HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is a former guerrilla fighter and bodyguard who responded to being fired as vice president by unseating Robert Mugabe, his own mentor and one of the world’s longest-ruling leaders, in a coup.
Mnangagwa is now seeking reelection for a second term as president in a vote this week that could see the ruling ZANU-PF party extend its 43-year hold on power in the southern African nation struggling under international sanctions. Zimbabwe has been governed by ZANU-PF ever since it won independence from white minority rule in 1980.
Mnangagwa’s nickname — “the crocodile” — fits well for a man praised by supporters for his political cunning and criticized by others for a ruthless streak.
Mnangagwa replaced the autocratic Mugabe as president after a military-led coup in 2017, won a disputed election in 2018, and has become Zimbabwe’s new strongman in the same Mugabe mould, critics say. It’s despite promises he made of freedom and democracy for the country’s 15 million people when he replaced a man he supported – and once protected as a bodyguard.
Mugabe had led Zimbabwe for 37 years and appeared immovable.
Under the constitution, this should be the 80-year-old Mnangagwa’s last term if he wins this election. However, parts of his party have said the law should be changed back to the way it was during much of Mugabe’s time to allow Mnangagwa to stay on as president.
“We want him to rule for life,” Mnangagwa supporter Rosedale Ndlovu said.
Mnangagwa has not rejected the idea, telling a Christian group recently: “If you want to rule the country forever, you come to church and be prayed for.”
At stake is the direction of a nation with rich agricultural and mineral potential but which has been shunned by the West for more than two decades because of human rights abuses, and has increasingly turned to China and Russia amid its long-running economic problems.
While Mnangagwa promised a break from the repressive and isolationist era under Mugabe, there’s been little sign of change.
The crackdown on political opposition under Mugabe — who died in 2019 in Singapore — has continued under Mnangagwa, international rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say, referring to it as “brutal.”
U.S. and European sanctions on Zimbabwe remain in place.
Some say it’s not surprising that little has changed considering how Mnangagwa rose to power under Mugabe, first as his bodyguard during the bloody independence war in the 1970s, then as a Cabinet minister in the 1980s and 1990s, and finally as vice president before they became political enemies and he was fired by Mugabe.
Before they fell out, Mnangagwa was known as Mugabe’s enforcer.
As president, Mnangagwa has been “skillful in deploying a delicate balance” in continuing Mugabe’s approach in some areas, but not all, said Zimbabwe political analyst Alexander Rusero.
While Mugabe was happy to openly oppress any opposition and rant at the West, Mnangagwa has employed a much smoother PR approach.
Asked about his crocodile nickname, Mnangagwa has described himself as being “as soft as wool.” He often intersperses his speeches with chants of “hallelujah” in a strongly Christian country. During the election campaign, he told supporters they would go to heaven if they voted for his party. He has said that Zimbabwe is now “a mature democracy” under him.
He almost always appears in public wearing a scarf in the colors of the Zimbabwean flag, framing himself as the savior of the country.
“We are improving the standard and quality of life for the people of Zimbabwe, brick upon brick, stone upon stone,” Mnangagwa said at an election rally attended by thousands of supporters. “Step by step, we are building Zimbabwe into a modern, industrialized and prosperous country.”
Mnangagwa can claim some success in reviving parts of the agricultural sector, there has been a mining boom, and infrastructure is being built. But the economy is still deeply troubled and a pre-election survey by leading African pollster Afrobarometer said about two thirds of Zimbabweans think the country is going in the wrong direction.
The Citizens Coalition for Change — the main opposition party that will challenge ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa in the election on Wednesday — says its supporters have been subjected to violence and intimidation by ruling party followers, have been arrested and harassed by police, and have had their rallies banned and broken up. Mnangagwa denies his party is oppressive.
Political analyst Rusero said another Mnangagwa election victory would likely lead to a “repetition of Mugabe’s legacy.”
“One thing they largely share is not leaving anything to chance as much as power consolidation is concerned,” Rusero said.