Where is democracy? Reflections on the ascendancy of Mnangagwa as president of Zimbabwe

Charles NgwenyaAuthor: Charles Ngwena
Professor of Law, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

What seemed unimaginable has happened. After an uninterrupted ‘reign’ of 37 years, Robert Mugabe, the de facto emperor of Zimbabwe, has ‘resigned’ from office. There has been genuine jubilation not least among those who have been at the receiving end of Mugabe’s increasingly despotic, corrupt and dysfunctional governance – the majority of Zimbabweans. Emmerson Mnangagwa has taken office as Mugabe’s successor. It is a historic moment. Since attaining independence in 1980, Zimbabweans have only known Mugabe as their political supremo – initially as prime minister and latterly as president. The fact of Mugabe’s departure from office, alone, has raised hopes that we might be at the cusp of a compassionate, fairer, humane and democratic Second Republic. At the same time, the clouds are pregnant with contradictions, counselling us not to throw caution aside even as we pine for change. Why is this?

To begin with, regardless of the gains Mugabe’s departure might bring to the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe, we ought to have grave misgivings about the manner in which he left office. Mugabe did not leave voluntarily. He tendered his resignation surrounded by military tanks and under house arrest. Put simply, the Zimbabwean military mounted a coup d’état, notwithstanding its largely successful public and international relations exercise to sell the coup as benevolent constitutional intervention. But was the coup necessary?

Sometimes we are able to find a just cause for a coup even if we absolutely detest it as a means of effecting political change. On this occasion, however, the coup was the machination of an army with a huge stake in the politics of a de facto one-party state. What was foremost in the minds of the architects of the coup, which was led by General Constantino Chiwenga, was not saving Zimbabweans from dictatorial rule but hastily ‘getting their man in’ before Mugabe’s ambitious wife could ascend to the prime seat as seemed probable. The Zimbabwean military command has used its raw muscle to settle an internal succession battle within ZANU-PF – the ruling party. This party, which is indistinguishable from the state, has exercised monopoly over state power and, indeed, violence since 1980 when Zimbabweans liberated themselves from white minority rule. Upon losing to one faction, the losing ZANU-PF faction played its trump card: a pre-planned military takeover. It is internecine political warfare of the lowest order which should not be confused with an army acting to save the country from peril. The peril had been there for decades. The military intervention, ostensibly described by the Zimbabwe Defence Forces as ‘operation restore legacy’, has in fact been an operation to restore an ousted ZANU-PF apparatchik and vice-president – Mnangagwa – who has since become the country’s president.

It should worry us profoundly that a national army has been put to the service of a faction within ZANU-PF to achieve patricide; the slaying of a father for political inheritance but camouflaged in the accouterments of a coup which is not quite a coup. The army made some arrests during ‘operation restore legacy’. However, it is not clear how many arrests were made or why only certain people were targets of arrest. Moreover, we do not know what precisely the grounds of arrest were or the legality which sanctioned them. There is no indication, at all, that due process has been followed. If anything, the signs are that the arrests have been highly selective and motivated primarily by factional politics. Moreover, reports are beginning to emerge that this was not quite a palace coup, as we have been made to believe, but that there were some killings in pursuit of the coup. Understandably, fear of victimisation has, thus far, succeeded in muzzling the voices of those who lost family members during the coup. Tellingly, the threat to impeach Mugabe came after and not before the coup. It is plain that impeachment was intended to serve as a Machiavellian fall-back; an expedient constitutionalisation of what had already been achieved through the gun.

Emmerson Mnangagwa (left), then–Vice President of Zimbabwe, chats with President Robert Mugabe in Harare in 2014. (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

In short, the army flouted the Constitution of the Republic of Zimbabwe of 2013 severally and with assured impunity as it acted as judge and jury in its own cause. This thick cloud of unconstitutionality bodes ill.  Democracy is even in a deeper crisis. We have an army which is serving as the ultimate de facto executive authority with unaccountable powers and no check in place. The indication is that the courts will in future play the pied piper’s tune by conferring constitutionality on what is manifestly a partisan military intervention at the service of ZANU-PF’s fratricide and the political ambitions of a few men. A high court judge, after hearing only one side in chambers, has already ruled that there was no coup but constitutional ‘military intervention’.

It is not just the brazen flouting of the Zimbabwean Constitution which should disconcert us. The profile of the protagonists of the coup – the military command and Mnangagwa, himself – especially their roles in serious human rights violations in the past should cause us to lose sleep if what we are yearning for is a new beginning. Collectively, Mugabe, Mnangagwa and the military command bear responsibility for the worst human rights violations in the post-independence period. It was Mnangagwa who, as minister of state security and head of CIO (the country’s intelligence agency), supplied the army with the ‘intelligence’ and incendiary admonitions which were instrumental in facilitating the murderous Gukurahundi project of ethnic cleansing in Matebeleland in the 80s. It was Mnangagwa who, in collaboration with the current military command, made it possible in 2008 for Mugabe to ‘win’ an election through the worst state-sponsored election violence independent Zimbabwe has ever experienced. Murder, maiming, ‘corrective’ rape, and disappearances where committed with impunity to secure election victory for the ruling party. Amidst the poverty that afflicts the majority of Zimbabweans, Mnangagwa is reputed to have amassed unrivaled but unaccounted wealth. It is hard to believe that, if given a choice, this is the person Zimbabweans would want as leader in their hour of need.

Effective political change must surely begin with diagnosing and, indeed, candidly facing up to what the problem of Zimbabwe is. Put simply, it is the problem of capture of a newly independent state by an avaricious nationalist elite and the failure of authoritarian nationalist rule (as opposed to governance) to respect human rights and address poverty, inequality and social injustice. Mnangagwa and the military command are part of this elite. The question is: How does the replacement of Mugabe with someone cut from the very same undemocratic cloth help the nation? Simply removing the emperor and replacing him with a member of his political family with even more worrisome credentials cannot reassure us that the democratic change Zimbabweans are yearning for has arrived. It is not just bread that Zimbabweans want. They also want democratic governance to ensure that they will be governed with their consent that opposition voices will not be bludgeoned into silence.

Let us be clear. The military intervention has been about which ZANU-PF faction gets premier access to state resources. It has not been about coming to the rescue of the nation. To borrow from Ayi Kwei Armah, the Ghanaian writer, ‘the beautiful ones are not yet born’. The moment of progressive governance is yet to arrive. It must first be secured through the ballot box but only if ZANU-PF’s praetorian guard comprising of the country’s intelligence services, the police and, above all, the army can allow Zimbabweans to exercise free choice. The coup episode is a glaring manifestation of the pathology of power bequeathed to Zimbabweans by a party – ZANU-PF – which has ruled rather than governed for the last 37 years. It symbolises crass failure by the ruling party to abide by democracy.

Let us remind ourselves that Mnangagwa has not won an election. Like a thief in the night, he has ascended to the presidency through a rear entrance with the help of allies in jackboots. He does not have a reputation for respecting democracy but, instead, a sterling record of ruthless suppression of dissent. At the same time, out of sheer necessity and pragmatism we can give Mnangagwa a chance to atone. We can say that there is a place for repentance and redemption especially in the body politic of a nation that has been reduced to penury and is ever so desperate for a life-giving jumpstart at a very basic material level. As president, or more accurately ‘interim’ president, Mnangagwa will need to be humble and, above all, demonstrate, in deeds and not vacuous utterances, that he has experienced a Damascene moment.

Needless to say, Zimbabweans will need to keep a watchful eye on Mnangagwa’s interim presidency especially how it treats political opponents and criticism. No one should be subjected to arrest or state-sponsored violence merely because they hold a different political opinion. In any event, the tragedy would be for opposition parties in Zimbabwe to be unwittingly pulled into a ‘government of national unity’, whether de jure or de facto, as that would only serve to revive the fortunes of a ruling party that is consummately fratricidal and deserves to perish on its own steam. ZANU-PF has an impeccable record of being incorrigibly corrupt, arrogant, violent and dictatorial in the extreme.

Against fearful odds, Zimbabweans liberated themselves from dehumanising white minority rule. The nation is forever grateful to those who sacrificed life and limb to overcome the tyranny of a racial state under Ian Smith. We cherish their sacrifice in our hearts and in the nation’s Constitution. At the same time, Zimbabweans are not wards of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces or the war veterans. There are a free people entitled to choose their own political parties and their own leaders.

Lest we forget, Mugabe has been bundled out of office at the tail end of a long incumbency – 37 years – when corruption had taken hold in virtually all sectors of the state, including the education sector which saw the University of Zimbabwe spectacularly award a doctorate to Mrs Mugabe under circumstances suggesting that it had not been academically earned. Let us remember that interim President Mnangagwa has been part of this rot for the last 37 years. Zimbabweans would do well to put their trust in democratic politics as the modality for transforming the country’s political landscape. They do not need to hail as saviour someone who has been one of the architects of their own oppression. Moreover, they do not need to treat as an ally a national army which is driven by partisan politics and an undemocratic agenda, and continues to impose leaders the electorate has not chosen. It is not jackboots but the ballot box that should play midwife to a democratic Second Republic. Zimbabwe solely needs democratisation.

About the Author:
Prof Charles Ngwena is a professor of Law in the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. He is a Zimbabwean national.

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2 Comments on “Where is democracy? Reflections on the ascendancy of Mnangagwa as president of Zimbabwe”

  1. […] Ngwena, Where is democracy? Reflections on the ascendancy of Mnangagwa as president of Zimbabwe, […]


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