Sophie Berry examines the context of and international reaction to Mugabe’s departure, and considers the path forward for Zimbabwe
Less than forty years have passed since Zimbabwe was granted independence. It is almost inconceivable that such unprecedented events have occurred during the country’s relatively short history. At the centre of Zimbabwe’s tireless conflict, suffering and injustice lies one man: Robert Mugabe.
How did the once revolutionary ‘father of the nation’ become the face of an authoritarian regime? Why has it taken so long for Mugabe to be removed and how has it now been achieved? Who is Emmerson Mnangagwa and what does he see for the future of the country? Is now the time for celebration or should we be cautiously optimistic that the end of Mugabe’s reign will result in democratisation? These questions are only at the start of a very long list of uncertainties for Zimbabweans and global commentators alike. Amongst such anxiety perhaps the question at the forefront of people’s mind is, what is next for Zimbabwe?
To describe recent decades in Zimbabwe’s as ‘eventful’ is an understatement. Even prior to Mugabe’s election as Prime Minister in 1980 and Presidential in 1987, the country witnessed major conflict and political disorder. Born out of British colonialism in the late nineteenth century, by 1923 Zimbabwe became a ‘self-governing’ colony then called Southern Rhodesia. Unsurprisingly, as so often is the story of British imperialism, this ‘self-governing’ was not conducted by indigenous Rhodesians. Rather, Rhodesia was governed by a minority of conservative white settlers. Little over thirty years later, this government declared independence as Rhodesia and continued to rule in the interests of the whites, whom accounted for less than eight per cent of the total population.
It was here, in 1964, that Robert Mugabe emerged as leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), a key player in the fight for African independence. The next thirteen years saw the Rhodesian Bush War, a civil war taking more than 20,000 lives and eventually resulting in a ravaged but independent Zimbabwe. However, even as Mugabe, the liberating hero, assumed the role of Prime Minister, there were early indications of the oppressive political culture that could engulf Zimbabwe for the next forty years. The 1980 election which saw Mugabe rise to power was not a completely democratic notion. Despite the widespread support for the new leader, voter intimidation from the Zimbabwe African National Liberal Army (the military strand of Mugabe’s revolutionary force), was ever present.
Despite rhetoric of national unity, stability and law and order, it was not long before the path from white minority rule to black minority rule began to take shape. Mugabe and members of the ZANU were extremely wary of government opposition and felt threatened by dissidents from other revolutionary strands which had been cultured during the war. Almost immediately it became clear that the party born out of revolutionary spirit was beginning to conduct a coercive regime willing to use any means against its people in exchange for maintaining power. The authoritarian state only expanded in 1987 when Mugabe was declared executive President. This, a position which combined the roles of head of state, head of government, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, also enabling him dissolve parliament and run for an unlimited number of terms.
Alongside mass violence in attempt to create a one-party state, Mugabe’s government also oversaw the country’s economy collapse throughout the 1990s. By 2000, living standards had declined from what they were in 1980; life expectancy was significantly reduced, average wages were lower, and unemployment had trebled. All this whilst Mugabe and those closest to him lived in splendour. The circle of elites closest to Mugabe are as of much interest as the man himself. The events directly leading up to Mugabe’s resignation arguably came out of attempts by Mugabe’s second wife Grace to continue, what is being described as, the ‘family dynasty’.
Allegations such as these began to circulate last year after it became clear that there was a clash of political ambitions between Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, and the vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. After much speculation, Mnangagwa was removed from his post earlier this month. This justified by claims that he displayed ‘traits of disloyalty’. For Grace Mugabe, this provided an easier route to becoming leader of Zimbabwe once her husband could no longer govern.
It was this divisive move which led elements of Zimbabwe’s army (ZDF) to seize control of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe on the evening of the 14th November. The military intervention, which despite looking like a coup, sounding like a coup, was confirmed ‘not a coup’ by the ZDF. However, it was made clear that the ZDF backed Mnangagwa and as a result demanded that Mugabe was removed and that the former vice president was reinstated. After much uncertainty in the following days, not just within Zimbabwe but globally, Mugabe eventually resigned from the presidency a week after the coup-like intervention began.
Mugabe out, Mnangawa in – but what does this really mean for the future of Zimbabwe? Across the country there is no doubt that there is a widespread feeling of relief. However, the extent to which celebrations are in order should not be overestimated.
So, who is Emmerson Mnangawa? Nicknamed ‘the crocodile’, supposedly with reference to his ruthless and cunning nature, he does not have a history of championing democracy. Often described as Mugabe’s right-hand man, he was propelled into politics after helping the fight for independence in 1980. As security minister, it was forces under his control that conducted the massacre of some 20,000 civilians in an attempt to remove all political opposition. He was also accused of masterminding attacks on opposition supporters after the 2008 election.
During his first speech as president, Mnangawa vowed to serve all citizens and promised a new democracy. But how optimistic should we really be about the new president facilitating the process of democratisation? The president’s priorities should now be returning to political legitimacy and restoring constitutional order. It is presumed that Mnangawa will serve out the remainder of Mugabe’s term before holding elections at some point in mid-next year. The idea of democratic elections certainly leaves Zimbabweans feeling very positive for the future. It seems as though there is genuine optimism for positive change. Perhaps this in part comes out of the belief that there is little that could make the people of Zimbabwe more oppressed.
But, while being optimistic is all very well, it is important for global powers to work with the new leadership in Zimbabwe to ensure real change takes place. What must not be forgotten is that Zimbabwe has a history of voter intimidation and serious doubt surrounding the accuracy of elections. Furthermore, the power of the president must not be underestimated. As it stands, Mnangawa has assumed the role as has head of state, head of government, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Of course, optimism is vital to enable positive change can occur and there is no doubt that the removal of Mugabe is the crucial first step in enabling Zimbabwe to progress politically and economically. However, perhaps a sense of cautious optimism may be more appropriate. The world will watch on with great anticipation in the coming months to see what the future brings for Zimbabwe. It is clear that the revocation of Mugabe’s deeply embedded authoritarian system will not be a simple one.
A great deal of ambiguity surrounds the future of Zimbabwe; however, one thing is clear: the fight is not yet over.