Who Is Zimbabwe’s New Leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa? : Parallels : NPR

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Emmerson Mnangagwa, center, greets supporters gathered outside the ZANU-PF party headquarters in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe on Wednesday.

Ben Curtis/AP


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Ben Curtis/AP

Emmerson Mnangagwa, center, greets supporters gathered outside the ZANU-PF party headquarters in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe on Wednesday.

Ben Curtis/AP

“The Crocodile,” “The Enforcer,” “The Bodyguard,” “The Spymaster.” Those are just some of the names Zimbabwe’s new leader goes by.

One could also add “The Survivor.”

The nicknames are an indication of what Zimbabweans can expect of Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is 75, and poised to be sworn in as president to replace his one-time mentor Robert Mugabe, on Nov. 24.

As a young 18-year-old recruit to the independence liberation struggle, Mnangagwa was condemned to die by the Rhodesian authorities the guerrilla warriors — combatants and strategists — were trying to depose.

On Nov. 6 2017, Mnangagwa faced another challenge: He was fired as vice president by former president Mugabe — a decision that led to the rapid unraveling of the veteran leader’s 37-year rule.

The military chief refused to accept Mnangagwa’s dismissal and warned the army might intervene to restore stability and end political chaos in Zimbabwe. The next day the military, which is an integral part of the governing ZANU-PF party behemoth, seized control and confined Mugabe to his residence.


By then Mnangagwa, once touted as Mugabe’s heir apparent, was long gone — to neighboring South Africa in temporary exile, saying he feared for his life. In a letter to Zimbabweans, he pledged he would be back “to lead” the country.

This was after the erstwhile ally of Mugabe had been vilified and accused of using witchcraft to plot the ouster of the president who was once his mentor. The most virulent insults came from the first lady, Grace Mugabe. Commentators agree she was gunning for Mnangagwa’s job as vice-president and harbored presidential ambitions herself as she scooted up the political ladder, becoming head of ZANU-PF party’s women’s wing.

When Mugabe refused to resign and was threatened with impeachment, the party he had lead for almost 40 years accused him of dereliction of duty and allowing his unelected wife to usurp state power.

It appears the Mugabes overplayed their hand.

Pressure, people power, the military and pragmatism

Watching and waiting in the wings, Mnangagwa, as is his wont, said little while Zimbabwe witnessed a momentous week of unprecedented political change.

The country teetered from euphoria, jubilation and peaceful protests, to demand Mugabe’s resignation by noon on Nov. 20 — or face being impeached — to stunned disappointment and a momentary jittery panic when a defiant Mugabe addressed the nation on the eve of the ultimatum and made no mention of stepping down.


History was on Mnangagwa’s side — aided by the military and others in Zimbabwe’s intelligence and security establishment, as well as politicians and party members who had, until just a week before his downfall, loyally backed Mugabe.

As Parliament was considering a motion to impeach Mugabe on Tuesday, a letter arrived, which was read by the speaker, announcing the president had resigned.

Pressure, people power, the military and pragmatism had pushed Mugabe out, avoiding the humiliation of the 93-year-old being impeached.

Cheering, euphoria and celebrations once again, for the second time in four days, on the streets of the capital, Harare.

Mnangagwa, The Crocodile, had bided his time and wrongfooted and outplayed the master strategist, Mugabe — the teacher he had studied and learned from over decades.

Supporters of Zimbabwe’s Mnangagwa, known as “The Crocodile,” raise a stuffed crocodile in the air as they await his arrival at the ZANU-PF party headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe on Wednesday. Mnangagwa has emerged from hiding and returned home ahead of his swearing-in Friday. Crowds gathered at the ruling party’s headquarters for his first public remarks.

Ben Curtis/AP


hide caption

toggle caption

Ben Curtis/AP

Supporters of Zimbabwe’s Mnangagwa, known as “The Crocodile,” raise a stuffed crocodile in the air as they await his arrival at the ZANU-PF party headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe on Wednesday. Mnangagwa has emerged from hiding and returned home ahead of his swearing-in Friday. Crowds gathered at the ruling party’s headquarters for his first public remarks.

Ben Curtis/AP

When the moment came for The Crocodile to snap shut the jagged jaws of the predator, and drag down 37 years of Zimbabwe’s history, Mnangagwa proved he had become the master.

Who is Mnangagwa?

Andrew Meldrum, author of Where We Have Hope, a memoir of his 23 years as a journalist in Zimbabwe until he was kicked out in 2003, says “Emmerson Mnangagwa has a checkered history.”

Now acting Africa editor for The Associated Press, Meldrum says in the weeks before Mnangagwa was fired he was denounced by the Mugabes.

“They demonized him in public, sometimes when he was present, talking about how he had affairs with other women and how he had had some people pushed out of windows and saying that he was plotting against them with witchcraft,” Meldrum explains.

He says Mnangagwa must have been aware that they were preparing to remove him from government, as the same thing happened to another vice president and war veteran, Joice Mujuru, who fell out with the Mugabes four years ago and was forced to resign.


“Mnangagwa has been careful to foster good relations with the army, with the top generals, with the state security that he ran for many years,” Meldrum says. “He’s had good relations with all of them and, that’s why, after he fled the country we saw within days the army generals took action to put Robert Mugabe under house arrest.”

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