When Robert Mugabe announced his resignation as president of Zimbabwe on Tuesday, after 37 years of increasingly authoritarian and erratic rule, a euphoric citizenry took to the streets to unleash decades of pent-up hopes for their country’s future.
That public display of revelry and unity – unheard of during Mugabe’s reign – masked a deep anxiety about the man being installed as his successor: Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former director of intelligence and architect of Mugabe’s most brutal crackdowns on dissent.
Mnangagwa (pronounced um-nan-GA-gwa) is better known by his nom de guerre, “Garwe,” or “The Crocodile.” In a radio interview two years ago, Mnangagwa explained that a crocodile never leaves the water to search for food. Instead, it waits patiently for its prey to approach. “It strikes at the appropriate time,” he said.
That long-awaited time has now come for Mnangagwa, 75.
He spent his early years steeped in the struggle against British colonial rule and white minority governance. After receiving combat training in China and Egypt, he became a guerrilla commander in the liberation war that brought Mugabe to power in 1980. Since then, he has mostly been by Mugabe’s side, entrusted with enforcing party loyalty.
Mugabe bestowed Mnangagwa with numerous ministerial posts over the years, including justice, defense, rural housing and finance, but his most influential role was as director of the Central Intelligence Organization in the 1980s, when he cemented relationships with the leaders of Zimbabwe’s all-powerful security forces.
In that role, Mnangagwa is accused by many, including the United Nations, of orchestrating a vicious cleansing of political opposition in the country’s Matabeleland region. As many as 20,000 were killed, mostly belonging to the Ndebele ethnic minority. The operation was ominously known as Gukurahundi, or “the early rain that washes away the chaff before spring.” There has been little by way of reconciliation in the decades since, and Mugabe’s party has never fully acknowledged findings by independent investigators. Both Mugabe and Mnangagwa belong to the majority Shona ethnic group.
The crackdown, carried out by Zimbabwe’s North Korean-trained military, was notable for its almost unimaginable brutality. Children were made to rape and kill their parents; pregnant women’s bellies were split open, their families made to pound the fetuses in a mortar and pestle; men were made to dig their own graves at gunpoint.
Mnangagwa “honed Zimbabwe’s ever-watchful Central Intelligence Organization into an elite dirty tricks team feared throughout the land,” wrote Wilf Mbanga, the editor of the Zimbabwean, a weekly newspaper, in the Guardian. “Over the years, like his master Mugabe, he has been accused of masterminding election violence, kidnappings, extortion, plundering national resources and other crimes.”
The State Department said in 2000 that Mnangagwa was “widely feared and despised throughout the country” and “could be an even more repressive leader” than Mugabe.
In the 2000s, Mnangagwa designed sweeping new crackdowns. In 2005, Operation Murambatsvina razed vast urban slums that were hotbeds for opposition to Mugabe, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. And in 2008, after Mugabe lost the first round of a presidential election, Mnangagwa is accused by Zimbabwean civil rights activists of coordinating an intimidation campaign in which at least 200 were killed and thousands injured, including Mugabe’s main rival candidate. Mnangagwa denies any role.
Government repression, along with years of economic mismanagement and corruption, has reduced Zimbabwe’s economy to a shadow of its former power, and an estimated quarter of Zimbabweans live in self-imposed exile, mostly in South Africa.
Mnangagwa lost Mugabe’s trust at various points but always managed to ingratiate himself. Mugabe appointed Mnangagwa vice president in late 2014. But it was a final rift that opened this year that set the stage for “The Crocodile” to make his long-awaited strike.
The rift was the culmination of infighting within Mugabe’s ruling party, pitting a faction led by Mnangagwa and supported by the military establishment called “Lacoste” against a younger group called Generation 40, or “G40.” The latter was led by Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife, Grace Mugabe, who is known for her fiery speeches and spending on luxury goods.
As Mugabe grew increasingly frail, the avenues for the G40 faction to take power narrowed. If Mugabe died, Mnangagwa would legally inherit the presidency. A power play by Grace Mugabe became its strongest option. She and her allies began to attack Mnangagwa at any chance they got. In speeches, Grace Mugabe called him a “coup plotter.” After Mnangagwa fell ill last summer, Grace Mugabe had to deny that she had attempted to poison him with ice cream from a dairy farm she owned.
In early November, Mnangagwa supporters heckled Grace Mugabe at a rally attended by her husband. Both Mugabes denounced Mnangagwa from a stage.
“The snake must be hit on the head,” said Grace Mugabe, giving Mnangagwa a new reptilian identity. A day later, Mnangagwa was unceremoniously dismissed and forced into exile.
The firing was a major miscalculation. Mnangagwa had not been lying in wait all by himself. He had spent decades cultivating close ties with the most powerful members of Zimbabwe’s security establishment. They had refrained from removing Mugabe from office before, perhaps preferring not to intervene so overtly. But the prospect of a takeover by Grace Mugabe was unacceptable to them. Generals, influential war veterans, regional governments and Mnangagwa himself worked behind the scenes to organize what might be called a “gentle coup.”
At a ruling party meeting on Sunday, Mugabe was dumped with barely any debate. Mnangagwa’s enemies were roundly denounced, and many were expelled from the party for life, including Grace Mugabe. A consolidation of control under Mnangagwa is already well underway.
Mnangagwa, like his predecessor, was not elected. Like Mugabe, he, too, is being cheered into power, if only because what came before each of them was so terrible. Zimbabweans now keenly wait to hear how Mnangagwa will address crucial issues, such as agricultural policy, freedom of speech, his country’s relationship with global lending institutions and next year’s presidential elections.
He will be sworn in as president on Friday.