By The Financial Times
PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa’s image as a reformer dedicated to ending Zimbabwe’s long isolation has been shattered by two weeks of chaos including a violent crackdown on protesters and rumours of a plot to overthrow him.
Killings and beatings by the security forces against a backdrop of severe fuel and currency shortages have brought back memories of the worst days Robert Mugabe, the former strongman deposed in a 2017 coup.
Even after the president’s hurried return from travel abroad this week, security officials continued what the country’s human rights commission called “systematic torture” of opposition figures, civic activists and demonstrators.
Amid a sullen atmosphere on the streets of Harare, the capital, many city residents told the Financial Times they now think Mnangagwa — who was once Mugabe’s enforcer — is revealing his true colours.
“We want Mugabe to come back. He’s a better devil than these ones. These people are cruel,” said Emmanuel Jaldure, a self-described “pastor without a cent,” as he pointed to an empty downtown pavement where street vendors usually sell their wares.
Eyewitnesses said soldiers had violently rounded up members of the public — victims of a campaign to punish the urban poor for joining in with a general strike called last week after the government announced a doubling of petrol and diesel prices.
The crackdown came as rumours swirled of a plot within the ruling Zanu PF party to overthrow Mnangagwa. Allies of the president said they suspected the involvement of Constantino Chiwenga, the deputy president, who was the country’s acting leader while Mnangagwa was in Russia and central Asia promoting investment in Zimbabwe.
“Chiwenga is the enemy of the people, Mnangagwa is Chiwenga’s puppet … they fooled us, they cheated us” said Jaldure, who supported the 2017 coup.
Chiwenga, the former army commander who toppled Mugabe, has long been rumoured to be waiting for the 76-year-old Mnangagwa to falter so that he can take over.
Mnangagwa is said to have prevailed after plotters failed to garner support at a meeting of Zanu PF officials for a bid to impeach him, according to people familiar with the plot. It included an attempt by security agents to silence his allies and a botched overture to army commanders.
“They tried, they failed,” said one ally of Mnangagwa who was detained by security forces this week. What one supporter of Mnangagwa called “the attempted uprising” is said to have used more junior army officers and Zanu-PF youth militia to stir up violence.
Mnangagwa said this week that “if required, heads will roll” over “chaos and insubordination” in the security forces. A statement by the army that accused “criminals” of stealing uniforms and weapons is also believe to refer to the divisions in the security apparatus. Mnangagwa initially called for dialogue with opposition parties over the crisis, before taking his words back through a spokesperson.
Despite economic chaos at home Mthuli Ncube, Mnangagwa’s finance minister, claimed at Davos this week that Zimbabwe was “the best buy in Africa,” and inflation would soon fall below 10 per cent, from more than 40 per cent officially.
The collapse of currencies that have served as surrogates for scarce US dollars has led to surging prices. Economists estimate however that true inflation is now well into triple-digits — obliterating purchasing power of civil servants in particular. Credit lines for the government to buy fuel have propped up state finances, but are close to being exhausted. Zimbabwe’s government “has declared war on its citizens,” said the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a non-profit group whose chairman Rashid Mahiya has been hunted by security forces.
Mahiya’s family has been persecuted in order to reveal his location, said Zimbabwe’s Human Rights NGO Forum. Many civil society organisers have already fled abroad rather than wait for intimidation to turn into violence.
“You might as well go and shake boxes of matches in front of people,” an activist said. “Dialogue is not possible in these conditions.” As he waited in one queue, Corvin, 25, a self-described hustler, said the $30 per day he made from odd jobs could not cover the increased fuel price.
“There’s something wrong about that,” he said. Another motorist said he had just spent $100 in bond notes on 32 litres, underlining how daily living costs have reached breaking point.
In the background, soldiers and police watched activity at taxi ranks and coach stops as the authorities sought to monitor people’s movements.
“This country is like a prison,” said one driver who declined to be named said.