The toppling of a tyrant is usually an occasion for celebration: fireworks, dancing in the streets, general merry-making. But not ― so far, at least ― in Zimbabwe.
First, no one is quite sure that Robert Mugabe has been truly toppled. He’s been around for so long that it is still hard to comprehend that 93-year-old Comrade Bob may no longer be in charge. And second, the man most likely to succeed him, the former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, is not exactly a poster boy for the ideals of liberal democracy.
He has been known since his days as a fighter against white minority rule as ‘the crocodile’ because of his survival skills, cunning and cruelty. His followers are said to belong to the ‘Lacoste’ faction of the ruling party. Loveable, he ain’t.
A US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks said of him: ‘Mnangagwa, widely feared and despised throughout the country, could be an even more repressive leader if he turns out to be Mugabe’s anointed one.’
Well, he isn’t Mugabe’s anointed one any more, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be any less feared. According to the Labour MP Kate Hoey: ‘He is in many ways the one figure in Zimbabwe who inspires even greater terror than Mugabe.’
So why the fearsome reputation? Cast your mind back to the 1980s, not long after Mugabe came to power, when an estimated 20,000 people were massacred in Matabeleland, a centre of opposition to his rule. Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s enforcer as head of the secret police, the Central Intelligence Organisation, was held responsible for those killings ― and for much brutality since then as well.
In the words of Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean: ‘Over the years, like his master Mugabe, he has been accused of masterminding election violence, kidnappings, extortion, plundering national resources, and other crimes.’
But crucially, as a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, he has retained the support of the country’s military. That’s why when the men in uniform insist that what has happened is not a coup, what they mean is that they do not want power for themselves; they want power for a ‘legitimate’ political leader, by the name of Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Toppling a tyrant is usually an occasion for celebration: but not yet in Zimbabwe
(By the way, if, like some of my former BBC colleagues, you can’t quite get your tongue round his name, just think of it as four separate syllables: Mmm-nan-gag-wa.)
It is important for Zimbabwe that its post-Mugabe rulers are not regarded by their neighbours as having seized power illegally by force of arms. (These days, both the African Union and the regional grouping the Southern Africa Development Community take a dim view of military take-overs.) So the pro-Mnangagwa forces were careful to win the backing of both their most powerful neighbour, South Africa, and the country’s biggest foreign investor, China, before they made their move.
According to the respected specialist newsletter Africa Confidential: ‘Although the [military] action was triggered by the sacking of Mnangagwa on 6 November, it had been planned several weeks earlier, with senior officers consulting South African and Chinese officials.’
So was it a coup? It definitely looked like one, and it definitely sounded like one, complete with men in fatigues reading army statements on national TV ― so yes, I’d say it was a coup. The president is confined to his residence, but he does seem to be in some sort of negotiation with the generals. So let’s call it a ‘soft coup’, which might end up as an agreed transfer of powers to ― oh, I don’t know ― perhaps the former vice-president, a certain Emmerson Mnangagwa?
Which leaves the question of Mrs Mugabe, who had hoped to supplant Mr Mnangagwa as her husband’s successor and who was the real target of the army’s takeover.
Grace Mugabe is, if anything, even more reviled than her rival for the throne ― known variously as the First Shopper, or Gucci Grace, because of her well-developed taste for bling, she now faces the unwelcome prospect of spending the rest of her life in exile. (She is four decades younger than her husband, and it is impossible to imagine that she’d have much fun in a Zimbabwe run by Mr Mnangagwa.)
The sad truth is that the events of the past few days offer little hope that the country’s future will be any better than its immediate past. One tyrant is gone; another looks set to take his place.
The people of Zimbabwe, worn down by economic collapse, political atrophy and a regime of relentless cruelty, surely deserve better.