Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe Is Old Wine in a New Bottle
The government’s crackdown proves that the ruling party will hold on to power by any means necessary.
On Aug. 1, Zimbabwean army soldiers fired live ammunition at unarmed civilians protesting the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s failure to announce the outcome of the country’s July 30 presidential election in a timely fashion. The protesters suspected that the commission’s procrastination was a ploy to rig the result in favor of incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took power in a military coup that ousted longtime strongman Robert Mugabe in November 2017.
As it turned out, when the results were finally announced more than three days after polls closed, Mnangagwa, the leader of the ruling Zanu-PF party, prevailed in the election, narrowly avoiding a runoff vote by less than 1 percent. Mnangagwa’s main challenger, Nelson Chamisa of the opposition MDC Alliance, won 44 percent of the ballots cast.
At least six civilians have been confirmed dead in last week’s shootings. The police have arrested dozens of opposition politicians and activists on charges that they incited public violence on Aug. 1, and the authorities are still searching for others. There are also ongoing reports of soldiers beating and abducting civilians in the suburbs surrounding the country’s capital, Harare—a hotbed of opposition politics.
Despite all this, the army has denied any involvement in the violent crackdown, arguing that, “If there are any individuals masquerading as our members committing crime, these might be criminals bent on tarnishing the image of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.”
In addition to the army’s denialism, another misguided narrative has emerged abroad, seeking to absolve Mnangagwa of responsibility while blaming the army’s activities on Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who was the commander of the military during the November 2017 coup against Mugabe. For example, Joseph Cotterill, writing in the Financial Times, argues that the “brutality bears hallmarks” of Chiwenga and suggests there is a split in government between supposed hard-line military men such as Chiwenga and moderates such as Mnangagwa.
Kate Hoey, the chair of Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe, seems to have accepted this theory, too. She declared, “there should be no change to [European Union] or [U.K.] or American government policies to Zimbabwe government until at the very minimum Chiwenga is removed from his vice presidency and his control of the military.”
Both arguments reveal a simplistic understanding of Zimbabwe’s history. The claim that rogue soldiers or citizens impersonating soldiers are responsible for the violent crackdown on the opposition ignores decades of political violence overseen by the ruling Zanu-PF party, of which Mnangagwa was an integral part.
Indeed, political violence has traditionally been a tool employed by Zanu-PF to deal with both internal and external opposition. The party has used security services, war veterans, and youth militias to conduct violent political campaigns on various occasions since the country’s independence in 1980.
It waged the brutal Gukurahundi massacres against supporters of the opposition Zimbabwe African People’s Union party in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces during the mid-1980s, killing thousands of people. In January 1998, Zanu-PF used violence to stamp out urban food riots; it cracked down on black farmworkers during the seizure of white-owned commercial farms beginning in 2000; and the government used force against the political opposition in the June 2008 presidential runoff campaign.
A key characteristic that cuts across all these violent crackdowns is the centralized control of violence. Political violence in Zimbabwe is rarely random. It is calculated and tightly controlled from the center, under the president and commander in chief’s authority. The current situation is no different. There is presently no compelling evidence demonstrating a breakdown of the chain of command. Mnangagwa is therefore not a powerless president besieged by Zanu-PF and military hard-liners advocating the use of political violence. Despite his measured words in public statements, he is in fact central to the planning and authorization of the violent suppression of the opposition currently occurring in Zimbabwe.
Likewise, those who today blame postelection violence on Vice President Chiwenga are unwittingly repeating the error of those who held Mugabe alone responsible for Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis, which began in the late 1990s. Just as Mugabe was then demonized, and the entire Zimbabwe crisis was laid at his doorstep, we are now witnessing the demonization of Chiwenga and the narrow personalization of Zimbabwe’s postelection political difficulties.
It was the long-running demonization of Mugabe alone—rather than his entire ruling clique—that led most foreign powers and Zimbabwean citizens to accept the 2017 military coup led by his underlings. Yet those who staged the coup were just as complicit as Mugabe in Zimbabwe’s economic and political decline and its history of human rights violations.
This is precisely why today, despite Mugabe’s absence, Zimbabwe is once again witnessing premeditated state-sponsored campaigns of repression against opposition parties and state-sanctioned brutality toward opposition supporters. Removing Chiwenga from the current government will achieve as much as ejecting Mugabe from the previous government accomplished; there will be minimal genuine reform.
Zanu-PF has been shaped, more than anything, by the historical legacy of the country’s liberation war during the 1970s. The continuing resonance of the argument that only those who fought in the independence war are eligible to rule Zimbabwe was a fundamental motivation for the 2017 coup. Indeed, the leaders of the coup that removed Mugabe from power called their putsch “Operation Restore Legacy,” because it was a rejection of Mugabe’s attempt to place younger leaders in charge of Zanu-PF, a move that would have sidelined older politicians and soldiers who participated in the 1970s liberation war—people like Mnangagwa and Chiwenga.
The 40-year-old opposition leader, Chamisa, is not a veteran of the independence war; he was 2 years old when Zimbabwe gained independence. Thus, Zanu-PF and many serving senior military officers from the liberation war, by hook or by crook, were never going to allow Chamisa to win the presidency. The state-led violence against opposition forces in the wake of the election serves to ensure that Mnangagwa’s disputed victory in the presidential poll will not be challenged effectively via the sort of protest politics that Chamisa, in some of his campaign speeches, hinted he might resort to if the election result was rigged.
For the past week, the MDC Alliance’s capacity to employ protest politics has been systematically snuffed out through shootings, beatings, intimidation, harassment, and arrests of opposition activists and supporters. Government forces have also raided the offices and homes of opposition politicians in an effort to confiscate any evidence of election rigging that opposition leaders might have, ensuring that the MDC Alliance cannot use such evidence in its planned court challenge of the presidential election results. Zanu-PF’s overarching goal is to break the opposition’s will to fight the result and then attempt to re-engage the outside world after declaring that they have won legitimacy through a free and fair election.
If Western policymakers wish to have any impact on post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, they will have to greet this claim with a healthy dose of skepticism and start thinking in complex historical terms about the nature and justification of Zanu-PF rule. Unfortunately, foreign diplomats have consistently failed to heed the most basic historical lessons about the ruling party, making for less effective statesmanship when it comes to dealing with Zimbabwe.
It is this deficiency in historical understanding that enabled Zanu-PF to consistently outflank Western diplomats by playing the anti-colonial card to delegitimize their criticisms of Zimbabwe’s human rights abuses and democratic rollback after 2000. Some Western countries, especially the United Kingdom, have in recent years emphasized economic stabilization at the expense of democracy and human rights, leaving them open to charges of hypocrisy once again.
What foreign officials have failed to appreciate is that when Zanu-PF’s hold on power is threatened, the party is prepared to suspend economic rationality and abandon the pursuit of diplomatic and financial normalization until it re-establishes, by any means necessary, complete domestic political control. That is precisely the scenario that is playing out in Zimbabwe today.