HARARE: Early in November 2014, as tensions rose in Zanu PF, Emmerson Mnangagwa spoke with a small group of his supporters in his home town, Kwekwe.
He described to them how, in those tense hours of transition into independence, he had stayed up with President Robert Mugabe to hold midnight negotiations with Ian Smith and his negotiator David Smith.
“It was just President Mugabe and myself at one side and the two Smiths on the other side. I saw (the transition) happening with my own eyes, step by step, while I sat next to President Mugabe,” he said.
Around the time Mnangagwa was speaking to his allies, his rival Joice Mujuru and her own backers were under siege from Grace Mugabe. It was a time in which loyalties were being questioned, and Mnangagwa was laying out his.
When the economic crisis of 2008 threatened to sink the government, Mnangagwa told his people, it was to him that Mugabe turned for leadership.
“Even after our dollar was hit to the point that it became useless, the President appointed a five-member committee which was led by me so that we could craft our way out of the mess.” That committee, he said, officialised the use of the US dollar and began economic reforms, just before the start of the unity government in 2009.
It was then, perhaps, that Mnangagwa began to see himself as something of a reformer that would turn around the economy. He must have thought he was doing his boss a favour, but that’s what partly began to breed some of the resentment that led to his sacking on Monday.
Close for decades
Mnangagwa and Mugabe had been close for four decades. Detained for nationalism in the 1970s, they bonded while sharing a jail cell. In 1977, after his release, Mnangagwa left his job as a lawyer in Lusaka when called by Mugabe to be his special assistant in Mozambique.
In the days leading up to Independence, Mnangagwa was constantly by Mugabe’s side. In one picture, taken in 1980 as Mugabe arrived for his first rally in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is flanked by Mnangagwa on his left. On Mugabe’s right is Solomon Mujuru, later to become Mnangagwa’s bitter rival.
At the 2014 congress, as party legal secretary, it was Mnangagwa that read out party resolutions that gave Mugabe total power and removed all checks on his control of ZanuPF. He did not just read them out; he read them as if he was singing, to big cheers from the crowds. He was enjoying his moment.Advertisement
After helping Mugabe clear out Mujuru, Mnangagwa was appointed Vice President. It looked like Mugabe had finally rewarded Mnangagwa for all the years of loyalty. More significantly, it seemed Mugabe had made his choice for successor.
Reporters asked him how he felt being VP, exactly a decade after his 2004 setback.
“The revolution has a way of strengthening itself. It goes through cycles, this is another cycle,” he told them.
Announcing the appointment of two VPs that December in 2014, Mugabe had spelled out what he expected of them.
“They (the new Vice Presidents) must be loyal, truly loyal,” Mugabe said.
What Mugabe did not quite spell out was what sort of loyalty this had to be. Some analysts say Mnangagwa and his allies spoiled it for him by showing too much ambition and openly angling for power. The truth is, there is nothing Mnangagwa could have done, or not done, to win Mugabe’s approval. To Mugabe, nobody has ever been good enough.
“Yes, I have looked at them. I have not come to any conclusion as to which one, really, should be (successor),” Mugabe told an interviewer on his 90th birthday.
Mugabe trusted Mnangagwa with the economic ministries. Mnangagwa must have looked at this as a chance to shine. With his allies, key among them former Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, they began a gamut of reforms.
Channels were opened with international financiers that had shunned Zimbabwe, among them the IMF, Word Bank and the AfDB. The IMF was so pleased it announced it might resume aid for the first time in nearly two decades.
Negotiations opened with the European Union, which saw the resumption of budgetary aid, which had been suspended for years.
Inside the Office of the President and Cabinet, a new unit meant to improve the ease of doing business was set up. There were plans to reform the civil service and improve the running of loss making state enterprises. Mnangagwa, his allies in tow, went around investment conferences, selling their reform plans.
In China, Mnangagwa visited Qingdao, Shandong Province, where he met Chinese entrepreneurs and the China Development Bank Corporation, stitching up deals meant to set up Special Economic Zones and the Industrial Park Project in Zimbabwe.
It was in China in 2015 that his mission to cast himself as a reformer came into the spotlight.
He sat down with a reporter of Chinese TV channel, CCTV, and spoke less like the unquestioning loyalist that Mugabe wanted, but like some modern day Deng.
Which areas of your economy need urgent attention, the reporter asked him.
He replied: “You cannot say there are areas of our economy which we are happy with, infrastructure we are behind by 15-16 years, agricultural development the same, manufacturing; in fact capacity utilisation in some areas of our industry is down to 20%, so again, we have to retool by acquiring new machinery, technology and machinery so that we are competitive.”
Zimbabwe, he said, had a lot to learn from China, which dragged itself from an Asian backwater – per capita GDP was below Zimbabwe’s in 1980 – to a global economic superpower, by making hard reforms.
“So we are looking at the reform measures that China has gone through to help us move forward,” he said.
He made remarks that you would never hear his boss make. Capital, he said, goes where it is wanted.
“We have to see how we can create an investment environment which will attract the flow of capital. We must know that investment can only go where it makes a return so we must make sure we create an environment where investors are happy to put their money because there is a return.”
Soon, China, even the West and international financial institutions, began buying into the idea of Mnangagwa the reformer.
But back home, his boss was not pleased with all this talk of reform. To Mugabe and his loyalists, Mnangagwa was basically setting himself apart, telling the world that he would be a different leader to Mugabe. Resentment began building.
“Saka ndipo patava kusiyana navamwe ipapa vanobva vaenda mberi mberi nekumaChina kuti takuda president mutsva (This is where we are beginning to differ with some of our people; they’re going to the extent of approaching the Chinese, saying we want a new leader),” Mugabe told a rally not long after Mnangagwa’s China tour.
Mnangagwa ally Chinamasa, meanwhile, was on a mission to heave Zimbabwe out of isolation. A debt relief plan, signed in Lima, Peru, was meant to help Zimbabwe pay off some of its debts and lead to the resumption of financial support. Chinamasa grew so fond of his job, he at one time declared he had “fallen in love with the IMF and World Bank”.
Even Western diplomats warmed up to Mnangagwa. In 2016, Tsvangirai complained to reporters that Western capitals that once supported him were now reaching out to Mnangagwa, seeing him as “pragmatic”. For once, the opposition were united with Mugabe against the West.
In January 2016, at the funeral of a Kwekwe dairy farmer, Neville Coetzee, Mnangagwa again was accused to trying to set himself apart from his boss. He said Midlands leaders had chosen not to take over dairy farms during land reform.
“Here in Midlands we stood our ground to avoid disruptions of the dairy industry and convinced the party leadership. As a result, Midlands is now the number one dairy producing province in the country,” he said.
Because of the decision taken by Mnangagwa, and the likes of the late Cephas Msipa, a former governor, the Coetzee’s small dairy project has grown into one of Zimbabwe’s largest dairy firms, Dendairy.
It was pleasing to some outside the party, but in Zanu PF this was cause for alarm.
For critics, however, there’s little evidence Mnangagwa would have been a reformist leader. His own record in business is tainted. In 2002, a UN report named him as part of a cabal that looted resources in the DRC. Mnangagwa was also named in the government takeover of Shabani and Mashaba Mines from Mutumwa Mawere, a seizure that impoverished Zvishavane.
He has also associated with many shady characters in business, and reports suggest his men run violent gold syndicates that control vast gold claims in the Midlands. With the support of long time allies such as Owen “Mudha” Ncube, militia known as “Al Shabab” are said to have long run gold trade for Mnangagwa across the province. Ncube has denied such claims previously.
All this did not stop Western interests from viewing him as some Kagame figure; an imperfect leader who would hold the country together and bring economic stability by merely ensuring order.
Even some of his opponents thought so. Eddie Cross, the MDC-T’s economic secretary, described Mnangagwa as a “skillful lawyer” and “a business man who understands business.”
David Coltart said Mnangagwa “understands the running of the economy better than Mugabe, better than most Zanu PF politicians.”
A fateful article on Mnangagwa by the New Statesman magazine also thought so too.
“A Mnangagwa presidency might offer Zimbabwe one thing: economic recovery. He is sharp, organised and business-savvy; more pragmatic and less ideological than Mugabe,” the New Statesman said.
On Monday, in its report on Mnangagwa’s sacking, the Financial Times also carried a similar line.
“Abroad, Mr Mnangagwa was seen as supporting an effort to clear Zimbabwe’s arrears with the IMF and other international lenders, with which it cut ties following economic crisis and hyperinflation in 2008,” the paper said.
Within the quiet corridors of Zimbabwean business, Mnangagwa was seen as the more palatable side of ZANU-PF. Business leaders seemed to believe, as did the West and others, that he would be the man to lead Zimbabwe to stability.
It is something that seemed to needle the Mugabes. On Sunday, in a speech to apostolic churches, Grace referred to that. Command Agriculture, the farm subsidy programme that came to define Mnangagwa and won him some grassroots support, was her idea, not Mnangagwa’s, Grace said.
“They gave that programme to him, because they say he is business minded, he knows business. I don’t know what business he runs. I understand business better than anyone, not him,” she declared.
Mnangagwa’s reform plans mostly came to naught, mostly the result of Mugabe’s refusal to sacrifice patronage. The Lima plan ultimately fizzled out, hurt by opposition from inside Government to key demands such as spending cuts.
The remaining Mugabe faction, with Grace Mugabe as its flag bearer, has neither the will, nor the skill, to continue any engagement with international capital. It is unlikely that China, or the West, will also have the same will to engage them either.
Mnangagwa was never going to survive, especially once Grace Mugabe showed ambition. No loyalty would ever have been enough. But in his quest to cast himself as a reformer, Mnangagwa only sped up an exit that was certain the moment he deputised a man who does not share power.
With Mnangagwa gone, for big business, the West, and China, it is back to square one in their engagement with Zimbabwe.