LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Blog Editor

December 13th, 2017

Zimbabwe and Zanu-PF’S continuing hegemony: meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

3 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Blog Editor

December 13th, 2017

Zimbabwe and Zanu-PF’S continuing hegemony: meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

3 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Mcdonald Lewanika analyses what the Zimbabwean people can expect from Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidency.


“There’s nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by the bye
And a parting on the left
Is now a parting on the right,
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

………. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”

                          The Who – Won’t Get fooled again

The above lyrics from iconic 70s’ song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by popular British Rock band, The Who, could be summing up recent developments in Zimbabwe. The refrain at the end, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, was popularised in African Politics by Nicolas Van de Walle in 2003 to describe the pervasive nature of clientelist politics in Africa despite transitions from authoritarianism to electoral democracy. As Zimbabwean politics enters a new post-Mugabe epoch, whether the new boss is the same as the old boss is the fundamental operational question, on whose answer millions of hopes lie. It is this question that this article mainly grapples with, as Zimbabwe closes the curtain on Robert Mugabe, and begins a new political era with Emmerson Mnangagwa as lead patriarch of the hitherto hegemonic ZANU-PF regime.

For 37 years, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was the direct force of Zimbabwe’s politics, and had attained a sense of permanence and infallibility. Mugabe, at 93 years of age, was one of the world’s longest-serving head of states, second only to Paul Biya of Cameroon (42 years) and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Basongo of Equatorial Guinea (38 years). Both famous and infamous, Mugabe, at home and abroad, was a polarising character, which was both the symbol of freedom and emancipation for some, but also suppression and repression for others. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change, since 1999, had tried and failed to depose him from power through elections. Most Zimbabwean watchers argue that the opposition possibly won all post 2000 Presidential elections save the 2013 one. While that is debatable, the March 2008 official election results and work by Professors Alexander and Tendi, as well as Masunungure and others, show that the opposition won the 2008 harmonised elections. These scholars and others also show how the opposition failed to capture state power on the strength of military gate keeping, and SADC complicity through the partiality of President Thabo Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy facilitation style.

To some, as Toendepi Shonhe, former Director General of the MDC argued recently, this 2008 episode represents the first military coup in Zimbabwe, with Mugabe becoming a military puppet since then. Shonhe’s argument, while cogent, falls on the nuances and technicalities around what constitutes a coup, of which electoral theft and refusal to relinquish power a la Zimbabwe 2008 do not constitute coups in the strict sense, while not every military intervention amounts to a coup. But these are normative debates for another day, which share, serendipitously, the same logics that the Zimbabwean military is attempting to sponsor today under different circumstances. But for the vast majority of Zimbabweans and the world, until Tuesday 14 November 2017, Mugabe seemed destined to be President for life. His party, ZANU-PF, had declared the nonagenarian as their candidate for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Presidential election.

Whatever the case, Mugabe’s resignation on Tuesday 21 November 2017 caused joy and jubilation on the streets of Zimbabwe’s major cities and other world capitals where millions of Zimbabweans have sought refuge for economic and political reasons. A new President, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, was sworn in to take Mugabe’s place three days later, and while referring to the man he had toppled as father and mentor, Mnangagwa promised “change”, “reform” and a “new dawn”.

But how did Zimbabwe get here?

Emmerson Mnangagwa, as Mugabe’s special assistant or as Alex Magaisa liked to put it, water carrier, since 1977, was tipped by many to take over from his master of 40 years. He was also thought to be Mugabe’s ‘blue-eyed boy’, and enforcer. Mnangagwa also appeared to believe the hype, and in 2004 together with several key party members, from the Nationalists camp tried to stage a “palace coup” on the ZANU-PF Vice Presidency during the now infamous Tsholotsho fiasco. In possibly the first indication that Mugabe was opposed to an Mnangagwa ascendency, the Tsholotsho plan was foiled, as Mugabe blocked Mnangagwa’s rise through a constitutional amendment to balance gender in the “Presidium”. This move benefited of Joice Mujuru, perceived to represent the “freedom fighters camp” as the leading commander of women during the liberation struggle and wife to General Solomon Mujuru, guerilla leader and post-independent Zimbabwe’s first Commander of the Defense Forces, replacing the late Vice President Simon Muzenda. In the aftermath, heads would roll, including six sitting ZANU-PF Provincial Chairpersons, and some Ministers including Professor Jonathan Moyo, who in the run up to Mnangagwa’s 2017 ascension would prove his biggest critic on account of “betrayal” from the Tsholotsho episode. No one knew it then, but that palace coup was practice, and a coup would be what would give Mnangagwa Zimbabwe’s political holy grail in 2017, after being fired from government and later expelled from ZANU-PF for alleged disloyalty to Mugabe, and lack of probity in executing his duties among other charges on 6 November 2017.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, now President of Zimbabwe speaking at the Human Rights Council in 2014 Image Credit: UN Geneva via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The events that followed from the 13 November to Mnangagwa’s inauguration on the 24 November are now common knowledge, including the veneer of a popular uprising on the 18th, and the process of impeachment on the 21st . These, as former Presidential Spokesperson George Charamba would confess to the Financial Times, were just “atmospherics” as “those with power would decide Mugabe’s fate”.

#CoupNotCoup ? If Coup, What Kind of Coup?

Although it seems a highly emotive subject for those who have taken over the state, by George Charamba’s admission, a coup removed Mugabe. In reality it was a cleverly engineered coup, allegedly designed by sharp lawyers and highly-educated philosopher soldiers, who ensured that it stayed in the legal grey zone where the African Unions precepts on unconstitutional change of government are concerned. This coup, although communicated as an intervention to deal with “corrupt elements” around the president (which would have made it a ‘guardian coup’), sought to protect the political and economic interests of the military, which Mugabe and the G40 faction were threatening, making it more a ‘veto coup‘. A ‘palace coup’ augmented this ‘veto coup’ when ZANU-PF insiders either connived, were coerced or decided to depose Mugabe. The veneer of constitutionalism and popular and critical acclaim to Mugabe’s ouster were convenient covers of the reality that Mugabe was forced to step down at gunpoint. The army, in reality, then selected Emmerson Mnangagwa as their safe pair of hands, for Zimbabwe, their interests, and their party.

The statement by General Chiwenga, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces and later that of ZANU-PF Secretary for Legal Affairs Patrick Chinamasa, showed that, in the main, these events were a ZANU-PF ‘family affair’ from which everyone else needed to stay away. The military’s involvement in ZANU-PF and Zimbabwean political affairs is not new, although, as the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition highlighted in 2009, this has often been covert and deniable, particularly when in service to Robert Mugabe. My current research shows that we can actually trace this symbiotic relationship between the liberation movement’s military (freedom fighters) and nationalist (party) to the liberation war when in 1977 Mugabe was “given” the ZANU Presidency by freedom fighters (ZANLA) at a congress in Mozambique, rather than by party structures in Zimbabwe. This time, however, as I wrote at the start of the coup d’état, the difference lies in that the military involvement was overt, undeniable and ostensibly in defence of democracy in ZANU-PF.

In essence, the events of November 2017 were the culmination of a battle for the soul of ZANU-PF and the State that it has captured and with which it is conflated. This battle pitted “freedom fighters” that have historically provided the ideological and military backbone to ZANU and ZAPU represented by the Defence Forces’ High command and liberation war veterans from the liberation movement (ZANLA and ZIPRA), versus “nationalists” and latter day politicians, who provided the political face of the revolution as led by the Mugabes.[1] Given this background, it is not a stretch to surmise that the triumphant Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has both nationalist and military credentials, is now the civillian face of what has always been a military regime by proxy.

Kutonga Kwaro (Gamba)

Popular Zimbabwean music superstar, Jah Prayzah, who always performs in military fatigue, released an album Kutonga kwaro in mid-October 2017. The title, which roughly means, “how it governs”, sparked political controversy, amid speculation that the song was an ode to the Mnangagwa the liberation war hero (gamba).  The song became the sound track of the ‘veto palace’ coup, and while it lauds praises on how this “hero” will govern, I argue here that leaders are creatures of their political socialisation and often govern the way they got into power.

President Mnangagwa’s political history and track record

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has ascended to Zimbabwe’s Presidency through an undemocratic military coup, which the majority of Zimbabweans have sanitised as a military-assisted transition. His political upbringing pre and post independence was in the African Nationalist movement. While not there at the founding of ZANU in 1963, Mnangagwa had been involved in ZANU’s forerunners like ZAPU and the National Democratic Party, and had an early introduction to the ethos of Chimurenga (liberation war) when he became one of the earliest trained combatants in both warfare and communist ideology. Although this history is illustrious and admirable, Zimbabwean Professor Gatsheni Ndlovhu, like many other African scholars before him, warned in his publication, Coloniality of Power in Postcolonial Africa: myths of decolonization that African nationalism’s development was deeply linked and instigated by colonialism, and reproduced colonial violence bequeathing authoritarianism as a mode of governance on the postcolonial state. While thought leaders on competitive authoritarian regimes, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way argue that ZANU-PF has endured precisely because of these strong identities and post-material ideological solidarity ties generated during this collective colonial experience of violence, with violence and authoritarianism as key pillars of ZANU-PF’s code of governance since 1980.

The question is whether President Munangagwa can break with this past tradition. Professors Bratton and Masunungure think not. They argue that ZANU-PF has always been a militarised electoral regime, which will outlast Mugabe’s political career and affect the nature of any political transition and prospects for democratisation. This is because ZANU-PF has penetrated organs of the state and corrupted the economy with a prominent role in policy-making for the military. Part of this journey and trap is well traced by Professor Sarah Rich Dorman in her book Understanding Zimbabwe: From Liberation to Authoritarianism.

I agree with the above, and while it is early days of the Mnangagwa Presidency, I am persuaded that Mnangagwa is a product of his political socialisation and environment, and is hostage to an ideological cast of former liberation war fighters, more than just the army, who for long have felt betrayed by the nationalist comrades they entrusted with the state. I believe that the tentative first steps of Mnangagwa’s presidency lend this view some credence.

First, Emmerson Mnangagwa has a fierce reputation as one worth fearing on account of his reported ruthlessness. His leading role during the Matebeleland Massacres, Gukurahundi, in the early 1980s, where as Minister of State Security he led Robert Mugabe’s charge to wipe out the then biggest opposition party, ZAPU, under the guise of dealing with dissidents through the North Korean Fifth Brigade, speaks for itself. This episode, led to the loss of more than 20,000 lives, in ways, which today would have been termed genocide. In his first cabinet, Mnangagwa has now appointed General Perrence Shiri, who commanded the fifth brigade, as Minister of Lands and Agriculture . In the 2000 elections, the first elections contested by the Movement for Democratic Change, the constituency in which Mr Mnangagwa ran and lost, Kwekwe, reported some of the worst political violence. In addition, by his own admission, Mnangagwa played a leading role in the 2008 electoral theft and associated military-led violence by so called “boys on leave” of June 2008, after persuasive politics had failed Mugabe in March 2008. So his tradition in violent politics is as well established as his erratic track record with, if not disdain for popular politics.

Second Emmerson Mnangagwa, besides losing elections in Kwekwe, is not from the tradition of persuasive politics. The stations he has occupied in government, which have mostly included State Security, Defense and Justice ministries, buttress this point. He has also served terms as Speaker of Parliament, after failing to secure a seat, and Minister of Rural Housing after the 2004 failed Tsholotsho Palace coup, possibly as a demotion. His security pedigree is telling, and was in evidence in the run-up to his accession to the presidency. When things got tough politically in ZANU-PF, Emmerson Mnangagwa did not seek to wage a persuasive political battle, he chose instead to flee, and arguably instigated a military takeover of the state covered by a veneer of legal technicalities. On the two occasions he has made a play for power, it is instructive that Emmerson Mnangagwa has resorted, not to popular politics, but declarations and shadowy power plays, including an alleged foiled coup in 2007 whose leaders were supposed to invite Mnangagwa to lead in a government with Joint-Chiefs of the military.

Third, Emmerson Mnangagwa has been flagged in alleged corruption in Zimbabwe and internationally. A UN Panel of Experts report later presented to the UN Security Council in 2002 names Mnangagwa as having plundered and illegally benefited from diamond exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The report also names two of Mnangagwa’s new Ministers, Air Marshal Shiri (Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement), and Major General SB Moyo (Foreign Affairs and International Trade). Both these Ministers are highly educated with Moyo possessing a PhD in International relations and Shiri a Masters in Development, with Moyo’s appointment given his involvement in the DRC, and as face of the coup, more baffling as he takes charge of the country’s international affairs.

However, Mnangagwa survived censure and sanction, on the strength of, as Mugabe testified at a Youth Interface Rally in Bindura, his being a shrewd operator, whose involvement you hear about but of which proof can never be found. The same applies to his business dealings. He has a reputation as a solid businessman, but his business interests are a matter of conjecture. He is reputed to be business friendly, and interested in economic growth, and perhaps some of his first steps as President of Zimbabwe show this priority.

Timeline of 12 days that rocked Zimbabwe – Click through for a closer look



President Mnangagwa’s Current Form

The above points indicate that if one were to venture an intelligent guess, they might be forced to suggest that the President will use cohesion and authoritarianism as modes of governing because everything in his political training and practice leads to that conclusion. But maybe we are wrong, and perhaps need to judge the new President on his statements and actions since his inauguration.

His actions have been greeted with critical acclaim from most Zimbabweans, who agree that he is making the right noises on the surface economic front. He has so far cut costs and delegates at ZANU-PF’s congress scheduled for December, he had promised a lean government, refused the Presidential limousine and issued an ultimatum for the return of externalised foreign currency no questions asked within three months or risk prosecution.

These above are no doubt good noises, but it is also important to note how the new President does things, rather than just what he says, and also to note what he is not saying.

President Mnangagwa has so far has been ruling by decree, issuing executive orders via press statements. This practice has gone unchallenged because “the people” like the “noises” he is making, and what he is doing. But this mode of governing is patently undemocratic and bypasses extant arms of state like parliament, even if we are to accept that at the point of issue Mnangagwa had not appointed the cabinet. The new President is basically hijacking popular sentiment to cement his own power and in the process setting a very dangerous precedence of rampant use of executive orders. While the world and the people of Zimbabwe marvel at President Mnangagwa and celebrating his actions, by the time they realise that decrees have become acceptable and the norm rather than the exception it will be too late.

President Mnangagwa, to the disappointment of many, appointed a cabinet on the evening of 30 November, which was not lean, with 21 Ministers, 6 deputy Ministers, and 11 Ministers of State. This cabinet was adjusted on Saturday morning to drop one person, and turn some of those already appointed into special advisors. The net effect was a gender-blind cabinet with only four women. The cabinet, which many have found uninspiring, has stood out for its lack of inclusivity, not just of the political complexion of the country ( no opposition members are included in Mnangagwa’s zero-sum Cabinet), but of women and young people, of which there are none. It has also stood out for the inclusion of the two Generals mentioned above in key ministries, with speculation rife that the General Chiwenga, and Commander of the Army, Valerio Sibanda, or Retired Colonel Tshinga Dube are among those ZANU-PF will consider for the two Vice Presidential posts still to be appointed. Should this be the case, it will signal disregard of the standing ZANU-PF recommendation to Congress to reserve one of the VP slots for a woman, which complicates issues as there is a standing pact from 1987 that the two VPs will be from the former ZANU and ZAPU.

Tentative Conclusions

It is clear that Mnangagwa will be judged on performance, and his “new-old cabinet” will be given a chance over the next six to nine months to deliver for ordinary Zimbabweans. But in these early days, it seems Zimbabwe has welcomed a “new boss” who is cut from the same cloth as the old boss, with their differences being of degree rather than type. Based on an understanding of origins, track record, and current form, and if my summation that the militants have taken over from the nationalists is correct, it is likely that the new regime, while committing to economic welfare will be more brutal and less tolerant of dissent than the last. It will exercise a “new” brand of authoritarianism underpinned by military discipline, which will be expected not just of those in the military but may be extended to civilians, with dire consequences for disobedience. Norma Krieger’s work on the liberation movements, as did the late Professor Masipula Sithole in his “struggles within the struggle”, shows that this kind of discipline can be devoid of justice.

While no one knows what is coming in Zimbabwe, the best bet to reduce the effects of a new brand if authoritarianism is for Zimbabweans and the world to hold Mnangagwa accountable for the commitments he made on inauguration day, call him and his government out when ever they are errant, and build a civil and political society that is organised enough to force the administration to speak to the tough questions they are currently avoiding. Opposition leader Tendai Biti summed up these issues well as: free fair credible election; fiscal consolidation and elimination of budget deficit; devolution and decentralisation; constitutionalism and rule of law; security sector reform; and Gukurahundi and political violence.

Biti’s list is instructive and shows that while Mugabe is gone, the challenges confronting country remain. As Discent Collins Bajila, a young political leader remarked on November 19, when one gets transferred from one maximum security prison to another in an open truck, they are allowed to enjoy the fresh air, but should not lie to people that you have found freedom.

McDonald Lewanika (@makil) is a doctoral student at LSE, researching competitive authoritarian regimes, the African state electoral campaigns and a politics and development professional and researcher with over 15 years progressive experience working in Zimbabwe, the Southern Africa region and some parts of Europe.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

[1] Zimbabwe’s Liberation War was led by the Liberation Movement, which had the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) from which ZANU split in 1963, as the leading political groups. Both groups had armed wings, the Zimbabwe African Nationalist Liberation Army (ZANLA) for ZANU and the Zimbabwe Peoples Liberation Army (ZANLA) for ZAPU. Both wings largely developed and adopted socialist ideologies while the Nationalist leaders were incarcerated by the colonial regime for political activities including resolutions to form these armies, and were accepted by the armies as leaders when they got released from detention in the 1970s.

About the author

Blog Editor

Posted In: Featured | International Affairs


Bad Behavior has blocked 21889 access attempts in the last 7 days.