Zimbabwe deposed a dictator, but could not eliminate corruption. Time for a second chance?

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Despite promises to improve the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s country continues to excel in repression of peaceful protest and freedom of speech. Three years after the expulsion of dictator Robert Mugabe Zimbabwe seems to be back at square one.

‘The only fear we have is that everything will get worse under Mnangagwa,’ MO* noted in September 2019 in Mbare, a slum in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. That fear seems to be becoming a reality. Several prominent figures in the country have been arrested. Corruption and repression are at an all-time high.

On the 4th of August, after weeks of persistent protests, President Mnangagwa addressed the nation in an unexpected television speech. He stated that his government is facing ‘many obstacles and attacks’.

Mnangagwa’s strong language is reminiscent of Robert Mugabe.

‘The rotten apples that have tried to divide our people and weaken our systems will be washed away,’ the president promised. The economic challenges Zimbabwe faces — nearly 800 percent inflation — are said to be the result of ‘dark forces’.

Strong language, reminiscent of his illustrious predecessor Robert Mugabe.

In his speech Mnangagwa did not mention the constitutional right to protest peacefully nor the Zimbabwean government’s obligation to comply with international human rights standards.

During the speech, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter caught wind on Twitter. Celebrities such as actress Thandie Newton and rapper Ice Cube jumped on the bandwagon as the country’s political and economic crises transcended its own borders for the first time in ages.

Rotten apples?

The latest wave of protests against the Mnangagwa government has been dragging on for weeks. ‘The Zimbabwean authorities are increasingly arresting arbitrary government critics,’ stated Human Rights Watch in a report.

On the 20th of July, Hopewell Chin’ono, an internationally renowned journalist, and Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of the political group Transform Zimbabwe were up. Both men were denied bail and remain in custody until today. The charge against them? ‘Incitement of public violence.’

‘The Zimbabwean authorities are increasingly arresting arbitrary government critics.’

In a series of Facebook posts, Chin’ono made connections between the son of the Zimbabwean president, Collins Mnangagwa, and Drax International, a company registered in the United Arab Emirates with Zimbabwe’s Delish Nguwaya at the helm. Drax had just secured a contract worth $60 million to provide medical equipment to contain the Covid-19 outbreak in Zimbabwe. No time was wasted on launching a public tender. The fact that Drax won the contract is remarkable – the company has no proven history of supplying medical equipment.

Both parties denied any corrupt dealings in the tendering process. Nevertheless, Chin’ono’s investigation led to the resignation of Health Minister Obadiah Moyo.

The Drax scandal was but a droplet in a long series of corruption scandals. Out of dissatisfaction Chin’ono and Ngarivhume called for national protests on the 31st of July. ‘Our country does not function because of corruption,’ Ngarivhume said.


On the eve of the planned national demonstration, security forces invaded the home of Mduduzi Mathuthu, a prominent journalist of the online newspaper Zimlive. When the man turned out to be untraceable, the officers arrested Mathuthu’s three nephews and his sister in an attempt to force him to turn himself in. They were later released.

One of the nephews, Advent Mathuthu (25), was charged with inciting public violence after flyers were found stating ‘Mnangagwa & his cabinet must resign.’ The other nephew, Tawanda Muchehiwa (22), appeared to have been tortured by officers for two days before being dumped near his house. He was admitted to the hospital with serious injuries.

In the build-up to the big protest march of July 31st, an impressive police force emerged on the streets of the big cities. Several people, including award-winning author Tsitsi Dangarembga, and opposition spokeswoman Fadzayi Mahere, defied the police. They were all arrested and later released on bail.

The accusations against them are vague, but they seem to be connected to disregarding the COVID-19-related lockdown. Human rights groups speak of officers making unlawful arrests, inflicting injuries and stalking civilians and activists.

History of violence

Corruption and state violence are nothing new in the southern African country. Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power in 2017, initially as interim president after a coup against his predecessor and former mentor, Robert Mugabe. He served under Mugabe as Minister of National Security in the 1980s where he led the infamous Gukurahundi operation — an ethnic cleansing in the Matabeleland region that claimed the lives of an estimated 20,000 people. It earned Mnangagwa the nickname ‘Crocodile’.

Mnangagwa led the infamous Gukurahundi operation — an ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Matabeleland region.

Mnangagwa then steadily climbed up the ranks of the ruling ZANU-PF party until he fell out of favour due to the influence of First Lady Grace Mugabe. He was accused of wanting to plan a coup and was dismissed as Vice President in November 2017. Nonetheless, the coup followed a week later. The impossible happened: Robert Mugabe was deposed by the army in November 2017. People were crazed with joy. Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe as ZANU-PF leader and president. A year later, he shook off the label of coup leader in contested elections (he narrowly won by 50 percent, followed by accusations of fraud).

As the corruption scandals and repression of recent weeks now show little has changed.

‘Mnangagwa taking office was presented as a new chapter in Zimbabwe’s history, a new dawn. But it has turned out to be a lot worse than before,’ says Dewa Mavhinga, director of Human Rights Watch for Southern Africa. ‘There are more abductions, torture and arrests taking place. The government is not prepared to take action; on the contrary, it denies the facts.’

‘These accusations are unjustified attacks by our eternal opponents, both inside and outside our borders,’ the president parried on the 10th of August, National Heroes Day in Zimbabwe. The insane corruption, the state terror, the proven abuse: when denial no longer works, the blame is shifted to ‘foreign forces’. It all seems to come straight out of Robert Mugabe’s book, who too was once the promise of Africa but turned into a caricature after almost forty years of presidency.

The question therefore arises: when will history pass judgement on Mnangagwa?

Exit Mnangagwa?

A weak link is the patronage network — and the cost thereof in a country where, according to the United Nations, 4.3 million people are in urgent need of assistance. Simply put, how much longer can the population be kept quiet with crumbs and will members of the elite be satisfied pocketing dollar bills?

In July 2020, when it appeared that the government had spent millions on luxurious cars for senior officials, the hole that the ruling party has dug became clear. During the same period, thousands of doctors and nurses took to the streets to protest the workload, the low pay and lack of protective equipment they face. Rising inflation is preventing people from purchasing basic resources. The greed of the country’s party councillors is simply beginning to stand in the way of the very minimum of public service, and the question is how long this can go on.

The example of luxury cars is very telling in this respect, according to Piers Pigou, analyst of the International Crisis Group. ‘The luxury cars were purchased at a time when the government was under severe financial pressure. It looked like a desperate attempt to boost support. The real challenge for Mnangagwa is that the patronage network itself stands in the way of real change,’ analyses Pigou.

Another threat to Mnangagwa is the division that festers at the heart of his government. At the beginning of August Mnangagwa first identified the problem during a politburo’s meeting, the governing party’s fifty-member policy body.

According to the president, a ‘destabilization plot’ is imminent, led by Claveria Chizema, a member of the politburo, and Tendai Savanhu, a former member of parliament. They are said to have conspired with opposition members in an attempt to expel Mnangagwa from power with mass protests. The proposed replacement would have been Constantino Chiwenga, a former ally and army boss with whom Mnangagwa has been in disagreement for some time.

According to the generally well-informed magazine Africa Confidential both Chiwenga and the current army boss, Edzai Chimonyo, are said to have circulated in army circles that the country is ‘seriously adrift’.

The same Africa Confidential quotes a former officer, who is said to have said that such talk is code for: ‘Younger officers will take control if the old officers don’t.’ So there seems to be a palace revolution looming – of the exact same magnitude as the one Mnangagwa and Chiwenga set up in 2017 to expel Mugabe.

One factor to Mnangagwa’s advantage is the international community’s lukewarm reaction.

The regional authorities, the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Council (SADC), actually excel in powerlessness. SADC sent two envoys who, after their meeting with the president, refused to show up at their planned meeting with the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The world-famous cartoonist Zapiro made a striking cartoon of them: the two envoys with mouth masks in front of their eyes, walking through the streets of Harare where people are being beaten up.

Individual African countries seem equally passive. For a moment Malawi seemed to be taking the lead in supporting #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, until new president Lazarus Chakwera declared that his Twitter account had been hacked.

The hopelessness continues to turn into anger among the Zimbabwean people, and into increasing grumbling in the army barracks. The presidential days of Emmerson Mnangagwa appear to be numbered.

This article first appeared in Dutch, this version was translated from Dutch.

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