Zimbabweans are learning the hard way that a crocodile doesn’t really change its jaws
I happened to be on a 3-week work mission to Zimbabwe in March 2018, a few months after Robert Mugabe was overthrown. Being my first visit to the southern African country I had heard so much of but knew little about, I was excited. The city of Harare is one of the best planned capitals in Africa. It is beautiful, and despite the challenges the country has faced for decades, the charm of Harare has not dampened one bit. I was sure I made merry during my free time, so I went to night clubs, shopping malls, and had a daily jog around my apartment area.
Something curious struck me whenever I was on my shopping rounds, especially in the supermarket near where I lived. Every time I was on the counter and paying for goods with the U.S. dollars I had carried to the country, there was nearly a stampede of other shoppers who offered to ‘pay for me’ using their bond notes in exchange for keeping my dollars (the bond is a form of legal tender released by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to resolve the country’s currency shortage. It’s pegged nearly equally against the U.S. dollar but is not anywhere as trusted). “What is happening?”, I asked one of my local pals one morning. ‘Oh, that bond is useless, its future is uncertain. There is so little cash in the country that each person is only allowed a maximum of an equivalence of $30 ATM bank withdrawal a day, there are no goods, things are expensive and people are starving in the countryside…”, he went on and on.
He suggested that I leave the comfort of my Josiah Tongogara Avenue apartment (it’s across the road from State House) and venture further adrift into the fringes of the city ‘to know how bad things really are.’ And that’s how I ended up visiting a number of suburbs like Mbare, and other downtown areas where people were scrapping by. Even in these downtrodden areas, the charm and the positive spirit of ordinary Zimbabweans were remarkable. I especially loved how everyone seemed to speak impeccably flawless English, from a newspaper vendor to a woman selling vegetables in the local market. Zimbabwe has for decades registered the highest literacy rates across Africa, so this was no surprise.
At that time, the ‘New dispensation’ people had just strolled into town, and massive crowds had welcomed them. The evil dictator, Robert Mugabe, and his wife Marie Antoinette, ‘Gucci Grace,’ had just been kicked out. The new chief at State House, Edson Dambuzo Mnangagwa, was now combing the country for votes to legitimize his coup, and the whole city was filled with massive billboards bearing his image, promising prosperity in a ‘new Zimbabwe’. It didn’t look like he had any opponents at all, as there were barely any posters of his MDC challenger Nelson Chamisa, which was made even more weird after the eventual vote tally showed that ‘The Crocodile” as Mnangagwa is both fondly and infamously known, had barely won, with only 50.8% of votes, compared to 44.3% for his opponent
The ‘New Dispensation’ that wasn’t
It’s now nearly 3 years since the ‘new dispensers’ deposed Mugabe, and looking at the news, it doesn’t look like the change the dispensers promised has come in the package they promised it. As a matter of fact, most Zimbabweans can’t believe it! The new dispensation has instead become the new decapitation of the people’s rights and freedoms, looting and killing.
Perhaps Zimbabweans were too optimistic. Did they forget that in the animal kingdom, the croc even when it is domesticated, really doesn’t change its spots – excuse the mix up – it’s jaws?).
Mr. Mnangagwa was the chief architect of many of Mugabe’s atrocities against Zimbabweans for decades. From Gukurahundi (a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army from early 1983 to late 1987) to nearly cracking open opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s skull in the 2008 election, ED, as he is normally called, was always the man in action. But he was also smart to hide his crimes and knew for years that he had a chance to replace the geezer. So like the actual croc, he patiently waited for his time to pounce.
The drama of the 2017 overthrow of Robert Mugabe is told, in a surreal and immensely thrilling way, by the Zimbabwe-born journalist and travel writer Douglas Rogers in his aptly titled book, Two Weeks in November: The Astonishing Inside Story of the Coup That Toppled Mugabe. Once again we see in this book the guerrilla instincts that served Mnangagwa so well during the liberation war, coming to his rescue in this brutal power struggle with his boss, and eventually handing him the presidency.And yet it is an open secret that Mnangagwa, as brave and astute as he might’ve been in his brazen pursuit of power, is no Mugabe.
Despite his flaws as a leader, no one for example disputes Mugabe’s charisma. To millions of Zimbabweans he remains the liberation hero, the man that fought off the whites in a proud, stubborn fashion and brought self-rule to black Zimbabweans. His gifts as a leader were unrivalled. Mugabe the freedom fighter and politician was a natural for politics. At independence, his communication skills dazzled thousands of adoring crowds in Harare as they outwitted the shellshocked audiences of Lancaster House where he negotiated the brutal divorce from Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. His education (the man amassed 7 degrees) and natural gifts as a leader gave him full confidence whether he was meeting Reagan or Thatcher, Clinton or Heath, or addressing the United Nations, and clashing with Bush and Blair who he once called schoolboy bullies.
In comparison, Mnangagwa suffers natural flaws so severe he almost can’t do anything about them. For starters, the man can’t give a coherent speech. His tone is so pitched that when he tries to rabble-rouse and rally an audience, he sounds shrieked, uncontrollably high-pitched, and boring. Unlike his ‘spellbinding speaker’ predecessor, the croc seems unable to give a speech unless he is reading off prepared text, and his reading credentials don’t look great either.
The truth is, Mr. Mnangagwa lacks the charism of his predecessor, and that’s perhaps the reason he resorts to brute force each time there’s a civic disorder in Zimbabwe. The crocodile lacks the ‘oomph’ that Mugabe so effortlessly employed because he was naturally gifted with it. The croc therefore can’t help himself but see every problem as a civic insurrection to be quashed with force
Don’t get me wrong, Robert Mugabe was no better and under him thousands of innocent citizens were killed, and he crashed the economy. The circumstances of his misdeeds however need to be articulated. Mugabe was always on a hot stove with western nations seeking his removal, and sanctions had brought the economy to its knees. Even though some of the sanctions still stand, the West were largely happy that Mugabe had been removed and are ostensibly looking to Mnangagwa as a potentially progressive voice, the ‘reasonable’ alternative they can work with unlike Mugabe who couldn’t be had at any price.
And yet things continue to get worse under the ‘new dispensation’. The economy (or what’s left of it anyway) is crashing to a halt, starvation is high, and civil rights have never been worse.
In 2017 Zimbabweans thought they had got a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get rid of the dictator that had for decades orchestrated their economic and dictatorial pain. Instead they were served a con. They had no clue they were jumping from Mugabe’s frying pan to Mnangagwa’s croc-infested river.
What some of the analysts (and Zimbabweans too) didn’t understand at the time was that the power struggle was never about the people. Once the writing was on the wall that Mugabe would soon die, it was an inhouse dispute over whose turn to eat it was (or to lead the eating, as they had all been eating…but who seats at the head of dining table matters in this greedy-as-hell, self-indulging family); Grace Mugabe’s G40 young ‘turks’, or the VP and his army of revolutionary generals?
A buyer’s remorse
The Chinese have a saying that warns one to ‘Be careful what one wishes for, because one might get it’. For decades Zimbabweans tried to get rid of Mugabe; prayed for it, fasted for it. Then it happened. And it looks like they never prayed for the morning after.
Mnangagwa, barely 3 years in power, is almost making Mugabe look like a reasonable pacifist, a feat that no other person on earth could’ve pulled off! Killing protestors, changing the constitution to give himself more powers and making it difficult for potential rivals to challenge him, looting so perverse it makes the one under Mugabe look like shoplifting; it is anyone’s guess where Zimbabwe’s next chapter is going to be.
The Zanu PF politburo will of course keep Mnangagwa in power regardless. But who will he be ruling over in the next 10 years? Corpses strewn across Harare streets from his henchmen’s bullets, or dead bodies from across the countryside?
How long can the people take it? There are many strongmen we thought were invincible until their time came. Gaddafi, Mubarak, Amin, Bokassa…the examples are innumerable.
This strikes at the heart of the debate being had across Africa, especially among its young people (who in some countries account for 70-75% of the populations), on the merits of getting rid of their aging dictators. What guarantee is there that the leader(s) that will replace them won’t be the same or even worse?
We’ve seen it in Egypt; in Tunisia, in Liberia, Nigeria. Nowhere is this conundrum more aptly evident than in Libya. Under Gaddafi the country was in the grip of a dictator. Given. But there was peace, and he had used the oil money to modernize the country’s infrastructure and provide social services. There were no open-air slave markets in the country, and it wasn’t a point of no return for immigrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. Terrorists didn’t rule the roost over the territory. Then Sarkozy, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did what they did, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Was Mugabe an evil man? Certainly. His evil was enabled and executed by his current successor. How did Zimbabweans really think that a self-declared crocodile would change its skin tone once it became president?
These events across the continent raise critical questions for Africans. You might want change, but what type of change? Is it worthwhile to risk death, imprisonments, chaos and disorder for more of the same, if not worse? This is not to suggest that Africans shouldn’t challenge dictatorships, but this is a call to arms to be smart and pragmatic in their quest for change. Anyone who rushes us into revolution without preparation for the aftermath is playing Russian roulette with our lives.
Zimbabweans were happy that Mugabe was gone. In their euphoria they forgot that Mugabeism was still with them. Now they have to deal with a far worse overseer of the system that has oppressed them for decades.