By Alexander Joe
Tough-Talking Zimbabwe Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa —dubbed “Ngwena” or “the crocodile”—is likely to emerge from this week on as President Robert Mugabe’s Vice President (VP) and heir apparent. It’s been a very long wait to the top for 68-year-old Mnangagwa, but the timing could not be better.
President Mugabe has been in power for 34 years, and although he will be reaffirmed as ZANU-PF’s leader at the Congress, people now openly discuss “life after Bob.” A purge of current VP Joice Mujuru and her supporters has seen President Mugabe shift his support behind Mnangagwa to become VP, as close as President Mugabe has come to naming a successor.
Yet relations between Mnangagwa and the veteran leader were not always cosy.
Mnangagwa was himself the victim of a purge in 2004, when he lost his post as ZANU-PF secretary for administration after being charged for excessive ambition while angling for the post of vice president. Four years in the relative wilderness followed, most of it at the department of rural housing, allowing Mujuru to become VP and the undisputed favourite to succeed President Mugabe.The 2008 elections, when he was made President Mugabe’s chief election agent, were to change Mnangagwa’s fortunes.
President Mugabe lost the first round, but his supporters were not going to make the same mistake in the second round, which was marred by violence, intimidation and seen by international observers as rigged. In the same year he took over from Didymus Mutasa as head of the Joint Operations Command, a committee of security chiefs, which has been accused by rights groups of organising violent campaigns to crush dissent.
Mnangagwa was subjected to the European Union and the United States sanctions imposed on President Mugabe and his close allies over disputed elections and rights violations, but promptly given control of the powerful ministry of defence. It was a return to the spiritual home that made Mnangagwa a force in Zimbabwean politics in the first place. Chinese-trained, Mnangagwa’s political career has mirrored his path through the security services.
Born in the south-western Zvishavane district on September 15, 1946, he completed his early education in Zimbabwe before his family relocated to neighbouring Zambia. His grandfather was a chief while his father was a political agitator for the repeal of colonial laws that disadvantaged blacks. In 1966, Mnangagwa joined Zimbabwean guerrillas fighting colonial power, Britain, becoming one of the youth combatants who helped direct the liberation war after undergoing military training in China and Egypt.
He was part of a group which carried out several raids against government facilities, including blowing up a train near the southeastern town of Masvingo. He was arrested following betrayal by a colleague and sentenced to death only to be saved from the gallows by his youthful appearance. He was released after serving a 10-year sentence.
At independence in 1980, Mnangagwa was appointed minister of national security. He was in charge of state security during an anti-dissident crackdown in the 1980s that claimed thousands of lives. With the then Minister of Defence and the Minister of Home Affairs, Mnangagwa oversaw the operations of the feared Fifth Brigade, a Korean-trained crack unit that was deployed to crush anti-government dissidents in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces. His role in the crackdown, known locally as “Gukurahundi”, and his stern demeanour earned him a fearsome reputation. Mnangagwa has never been one to mince his words.
He once remarked that he was taught to “destroy and kill” — although he later claimed to be a born-again Christian. He has accused the West of trying to plunder Zimbabwe’s resources. “Our detractors with the help of sellouts have been working hard to bring about anarchy in Zimbabwe but that will not help because we will crush them.” Dismissing threats of street protests by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) last year, Mnangagwa said: “We will not be distracted by toothless and harmless dogs.”
Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist at Masvingo State University says Mnangagwa is “a hardliner to the core.” “He calls himself soft as wool and wants to portray himself as a soft and diplomatic person but the truth is he is a hardliner to the core,” Zhou said.
“Many people are afraid of him. Whether he will change remains to be seen. We may be in for a surprise as Mugabe may choose someone else who is not Mnangagwa as vice president but that could lead to a volatile situation.”
It is unlikely that Mnangagwa has been waiting all this time just to play bridesmaid. He would bring to the office vast wealth and is believed to be among Zimbabwe’s wealthiest individuals with interests in gold mining. A US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks in 2008 described Mnangagwa as having “extraordinarily wealth” saying he brought home a huge coffer haul from Zimbabwe’s intervention on President Laurent Kabila’s side as Kabila sought to ward off rebels.