Mnangagwa the ‘crocodile’ set to rule Zimbabwe

The main players: Mugabe’s wife (centre) and former vice-president (right) both dream of power.

Are things looking up for Zimbabwe? Robert Mugabe, the struggling nation’s dictator for 37 years, seems to have lost power. All eyes are on Emmerson Mnangagwa, his likely successor.

When a British journalist went to Zimbabwe last year to interview Emmerson Mnangagwa, then the country’s vice-president, he received a warning. “They don’t call him ‘The Crocodile’ for nothing,” said a close acquaintance of the politician. “He never says a word but suddenly he bites.”

And now the crocodile has bitten. Last week, he was fired from his post by Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president. He fled to South Africa. Then, on Tuesday, tanks rolled into Zimbabwe’s capital and soldiers placed Mugabe under house arrest. Mnangagwa has apparently returned to the country; the army seems to be on his side.

Military leaders insist this is not a coup, but few believe them. Mugabe is ailing, and a fight over his succession has been brewing. Until now, the front-runners were Mnangagwa and Mugabe’s much younger wife Grace. The two have waged a bitter feud: last month, Grace was forced to deny trying to poison Mnangagwa.

His firing last week was seen as a victory for her. However, she is deeply unpopular among Zimbabweans. She has a reputation for violent outbursts and extravagant spending — hence her nickname, “Gucci Grace”. Her political career appears over: according to reports, she has fled the country.

In any case, Zimbabwe is at a turning point. Mugabe has led it since it gained independence from Britain in 1980. At the time, the country was described as the “jewel of Africa”. It was rich in gold and platinum, and its farmers produced huge amounts of corn and tobacco.

In the decades since, Mugabe’s mismanagement has changed things. His regime plundered resources, leaving most citizens impoverished. It chased white farmers off their land, disrupting the agricultural sector. It persecuted political enemies; Mnangagwa is believed to have orchestrated massacres in the 1980s.

The result is a country with soaring unemployment, frequent famines and no real democracy. It has gone from breadbasket to basket case.

Mnangagwa looks set to take over. Can he turn things around?

Between a croc and a hard place

Unlikely, say some. The way he has seized power bodes badly: he does not care for democracy. He was complicit in Mugabe’s disastrous rule and directly responsible for some of its darkest moments. Zimbabweans hate him too — he has twice failed to win a parliamentary seat. The crocodile will only do the country more damage.

He doesn’t have a spotless reputation, admit others. That said, his power grab should put an end to Zimbabwe’s crippling political feuds. Nobody, not even foreign governments, has really protested. That is because they know that he is more pragmatic and business-savvy than Mugabe. He could yet restore prosperity to the country.

You Decide

  1. How would you feel if there was a military coup in your country?
  2. Should there be an upper age limit for politicians?


  1. Come up with a nickname for your country’s leader (it has to be both accurate and memorable). As a class, vote on the best one.
  2. Draw a timeline of Zimbabwe’s history (including the pre-independence era), marking on the 15 most important events.

Some People Say...

“Politics is war without bloodshed.”

Mao Zedong

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The army appears to be in control of Zimbabwe’s government. It has placed Mugabe (who is still technically the president) under house arrest and assures the public that he is safe. Its official reason for doing so is to “target criminals” around the president. There have apparently been no casualties; the international community has mostly just called for “peace” and “stability”.
What do we not know?
What happens next. Analysts think Mugabe will be removed from office very soon. After that, the most likely scenario is a government with Mnangagwa as president and opposition politicians in senior positions. Officials from other parties have said that they are discussing such possibilities with the army. But the situation remains very unpredictable.

Word Watch

British journalist
Read the New Statesman’s article in Become An Expert.
In recent years, Mugabe has appeared increasingly frail. He struggles to walk unsupported and is said to fall asleep in meetings; leaked documents say that he has cancer. He is the world’s oldest head of state.
Violent outbursts
In September, a South African model alleged that Grace Mugabe assaulted her with an electric cable. Mugabe says the model attacked her.
The white rulers of Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was formerly known) actually declared independence in 1965, although Britain did not recognise this. A civil war ensued, ending with official independence under black rule in 1980.
White farmers
These farmers owned most of the country’s good land — a legacy from colonial days. From 2000, the Mugabe administration began to seize their land — often violently — and hand it over to black farmers.
Mnangagwa is linked to the Gukurahundi massacres of 1983, in which the army killed thousands of “dissenters” (most of them actually innocent civilians). He denies responsibility.

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