediated by a credible regional politician, to address the national crisis.
Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Foreign Minister, says her government, which is owed billions by Mnangagwa’s regime, stands ready to help. Her proviso was that it must include civil society and opposition politicians.
Further chaos and destruction beckons without a fresh initiative. The MDC will have to be more deliberate and innovative if it wants to stay relevant. It needs to support the new generation of activists and show real leadership.
As regionalism and ethnic nationalism gain ground, there has been a spate of localised violence; there are some in the regime who want to exploit chaos to cling on to power. That would be their final betrayal. And it will blow up in their faces.
Enter the military again?
The only conceivable beneficiaries from that would be the people with guns. Not the fat cat generals, air marshals and spymasters but the angry young officers who have seen this predatory elite steal their country and their futures. Their revenge – for the ruling elite’s crass betrayal of the liberation cause – could turn into Zimbabwe’s ugliest moment yet.