Political Gatekeeping the Zimbabwean Way

There has been a massive media interest in the events leading up to Mugabe’s resignation. Over the last ten days, NAI’s Zimbabwe expert Henning Melber has given more than 30 interviews for Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Finnish media. In this blog post, he gives his unfiltered analysis of the situation in Zimbabwe.

Henning MelberWhen following the events unfolding in Zimbabwe as from mid-November (see the separate time-line), the Revolution of the Carnations of 25 April 1974 came to my mind. In a peaceful coup, the Portuguese army then toppled the dictatorship of the Caetano regime. This also ended Portugal’s rule over African settler colonies. Since then, April 25 is celebrated as Portuguese Freedom Day.

Zimbabwe obtained Independence six years later, on 18 April 1980. It was the final step of a negotiated transition based on the Lancaster House Agreement. But despite sovereignty, Zimbabweans have hardly ever been free. Scenes in Harare and elsewhere more than 37 years later on Saturday (18 November) and Tuesday (21 November) brought back other memories, when the people celebrated on the streets the right to self-determination. – Only to experience since then, that this right was never really respected by the leaders of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) who took over the government.

A system of “Mugabeism” had unfolded, which run the country like a private propertyFrom the genocidal massacres of the Gukurahundi in Matabeleland between 1983 and 1987 to coerce the rival party Zimbabwe National Patriotic Front (ZAPU) under Joshua Nkomo into the umbrella ZANU-PF (Patriotic Front), to the disappearance of protesting students of the University of Zimbabwe in the mid-1990s, the rigged presidential elections in 2002, the Operation Murambatsvina initiated on Africa Day (!) in 2005 to “clean out” inner cities of slum dwellers, the systematic clamp down on independent media and the prosecution of journalists since the turn of the century to the killing or disappearance, maiming, arrest and torture of thousands of political opponents and civil society activists and another stolen election in 2008: during 37 years of a sovereign state, “Zimbos” never experienced freedom. Denied civil liberties under the iron fist of the one and only ruler for this period, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, a system of “Mugabeism” had unfolded, which ran the country like a private property of a combined civil-political and military-security apparatus deeply entrenched in the hegemony of ZANU-PF. As a result, since the turn of the century the political repression in combination with the economic decline and the appalling deterioration of living conditions, several million Zimbabweans left the country to survive elsewhere under often dehumanizing, miserable conditions to support heir families back home. The regime pushed many more of the people into a kind of exile than resistance to settler colonialism during the days of the liberation struggle.

While Mugabe was an initial driving force and the face, Mugabeism and the ZANUfication of the former “jewel of Africa” (Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere to Mugabe at the Independence ceremony) was a much deeper entrenched system. Mugabe never acted alone. Emmerson Mnangagwa (born 1942) was his longtime and faithful, close companion for over fifty years. Once Mugabe’s bodyguard, he spent several years alongside Mugabe in prison. Mugabe and Mnangagwa are birds of the same feather, and together they plotted the (when necessary also physical) elimination of political rivals since the exile days. During all the power struggles he was loyal to Mugabe, pursuing his own ascendancy in the shadow of his ‘big brother’. He was an influential member of the government and the state security nexus ever since Independence. During the 1980 elections preceding Independence he was involved in the intimidation of the rural population to vote for ZANU. He coordinated most of the voter campaigns for ZANU-PF since then. Rigged elections were as much his turf and responsibility as that of Mugabe and the military, which increasingly governed from the barracks. Mnangagwa chaired as Minister of State Security the Joint Command in charge of the 5th Brigade’s brutal massacre of more than 20,000 Ndebele in the Gukurahundi. He referred to dissidents as cockroaches and the 5th Brigade as DDT. He dismissed the critical voice of the Catholic Church by cynically twisting the Sermon of the Mount into: “Blessed are they who will follow the path of the Government laws, for their days on earth shall be increased. But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents for we will certainly shorten their stay on earth.”

It is not by coincidence that his nickname is “the crocodile” (in Shona ngwena, associated with a stealthy and ruthless character). He has proudly declared on several occasions that he has “earned” his nickname. This could have been a warning to Mugabe. After all, a crocodile might snap back when being attacked. The geriatric leader’s public appearances showed growing signs of a frail old man whose talents as a shrewd and cunning strategist had started to fade away. Seemingly not always any longer aware of what happened he became increasingly remote controlled by his more than 40 years younger wife Grace. Dubbed “Gucci Grace” for her lavish shopping sprees, the power hungry over-ambitious First Lady emerged as Mnangwaga’s fiercest rival for her husband’s succession. Born in the boring mining town Benoni at the Witwatersrand in 1965 (where the Hollywood actor Charlize Theron was born ten years later), she started her career as a young typist for Mugabe. She then advanced to his mistress and mother of his children at a time when First Lady Sally Mugabe from Ghana (where Robert was prior to his political career for some time a teacher) was ailing. Over the years, her influence over Bob grew visibly into calling the shots.

Mnangagwa’s dismissal was also dubbed a “bedroom coup”Mnangagwa’s dismissal was also dubbed a “bedroom coup”, implying that the aging dictator was more and more remote controlled by his wife. Her support group in the party (the G40) was composed of younger, overtly ambitious, power hungry and greedy political office bearers of a new generation, including most prominently Jonathan Moyo. As a young academic at the University of Zimbabwe he had been one of the most outspoken critics of ZANU-PF since the late 1980s and left Zimbabwe not least for security reasons in the mid-1990s. Accused of embezzlement and misappropriation of funds by his various employers abroad, he returned in 2000 to turn into a willful executor of ZANU-PF police state methods. As Minister of Information he initiated a clamp down of the independent media. In contrast to the “Team Lacoste” (with reference to the crocodile as trade mark of the label), the G40 was a group of newcomers (the 40 refers to the age, though they all are also older) led by a woman who was neither popular nor accepted as truly Zimbabwean but having positioned herself as the potential next state president to establish another dynasty.

This was a tipping point for the military, which had vested interests and was the backbone of the Mugabeism under Robert Mugabe. But a Mugabeism under Grace Mugabe would have risked to be not any longer under military control. The crocodile was their man and at the same time the continued personification of the rule of the first struggle generation emerging from the days of the chimurenga. But stopping a dynasty does not mean democracy. While the military was eager to stress that the “corrective measure” is an entirely party internal and therefore domestic affair and not a coup, it continued to recognize its Commander Mugabe as being at least still officially in charge even while under house arrest, seeking to force him into resignation. But witnessing Mugabe’s disoriented behavior one was wondering if the despot still realized what the situation was and that his time was up. His resignation after a week of stubborn refusal was finally submitted in writing and not transmitted to a wider public visibly from the horse’s mouth. But the way of delivery did not bother the people, for whom the first time since Independence a new era dawned.

For the military the mission was accomplished with the installation of another civil-political governance structure maintaining the close links to those who hold the real power in Zimbabwe without occupying political posts. While there is a biological expiry date, the first struggle generation now for the time being remains in firm control over the country and has fended off the onslaught by newcomers who as unguided missiles were perceived as a threat to the vested interests. One might call this a kind of gatekeeping the Zimbabwean way, with a new president of the party and the state who is more of the same.

Zimbabweans are to a large extent aware of the fact that the new dawn does not mean that they enter a new era of civil liberty and freedom. A tweet during the public celebrations in Harare on 18 November posted the following metaphor: we are currently transported from one prison to another, but enjoy the breeze of fresh air while sitting in the van. And while many Zimbabweans forced into the diaspora cannot wait to finally return to their families, they are painfully aware that with unemployment of close to an estimated 90 percent their chances to make a living back home are scarce. In a moving story told in the South African Sunday Times, a customer entered a conversation with a Zimbabwean taxi driver in Cape Town just when the military intervention was breaking news. At the end, the driver remarked with tears in his eyes that he misses the local food and that this is the mango season in Harare now and the mangos are out. One can only hope if not for a democratic renewal, then at least that an economic recovery allows many of those away from home to return to their country to enjoy the taste of fresh mangos.

The repressive political culture remains part of the DNA of those who finally removed him from officeAs one Zimbabwean commented, Mugabe has sought to break the humanity of the people – and failed. But the repressive political culture remains part of the DNA of those who have finally removed him from office. While his successor and long-time companion Emmerson Mnangagwa promised in his first public speech back home “unfolding and full democracy”, he stated in his separate address to ZANU-PF party members in Shona that the train moves on while the dogs are barking. A limerick tweeted already earlier on put it this way: “In Zimbabwe, which just had a coup,/They say that Mugabe is through./Mnangagwa’s the chap/Who’ll fill in the gap,/Though he is an autocrat too.” As the saying has it, a leopard does not change its spots. – The question remains, if a crocodile does change its armoured skin…


Henning Melber is Senior Research Associate of the Nordic Africa Institute and currently the Van Zyl Slabbert Visiting Professor at the University of Cape Town.


What happened – a commented time line

6 November
President Mugabe dismisses Emmerson Mnangagawa as first Vice President of Zimbabwe. Claiming recent assassination attempts, Mnangagwa leaves the country to an unknown destination (rumors mentioned South Africa or China).

14/15 November
The military intervenes for what it calles a “corrective measure” to get rid of “criminal elements” (on second thoughts, there was hardly anyone in the higher echelons of the party and the military, who would have not classified as “criminal elements”). Those referred to were members of Grace Mugabe’s G40 group. Some of them were arrested. Robert Mugabe was put under house arrest. The whereabouts of Grace Mugabe remained unknown. Mugabe was asked to resign but initially refused.

17 November
President Mugabe attends as chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe a graduation ceremony on the campus. After executing his duty (with students graciously accepting his blessing) he takes his usual nap in public and then returns to his residence and into house arrest.

17/18 November
All ten provincial branches of ZANU-PF decide to recall Mugabe as party president and nominate Emmerson Mnangagwa as his successor. Only shortly before he was again appointed by the party as the presidential candidate for the elections in 2018. As a journalist commented: loyalty is a tradable commodity in ZANU-PF.

18 November
The people of Zimbabwe are free to demonstrate on the streets in a manifestation of support to the intervention. For the first time since Independence, soldiers and civilians do not clash but celebrate together. The only damage Harare recorded was the destruction of a big billboard of Mugabe outside of the ZANU-PF headquarters and the dumping of a street sign with Mugabe’s name on it in a dustbin.

19 November
In what is considered as a bizarre speech televised live in the presence of the military commanders, President Mugabe appears confused and erratic, but aware enough not to announce his anticipated resignation. After the speech, the senior military officers defile and shake hands with their Commander, President Mugabe.

19/20 November
Emmerson Mnangagwa is elected at a ZANU-PF meeting as party president. Mugabe calls for a cabinet meeting the next day, while ZANU-PF announces that an impeachment of the Head of State will be initiated.

21 November
Parliament prepares for the impeachment process when the news breaks that the President has handed in a resignation letter. Zimbabweans in all parts of the world dance in the streets.

22 November
Emmerson Mnangagwa returns to Zimbabwe. In the evening he addresses separately the public and the ZANU-PF. His speeches show some marked differences and lkeave wide room for interpretations.

24 November
Zimbabwe has a new head of state: Emmerson Mnangagwa. People all over the world will have to practice how this is properly pronounced, since the name can be a trademark for some time to come. Though it is more difficult to remember than Mugabe, his nickname “the crocodile” is easier to memorize and no tongue breaker for non-Zimbabweans.


Interviews with Henning Melber a selection

All interviews are in Swedish, Danish or Norwegian; no English translation available.

“I den bästa av världar kommer internationella investerare att inse att det inte är någon risk att deras satsningar nationaliseras, utan att de kan göra stora vinster i landet. Det kan resultera i jobb.”

Henning Melber interviewed by TT (Sweden), 22 November 2017

“Han er en ny Mugabe. Han har vært involvert i massedrapene på 1980-tallet, og står nær militæret som de siste tyve årene har vært de som har dratt i alle trådene i Zimbabwe.”

Henning Melber about the new president Emmerson Mnangagwa in Verdens Gang (Norway), 22 November 2017

“Folket har inga illusioner. De tror inte att det är nu som de får frihet.”

Henning Melber interviewed by TT (Sweden), 21 November 2017

“Mphoko har intet grundlag i partiet længere, efter at G40 er blevet elimineret, og derfor er han ikke et alternativ.”

Henning Melber interviewed by DR (Denmark), 20 November 2017

“Nå er Mugabes ambisjoner om å la Grace Mugabes bli hans etterfølger brakt til en ende.”

Henning Melber interviewed by Verdens Gang (Norway), 19 November 2017

“Endelig har folket fått et lite pustehull med ytringsfrihet.”

Henning Melber interviewed by Dagbladet (Norway), 18 November 2017

“Det namibiska utrikesdepartementet håller tyst om den uppgiften, men allt tyder på att Grace Mugabe har lämnat landet.”

Henning Melber interviewed by TT (Sweden), 16 November 2017

“Det här handlar om en maktkamp inom partiet som har pågått under de senaste tio åren.”

Henning Melber interviewed by SVT (Sweden), 15 November 2017

“Militären är inte intresserad av att ta över.”

Henning Melber interviewed by DN (Sweden), 15 November 2017

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