Emmerson Mnangagwa is as ruthless as the man he replaces, but more grounded in reality
It took time for the dancing and honking of horns to die down. After 37 years in power, Robert Mugabe resigned on November 21st. Long-suffering Zimbabweans went wild. But as the party ended, many began to ask whether and how his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, would be any better. Mr Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe henchman notorious for persecuting the opposition and for organising the rigging of elections, returned from a short exile on November 22nd, promising “a new democracy”. “We want to grow our economy, we want peace, we want jobs,” he told supporters in Harare, the capital.
Hope that Mr Mnangagwa will deliver any of these rests on two pillars. The first is that he plainly realises that Zimbabwe desperately needs economic help from abroad. The fiscal deficit, according to various analysts, is a whopping 12-15% of GDP. Inflation, variously measured, is 25-50%. Foreign reserves could run out in months. The infrastructure is falling apart. “Harare is the pothole capital of the world,” grumbles a former minister.
Second, Mr Mnangagwa seems to accept that in order to receive help he will not only have to get the government’s spending under control, but also enact political reforms that culminate in proper elections.
Sceptics recall that much the same hope was expressed when a unity government was formed in 2009 after the brutally rigged election the year before. In the event, Mr Mugabe failed to enact any of the major reforms he had pledged. This time, if Mr Mnangagwa is to get the cash and Zimbabwe be forgiven any of its $9bn in outstanding debts, he will have to fulfil whatever promises he makes.
Among measures urgently needed to reassure potential investors is a repeal of Mr Mugabe’s “indigenisation” law that called for firms to be majority-owned by black Zimbabweans. In the past year or so Mr Mnangagwa had hinted he would enact one. He has also discussed coming to terms with the farmers, nearly all of them white, who still own legal title to some of the more than 4,000 farms that were confiscated over the past 17 years.
Political reform will be even harder. So far the upheaval has been, in essence, a battle within the ruling party, Zanu-PF. By the time Mr Mnangagwa returned, dozens of Mr Mugabe’s allies had been arrested or had gone into hiding. These include Ignatius Chombo, the finance minister, and Grace Mugabe, the former president’s wife, who is holed up in her vast palace.
Many doubt that Mr Mnangagwa would allow a fair election: ie, one that he might actually lose. Under the constitution his presidential term must conclude at the end of his predecessor’s five-year mandate—by August next year. Already there has been talk that he could get a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to extend his term of office, perhaps by two or three years. The main leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has so far set his face against such an extension. But though it would be against the spirit of the new order, Zanu-PF has the parliamentary numbers to enforce it.
In any event, the opposition is painfully weak. Earlier this week Mr Tsvangirai, who was robbed of the presidency at the elections in 2008, was bouncing back to his old hale-and-hearty form, rousing a crowd to a pitch of excitement at Mr Mugabe’s humbling. He is clearly still the main opposition leader. But he is stricken with cancer and lost credibility during his period in coalition from 2009 to 2013. His party has been rent with division and has produced no natural successor.
Moreover, some analysts think the MDC would struggle to win elections, even if they were fair and it entered an alliance with other opposition parties. And Mr Mnangagwa, who is known as the crocodile for his tactic of waiting patiently before attacking ruthlessly, may well chip away at the opposition by enticing its more senior figures to support him. Indeed, if he were to offer Mr Tsvangirai an important post, the betting is that he would take it.
Foreign governments, especially in the West, are in a quandary. On the one hand, they want to encourage Mr Mnangagwa to embark rapidly on the minimum economic and political reforms needed to unlock largesse from the World Bank, IMF and others. On the other hand, they remain wary that he could pocket concessions, as Mr Mugabe always did, while consolidating control over the country with no genuine intention to hold free elections.
Tendai Biti, a former finance minister, complains that the UN has yet to send an envoy. Though the UN Development Programme has been helping with a biometric voter register, Mr Biti and other members of the opposition want deeper international involvement in the transition, especially in the election. “It isn’t good enough to outsource it to SADC,” he says of the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc that in the past has rubber-stamped rigged elections.
If Mr Mnangagwa can steady the economy and create a new mood of harmony during the post-Mugabe transition, perhaps he could win respect, if not the popularity that has so far eluded him. Despite his reputation as a party hatchet-man, many Zimbabweans hope that he can surprise them and turn over a kinder leaf. “People are confused,” says Joice Mujuru, a former vice-president who was expelled from the ruling party in 2014. “This situation is not at all static.”