Despite claims to the contrary by the Zimbabwean military spokesperson Major General Sibusiso Moyo, Zimbabwe is in the throes of its first coup d’état since independence in 1980. Robert Mugabe, the only head of state the country has known in its 37-year existence, is today under house arrest, and the former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has long aspired to succeed Mugabe, has returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa, after having fled on November 6.
It appears that Mugabe’s decision to sack Mnangagwa – possibly at the behest of his wife, Grace Mugabe – may turn out to have been his last major decision as president.
These events have provoked much interest and anticipation around the world, and not least from Zimbabwe’s former colonial master, the UK. The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, stated in the House of Commons on November 15 that:
‘this House will remember the brutal litany of [Mugabe’s] 37 years in office; the elections he rigged and stole; the murder and torture of his opponents … Authoritarian rule, whether in Zimbabwe or anywhere else, should have no place in Africa.’
Johnson also warned against any transition “from one unelected tyrant to the next”.
For the past three years, the British government has displayed an interest in reengaging with Zimbabwe. It is an open secret that Britain’s re-engagement identified Mnangagwa as the candidate they could best work with. When the current British ambassador in Harare, Catriona Laing, took up her post in September 2014, her mission was to “rebuild bridges and ensure that re-engagement succeeds to facilitate Mnangagwa’s rise to power”. In September 2017, it was reported that British diplomats were working to secure a Mnangagwa succession “with a US$2 billion economic bail-out underwriting the project”.
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According to diplomats with direct knowledge of succession discussions surrounding the rebuilding of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, Laing has not wavered in her support for Mnangagwa to succeed Mugabe and, since Mnangagwa’s hasty retreat to Pretoria on November 6, it seems the British have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to facilitate Mnangagwa’s unhindered return to Zimbabwe and installation as president of the ZanuPF government. It has been reported that plans to take over the country by force have been in place for some time – and that Mnangagwa was instrumental in those plans
There are unconfirmed reports that a new post-Mugabe deal is under discussion. Under its terms, Mnangagwa would lead a transitional government in Zimbabwe with the support of other political parties leading to full elections in five years’ time. There are suggestions that Mnangagwa has the backing of the Chinese – who recently met with the commander of the coup, General Constantino Chiwenga – while the South African government allowed him to return to Zimbabwe unimpeded on November 15.
So it seems the end of the Mugabe era has come. But one has to ask whether a Mnangagwa presidency would really be a new beginning.
Mnangagwa, known as The Crocodile, has throughout the history of Zimbabwe been complicit in the manipulation of the ZANU-PF election process by promoting violence, intimidation and repression as well as illegal administrative strategies to ensure ZANU-PF election success. He has also long faced allegations of corruption and diamond looting in both Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In 2012, the NGO Global Witness released an investigative report that revealed how ZANU-PF and the military elite used the proceeds from looted diamonds to fund human rights abuses. The report specifically points to the complicit conduct of Mnangagwa and his ally Chiwenga.
Mnangagwa has also been accused of playing a pivotal role in the Matabeleland Massacres of 1982-1987. In January 1983, Mugabe launched a massive security clampdown on the unarmed citizens of the Matabeleland region, violence that was both politically and ethnically motivated. This episode of relentless and persistent state-orchestrated violence, known as Gukurahundi, was perpetrated by an elite army unit known as the Fifth Brigade. It is estimated that 20,000 people were massacred and many hundreds of thousands of others tortured, beaten or raped. Mnangagwa has denied involvement and has blamed the army.
On March 4, 1983, at a rally held not far from Lupane in Matabeleland, Mnangagwa publicly conflated being a citizen of Matabeleland with being a political dissident. According to news reports at the time, he told his audience the government had “an option” of “burning down … all the villages infected with dissidents”, saying “the campaign against dissidents can only succeed if the infrastructure which nurtures them is destroyed”.
He described dissidents as “cockroaches” and the Fifth Brigade as “DDT” brought in to “eradicate” them. In short, he made it clear that the destruction of the civilian population of Matabeleland was part of a deliberate state policy – and the very next day came the country’s worst massacre yet, on the banks of the Ciwale river, when 62 people were killed.
The crimes against humanity perpetrated in Matabeleland left hundreds of thousands traumatised – many still don’t know where their loved ones are buried. The victims of Gukurahundi are deeply divided, stigmatised and discriminated against. Their plight will go unaddressed if the person who succeeds Mugabe is himself responsible for appalling political crimes and harms to which millions of Zimbabweans have been subjected.
If Zimbabwe is to step back from the brink of state failure, it must find a way to address the Mugabe regime’s crimes, including Mnangagwa’s role in Gukurahundi. At the very least, Zimbabwe’s neighbours and the international community alike must stand in the way of those responsible for state-sponsored atrocities and corruption that have been the hallmark of Mugabe’s government for 37 years obtaining or maintaining positions in the post-Mugabe government of Zimbabwe.
In order to promote a stable, secure and reconciled Zimbabwe, the crimes of the regime of Mugabe must be addressed, and this includes Mnangagwa’s crimes and his role in Gukurahundi. The British government seems to have other plans.
Hazel Cameron is a lecturer of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews
This article originally appeared on The Conversation