Back to the future for Zimbabwe: Mnangagwa’s false start (OPINION PIECE)


As undergraduates in our day, one of the most cynical commentaries on post-independent Africa was French writer, Rene Dumont’s book False Start in Africa (1966).

Those were the years of military coups and counter-coups, mostly in West Africa where Ghana’s first president and Pan-African luminary Kwame Nkrumah was deposed in 1966; or Nigeria in the coup of 1966 which subsequently led to the civil war (1967-1970) and its ill-fated Biafra; but also in North Africa when in 1969, the young Colonel Muammar Gaddafi deposed the Libyan monarch, Idris.

As in most such historical precedents in Africa or elsewhere, the term “false start” is a retrospective evaluation of an act usually premised on the necessity for change or revolution, and the associated and implicit expectations that tomorrow has to be better than today.

In the case of Zimbabwe’s coup of November 14/15 2017, the euphoric claims on the part of its architects and apologists, and even the expectations of a new dawn of political emancipation and economic prosperity, have been the subject of controversy, claims and counter-claims, from the very onset.

Exactly a year on since the coup, the evidence speaks for itself: it is back to the future (things from the past are being currently recycled, while packaged as though they are something new).

Political front

The incomplete implementation of the 2013 national constitution has become almost institutionalised to the extent that Zimbabweans have almost forgotten that ours is patently an “unconstitutional democracy” exacerbated by a coup which, by its very definition, is nothing but a coup.

Hence the burden of illegitimacy is one that threatens to bring President Emmerson Mnangagwa to his knees, sooner rather than later, and possibly through a similar agency as that which in the first place has placed him in this invidious position in history.

The hope that the July general elections would redeem him and his regime had turned out to be a pipedream, fading into a growing nightmare on the back of the massacre of innocent citizens on August 1 2018. This incident and its aftermath have only helped to highlight just how sick the Zimbabwean polity has been over the last two decades which we have in our previous writings characterised as the years of the securocratic state.

This is an establishment held together by a military apparatus, with its genesis in a liberation struggle that was essentially more militaristic than political or ideological, and one which has girded the post-Independence period, almost indiscernibly, until the reality of the coup on November 15 2017, and the killing of civilians on August 1 2018. So, if there is anything instructive to be extracted from the ongoing Kgalema Motlanthe Commission on the killings, it is this tragic reality: Zimbabwe is a military state, a securocratic state in which former president Robert Mugabe, and now his successor Mnangagwa, have been, at best, mere expedient symbols of it, at worst, a reflection of its authoritarianism.

It has to be recalled how Mugabe was conveniently and expediently installed as Zanu leader in Chimoio in January 1977 by the same military elements some of whom were implicated in the murder of the party’s external wing leader Herbert Chitepo and hundreds of comrades in 1975.

Fast-forward to November 2017, some of the actors who featured in the goings-on leading to the Chitepo assassination in Lusaka, Zambia, and events in Chifombo, eastern Zambia, in 1975 have become part of the civilian face of the coup which brought Mnangagwa to power before the disputed July presidential election.

As will be illustrated shortly, Mnangagwa is as dispensable, if not also an accidental candidate for the securocratic state for whom the November event was not about “restoring legacy”, as its architects claimed, but indicative of an advanced stage in the inevitable self-destruction and fall of Zanu-PF and its state.

As internal events in Zanu-PF now show, for this is a situation beyond retrieval; the party is facing an inexorable end in the final analysis even though it may appear that it has recovered and will renew itself. The tensions and looming potential clashes between Mnangagwa and one of his deputies, Constantino Chiwenga, cannot be taken lightly.

Indeed, the Zanu-PF of Mugabe is markedly different from the Zanu PF of Mnangagwa which not only lacks internal cohesion but is deeply divided over an unresolved leadership issue arising from the coup, its dynamics and conflicting expectations of its architects, hence the Mnangagwa-Chiwenga battle so soon after the coup.

While we will leave this for time to tell, the signs of a cracking edifice with collapsed pillars around it and a gradually sinking foundation are there for all to see. This is the reality of Zanu-PF now, which has been crumbling since its 2014 congress that dumped Joice Mujuru and scores of other high-profile party leaders.

The imminent Esigodini party conference is already characterised by fights behind the scenes as shown by the youths and provinces like Masvingo insisting Mnangagwa is the Zanu PF candidate for the 2023 elections, just over three months after he was controversially elected by a very thin margin. Chiwenga will not easily let go what he views as the military and his own personal project. This means the almost inevitable fallout between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga is going to be messy and will have a far-reaching impact on Zanu-PF and the nation as well.

Economic front

Here, the reality of failure is evident; its back to the future, for sure, as the economic nightmare of 2005-2008 slowly returns with a vengeance. The current news headlines around economic turmoil, cash and foreign currency shortages, the explosion of the black market and rising inflation speak for themselves.

So, if these problems remain as structural as they have been for the last two decades, then it was naïve to have expected a solution in the aftermath of the coup, let alone under Mnangagwa’s leadership and his “new dispensation” mantra “Zimbabwe is open for business”.

It was always a fallacy; a misleading notion, to have expected anything new from a man who has been part and parcel of the very system and leadership that is largely clueless on the economy, given to institutionalised profligacy, endemic corruption and unbridled patronage.

For the structural foundations of the economic malaise are almost synonymous with the political imperatives of the securocratic state: violence or the threat of it and, therefore, the need for a bloated state operations designed less in relation to the functions and operations of an average or normal government than, the objective of less policing regulating and intimidating its citizens; and the legacy of patronage, through which the party and state are conflated in a laager of self-defence and self-preservation, but at inordinate cost to the focus, and at the expense of prospective and potential investment in production, economic development and wealth creation for the country.

That is why Finance minister Mthuli Ncube’s austerity measures are already facing internal resistance.

Mnangagwa’s ascendancy

Therefore, Mnangagwa’s rise to power has to be understood in the context of the growing dominance of the securocratic state which, from its inception in 1980, he served as Minister of State Security up to 1988 formally, but in reality, embedded in national security issues throughout the period since he worked with Rhodesian Security supremo, Ken Flower and others like David “Dan” Stannard.

Essentially, Mnangagwa’s career is founded in historical circumstances in general and, as ironic as it may appear to some, on Mugabe in particular. For, hasn’t he gloated in years gone by as Mugabe’s “chosen son”? and still insists he was loyal to Mugabe to the very end.

Mugabe himself recalls how as a teacher in Zvishavane in 1945, Emmerson’s father seconded the little boy to live and cook for him (a detail which betrayed his age; he could not have been a mere three-year-old in 1945, but more likely seven or so!).

The relationship between the teacher and “son” was renewed during the prison years of the mid-1960s to the 1970s when Mugabe was serving in the beginning of his 10-year term of political detention that began in 1964, and with Mnangagwa, who had also been imprisoned for 10 years in 1965, following his involvement in that sabotage of a train in Masvingo (then Fort Victoria).

Even though Mnangagwa was freed and deported to Zambia in 1973, he would have benefitted politically from his brief but intensive association with the old nationalists that included, besides Mugabe himself, Ndabaningi Sithole, Maurice Nyagumbo, Leopold Takawira, Edgar Tekere, Enos Nkala and Morton Malianga on the Zanu side. Zapu nationalists were also in detention at the same time.

By all accounts, Mnangagwa appears to have disengaged almost completely from Zimbabwean politics on his release from prison, and subsequent return to Zambia where he enrolled at the local university to study law.

“He was now truly Zambian, either disenchanted with Zimbabwe and its politics, bitter at his experience in prison, or committed to his prospective career as a lawyer,” recalls a fellow Zimbabwean who was at the University of Zambia with Mnangagwa after his release.

Whether it was because of his marriage to Tongogara’s sister in 1974/75, or the political upheavals in Zanu following the Nhari Rebellion of 1974 and the subsequent assassination of Chitepo and other comrades in 1975, Mnangagwa re-engaged in Zimbabwean politics, albeit reluctantly and/or at least inadvertently in the late 1970s.

Besides, he was almost a victim of the Nhari Rebellion, witnessing as he did the miraculous escape of his brother-in-law Josiah Tongogara who had been the main target of the rebels that stormed Lusaka during the historic Unity Accords of December 1974; the process which saw the release from detention of the Zapu and Zanu leaders and concluded a unity pact by all the Zimbabwean liberation movements under the provisional leadership of Bishop Abel Muzorerwa.

Apart from his brief skirmish and the subsequent internecine conflict in Zanu — in which he might not have been an active participant, but nevertheless an associate — that saw the assassination of Chitepo in Lusaka on March 18 1975, and the related murders and executions of comrades at Chifombo, Mnangagwa remained somewhat outside mainstream liberation politics after prison.

Some of his detractors have variously accused him of consciously turning his back on the struggle supposedly refusing to join them as the Zanla combatants moved base from Zambia to Mgagao in Tanzania in late 1975.

In reality, however, the events in Zanu of 1975 left many a Zimbabwean, at home and in exile, despondent and discouraged about the future of the liberation movement.

So, if indeed Mnangagwa rebuffed the call to revolution, he was in the majority of those who were cautious, not least on the part of one who had come from jail and just commenced a career in law in Lusaka.

The circumstances under which Mnangagwa finally arrives in Mozambique in 1977 are less clear if not also controversial. One version is that he was an itinerant arrival to the struggle, hence the innocuous title, and even spurious functions, of the position he landed as “Special Assistant” to Mugabe at Chimoio in 1977: neither a member of the central committee/politburo nor a functionary in Zanla at the time. Mugabe last year tried to shed light on this at the height of his succession battle.

The other version is that he was recruited by Tongogara, the de facto Zanla commander in those heady days (and for whom Mugabe’s installation as leader was as prudent as it was expedient, following the events in which Chitepo was assassinated in 1975 and for which Tongogara was the main suspect) to “spy and monitor” the movements of a new leader about whom only a few in the guerrilla movement were either familiar with, let alone confident in.

Therefore, the version that it was Mugabe himself who chose Mnangagwa as his “Special Assistant” is less credible: Mugabe was in a very invidious if not vulnerable circumstances in 1977, certainly bereft of the authority to call the shots; and more recently, Mugabe himself has thrown aspersions on Mnangagwa’s political history, including the allegations about a surreptitious arrival in Mozambique of the man who became his “Special Assistant” in 1977, later Minister of State Security (1980-88), and his political confidante throughout the period they worked together.

A confidence so brutally betrayed, through Mnangagwa’s complicity in the November coup, so said Mugabe in an interview a few months ago and, more recently, as asserted by Jonathan Moyo in his interview in lawyer Alex Magaisa’s blog.

President by accident?

Whatever the case, it could only have been Mnangagwa’s political and personal association with Mugabe that could constitute the basis of his claim to succession to his “father”. Mugabe was Mnangagwa’s pedestal to power; hence he is the most ardent Mugabeist there is now in local politics, as ironic as it might be.

For, Mnangagwa does not feature at all in the annals of Zimbabwean nationalist politics, no more or no less than the average political actor in the history of the struggle beyond his sabotage activities, prison and late return to action. He is a mere shadow of even Mugabe himself, not to mention such giants of Zimbabwe’s history as those whose names characterise and punctuate it: whether it is Joshua Nkomo or Ndabaningi Sithole, Edison Zvobgo, JZ Moyo, Leopold Takawira or Chitepo. Not even in the category of Simon Muzenda, Joseph Msika, Tekere, Dumiso Dabengwa or Solomon Mujuru, among many other nationalists! He is at the same level as Sydney Sekeramayi, John Nkomo and others.

Therefore, it is doubtful that he would have arrived at State House through any other agency other than the coup. Even then this appears to have been accidental, not by design. For example, at the crack of dawn on November 15 2017, the real coup leader, Chiwenga was in charge. That is why he won’t give up the project easily. It may also not entirely be correct to say it is Chiwenga’s project either until we peel the onion that has been the coup.

Mnangagwa had fled a week earlier on November 6 2017, having been sacked as vice-president and facing imminent criminal charges over various issues as Mugabe and his loyalists besieged the man.

But Chiwenga had braved it all, literally; returned to Harare from China on November 12 at the threat of arrest; addresses a press conference the following day in the presence of his fellow commanders and virtually the entire military hierarchy, throwing the gauntlet at Mugabe and, in retrospect, settling in motion the coup that became a reality hardly 48 hours later. One mistake in this process, Chiwenga would have been history and, likewise, Phillip Valerio Sibanda, Sibusiso Moyo and whoever else wants to take credit for these events.

In retrospect, Chiwenga’s claim to State House was frustrated by a combination of technicalities associated with his status in the military, and diplomatic manoeuvres on the part of regional and global actors complicit in the coup.

So he could not have assumed the status of head of state while still in military uniform; that would have betrayed the reality of the coup, laying it bare for a predictable reaction on the part of not only the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and African Union (AU), but also the international community most of whose representatives sought to hide behind the lie that this was a “military-assisted transition” simply because, just like most Zimbabweans, they were tired of Mugabe.

In his recent interview with Magaisa in his Big Saturday Read blog, Jonathan Moyo reveals that Chiwenga almost turned his back on the coup, in favour of the process whereby Mugabe remained in office, pending the resolution of the succession question at the Zanu PF congress a fortnight later, hence Moyo makes the point that it was the conspiracy between some Zanu PF hawks and “key military elements” aligned to Mnangagwa that prevailed, forcing Mugabe to capitulate on November 20 2017.

Besides, as is now well-known, the British in particular (through its recently redeployed Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing), were not only sworn to Mnangagwa’s ascendancy, but will have liaised with both regional and global factors towards the sanitisation of the coup and ensuring their man got the crown.

In this regard, I recall my meeting with Laing in her office in Harare in June 2016 when she angrily retorted to our (the Platform for Concerned Citizens) proposal for a National Transitional Authority: “Ibbo, you are seeking to pre-empt Emmerson from landing the post he has been waiting for 40 years …”

With hindsight, it is now clear what that was all about. It may well explain why Sadc and the AU after the coup, as well as other bodies and the international community took the position they took on the coup, setting a wrong precedent not only for Zimbabwe, but for the region and Africa. What will they now say if the same thing happens in Zimbabwe again or elsewhere in the region or the continent?

Curing the coup

So from the very outset, Mnangagwa’s reign has been founded on shifting sands and the associated political and economic dynamics, with a high level of insecurity for himself, his regime, and Zimbabwe in general.

All this has been exacerbated in the aftermath of a disputed election and evidence that he is not popular is his own party which got a two-thirds majority while he only scraped through.

Hence, his political fortunes since the coup have been diminishing with the passage of time, not least because of the incipient power struggle between himself and Chiwenga; and increasingly by an unenviable economic environment whose political and social ramifications could be calamitous.

There was the expectation, especially on the part of both his supporters and those who genuinely believed he could engineer an economic miracle on the basis of which the coup would be cured or forgotten, and his political profile enhanced. That these expectations were both misplaced can be illustrated with reference to two factors which also describe the character and personality of Mnangagwa.

Enter Fanon

Analysis of the factors and processes attendant to the coup refers in the context of “the pitfalls of national consciousness” and a retreat to the ethnic laager.

To begin with, the revelation about the “key elements” in the military reference to whom Jonathan Moyo makes in his interview. Is it a coincidence that the main among them, namely Sibanda and SB Moyo, are not only former Zipra commanders, but also Karanga from Mnangagwa’s Mnangagwa’s “home” region, along with all the others that Tendai Biti describes so sarcastically as, “Sibanda, Moyo and Associates”, the ethnic alliance that has become a distinguishing feature of the Mnangagwa regime, especially the military-security establishment? Even his key appointments in government speak to that.

There is a related argument, posited less as an accusation than a justification, that such “ethnic collusion” as has been characteristic of Mnangagwa’s appointments across the state sectors — including such advisers that straddle the professions of economists, bankers, lawyers, medical specialists, and even writers and spin-doctors — is a Karanga response to three decades or more of Zezuru hegemony during the Mugabe era.

No doubt, ethnicity is, historically, a function of African nationalists’ politics. By definition, African nationalism is largely a “coalition” of ethnic factors mostly imagined than real, but nonetheless serving their purpose within a given timeframe or historical context.

However, the old nationalists like Joshua Nkomo or even Mugabe himself were much smarter than Mnangagwa in their management of ethnic politics. And indeed, this is how the likes of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania or Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia helped build their respective nations, as social formations in which ethnic politics was subsumed or rendered secondary to the nation.

There has not been any period in Zimbabwe’s post-independence history during which “ethnic collusion” has been as narrow and as blatant as it has seen over the last year since the coup. It might help to define Mnangagwa’s regime, but it is also inherently its weakness and vulnerability, reflecting as it does a level of insecurity on the part of the leader and, therefore, falling short of the status and stature of those nationalist giants that have graced our continent.

Burden of continuity

Among the negative ramifications of the securocratic state, as it has expressed itself first under Mugabe and now Mnangagwa ever since 2000 to the present day, has been the primacy of the “national security” axis in the state; or the reality of military dominance; especially ever since the coup.
This renders the state incapable of reform, neither politically nor economically; it is difficult to reform without unbundling securocracy itself. This is the dilemma that continues to confront post-coup Zimbabwe.

Obviously, an election outcome in which an opposition candidate could have been declared the victor might have helped resolve this dilemma, in the opportunity for a new start in the Zimbabwean political and economic process. But, predictably, the securocrats would not allow it and, as they have done since the 2000 elections, subverted the democratic process that might have been the beginnings of a genuine transition. Chiwenga and others saved Mnangagwa from defeat by MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa, again reinforcing the point that without the military Mnangagwa would not have been President.

More significantly, August 1 killings were meant to put paid, at least for the time-being, to any such prospects, by pre-empting what indeed could have escalated into yet another November 2017-like uprising on the part of a populace so evidently frustrated and angry at the theft of their vote. Again without military intervention, Mnangagwa would have been stopped in his tracks.


So, in the meantime, it is back to the future, the persistence of only the illusion that a military state can reform, politically and lead the much-needed economic recovery and growth.

As appears more likely, only mass protests on a national scale might rescue the situation and herald the beginnings of a new era; or, as remains still remote, the emergence of an enlightened leadership within the establishment itself, courageous enough to cure the coup and return Zimbabwe to constitutional and democratic governance, push for meaningful economic and social reform and re-engage the international community to rescue Zimbabwe.

So far Mnangagwa has failed to measure up to such a task and expectations; it is most unlikely that he will ever live up to that, although he still has a window of opportunity to redeem himself and save the nation.

This article originally appeared on Zimbabwe Independent.

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