Emmerson Mnangagwa: just like Robert Mugabe — but younger, richer and even crueller

The Sunday Times

Christina Lamb in Matabeleland

November 26 2017

Zimbabweans old enough to recall the early days have reason to fear the new president

When Blessing Chebundo watched the crowds cheering and dancing at the inauguration of Zimbabwe’s new president on Friday, he wondered if it was time to leave the country. Chebundo, the only person to have taken on Emmerson Mnangagwa and defeated him, says the man now drawing all the adulation tried twice to have him killed.

In a hot, bare office with no water in the taps, a few Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) posters on the peeling walls and a pile of registration papers for next year’s elections on the table, a round-faced man in a crimson velvet jacket tells a story that gives a chilling insight into the man known as “the ­Crocodile”.

At 59, Chebundo is lucky to be alive. A long-time trade unionist at the country’s biggest fertiliser plant, he was persuaded to run for the newly formed MDC opposition party in the June 2000 elections in his home town of Kweke, which had been Mnangagwa’s constituency since independence in 1980. That is when his problems started.

“No one wanted to take on Mnangagwa,” says Chebundo. “He is one of the most feared politicians in the country.”

He soon learnt why. On May 9, 2000, he was on his way to the bus stop to go to work when he was surrounded by 15 youths. “One of them hit me with a pitch handle and I fell to the ground. Another grabbed a can from under his shirt and poured petrol over me. I grabbed one of the ­others and said we’re going to burn together.” He was only saved because in the scuffle the matches had been covered in petrol and wouldn’t light.

On May 13 his campaign manager, Abraham Mtsheno, was attacked. “They petrol-bombed his house in the night so it burnt down and beat his family including his one-year-old daughter so badly she ended up in hospital.”

Two days later they went for ­Chebundo’s house. Fearing an attack, he had sent his pregnant wife and child away. Suddenly, after darkness fell, he heard a noise. “When I tried to open the door an object flew past me and hit the wall and exploded. I thought, ‘Oh God.’”

He closed the door but then heard a window pane breaking as another petrol bomb sailed in. “Soon every room was petrol-bombed. I was inside and everything was on fire.”

He called the police but was told there was no one available. “It was a nightmare I didn’t know how to escape. Inside was fire all around and when I opened the curtain I could see a sea of people holding picks, knobkerries and other weapons. I thought, ‘If I go out I’m killed. If I stay inside I’m consumed by fire.’”

Will it be a new dawn for Zimbabwe?

Eventually he grabbed the breadknife and ran outside. “There must have been 40 or 50 of them and I knew I couldn’t pass them. I told them, ‘You’re going to kill me but I’m going to take as many as I can of you.’”

He started advancing towards them, brandishing the knife. Among them he recognised a local police inspector and a retired policeman. “They started retreating,” he said. “Afterwards they told people they thought I was possessed as I looked like I was flying.”

Though he survived, his house burnt down. “I lost everything I’d worked for over 21 years,” he said. “All our possessions, my three vehicles, my children’s things.” Despite the intimidation he ended up winning more than twice as many votes as Mnangagwa.

It may seem bizarre that the man who rigged elections for Robert Mugabe could not win his own seat in a poll, but Chebundo says urban seats are harder to rig and the attacks made local people more opposed to the ruling party.

“Winning the election in 2000 was like going to heaven and then coming down with a bang,” he said. “We’d had so many people killed or beaten and homes destroyed.”

In 2005 Chebundo managed to defeat Mnangagwa again, after which his rival created a new constituency.

He had mixed feelings last week as he watched fellow opposition activists pulling down portraits of Mugabe and stamping on street signs bearing the name of the 93-year-old deposed ruler. “Of course I’m glad he’s gone,” he said. “But no one can blame me for having reservations. Personally I’d say Mugabe is a better deal — I don’t like him, but this person is worse.”

He is not the only one. In the dirt-poor village of Emkayeni, just outside Tsholo­tsho in Matabeleland, Georgina Tshuma Ndlovu, 70, stands at a grave, tugging at her blue dress with red stitching, and bows her head.

“The pain never goes away,” she says. There lies her eldest son, ZuluBoy, shot dead at 19 with a friend while they were ploughing, by soldiers from Zimbabwe’s notorious Fifth Brigade.

Georgina Ndlovu with son Kenneth by the grave of her other son, who was killed during the Matabeleland massacresGeorgina Ndlovu with son Kenneth by the grave of her other son, who was killed during the Matabeleland massacres

With her is her son Kenneth, who ran away when he heard the shots that day in January 1983 but was later caught and beaten so badly that he still drags his right leg. He was 16 at the time.

“I thought they would kill me too,” he said. “Three times they pointed the gun at my head. Then they threw me face down on the ground and beat me so hard with droppers [fence poles] I couldn’t walk for a month.”

They are victims of Gukurahundi, the most brutal massacre of the Mugabe regime in which an estimated 20,000 people from the Ndebele tribe were killed or disappeared. The name comes from a Shona word that means “the early rain that washes away the chaff before spring” and the aim was to wipe out opposition after independence. “We call it the time of the killing,” said Georgina.

Mnangagwa was head of Zimbabwe’s spy agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), in the mid-1980s when the massacre was under way and is believed to have played a key role. “Mnangagwa was the leader of that army that did this Gukurahundi,” said Mtshumayeli Moyo, 60, the local head man, who was also abducted by soldiers. “I’m worried that what happened before will come back.”

Moyo had his identity card taken and ripped up but escaped with his life, he thinks, because he is partially crippled. His wife, Sihle, was so badly beaten that she could not walk for weeks.

The Fifth Brigade, trained by North Koreans and headed by Perence Shiri, who is now air force chief and was alongside Mnangagwa at his inauguration on Friday, spread terror throughout southern Zimbabwe from 1983 to 1987. The brigade set up camps in two schools and systematically went from village to village. Within six weeks more than 2,000 civilians had died, hundreds of homes had burnt down and thousands of civilians had been beaten.

Most of the dead were killed in public executions. Afterwards villagers were sometimes forced at gunpoint to dance on the freshly dug graves and sing pro-Mugabe songs. Entire families were burnt alive inside huts, women raped and mothers-to-be bayoneted.

Thirty years later many of those who witnessed the violence have now died in a country where life expectancy is, at 58, one of the lowest in the world. Others are scared to talk. Meetings I had set up at the start of the week were cancelled once Mnangagwa was announced as president.

Gukurahundi has never been officially acknowledged by the regime, and Mnangagwa has denied his role. “How do I become the enforcer?” he asked a New Statesman interviewer last year. “During Gukurahundi we had the president, the minister of defence, the commander of the army, and I was none of that.”

But the state-controlled Chronicle in Bulawayo reported him at the time likening dissidents to “bugs and cockroaches that had reached such an epidemic that the government needed to bring in DDT to get rid of them”.

A still taken from rare footage of the Fifth Brigade during the Gukurahundi massacresA still taken from rare footage of the Fifth Brigade during the Gukurahundi massacres

David Coltart, a lawyer in Bulawayo, opposition senator and minister for education in Mugabe’s cabinet during the government of national unity in 2009-13, describes Mnangagwa as one of the architects of the massacre.

In his book The Struggle Continues he documents how under Mnangagwa the CIO provided lists of members of the rival party Zapu that the Fifth Brigade would go after. He quotes him warning in a speech in April 1983: “Woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents, for we will certainly shorten their stay on earth.”

“Everyone’s celebrating but I’m not in a celebratory mood,” said Coltart, who used to sit two seats away from Mnangagwa in cabinet. “I’m happy Robert Mugabe has gone but am worried about Mnangagwa.

“Is he going to be another Gorbachev or de Klerk, or will he be a Milosevic or Idi Amin? The choice is literally that stark.

“His history doesn’t give us much encouragement,” he added. “It’s not just more of the same — it’s potentially worse. You have someone much younger and more vigorous and much closer to the military.”

A guerrilla fighter at the age of 16, Mnangagwa narrowly escaped a death sentence for helping to blow up a Rhodesian train. After taking a law degree, he became a commander in the liberation movement and was trained in China. He has been at Mugabe’s side for 50 years, first as his bodyguard and personal assistant and then, after independence, as minister of justice, state security and defence and Speaker of parliament. He has long seen himself as the heir apparent, sidelining rivals such as his fellow vice-president Joice Mujuru. When it looked as though he was going to lose everything to the first lady, Grace Mugabe, his close friend ­General Constantine Chiwenga, the head of the army, made his move, launching a coup that Mnangagwa is widely believed to have orchestrated.

It’s not just Gukurahundi that concerns Coltart but also Mnangagwa’s role in the 2008 presidential election, when he orchestrated a wave of deadly violence and intimidation that forced the opposition MDC to pull out of a run-off vote that Mugabe risked losing. Coltart says he helped rig the last elections too.

“He has been Mugabe’s point man all along,” he says. “He was his point man in Gukurahundi, point man in the run-off elections in 2008 — it was Mnangagwa who organised that entire election with all the incidents of targeting — and then, with General Chiwenga and the military, he ran the 2013 elections, where I had ­soldiers in my constituency voting early and often.”

His fears are shared by Chief Felix Nhlanhla Ndiweni, 52, who lived in Canvey Island, Essex, and worked as an auditor until three years ago, when he returned to succeed his father as paramount chief of the Ndiweni. “We’ve been through a hellish patch for 37 years, so, yes, the exit of Mugabe is good,” he said, “but we’re opening a Pandora’s box and I’m concerned history will repeat itself.”

Speaking in clipped English and wearing tribal beads and a black leather headband, he said barely a day passes without him meeting victims of Gukurahundi and insisted that Mnangagwa must address the issue urgently.

“We can’t gloss over the most heinous of human crimes: genocide. It happened, and thousands and thousands were killed,” he said.

He is calling for an inter­national investigation. “A simple apology is not enough. We need information: where are the bones of our loved ones and who did what? And at some point some individuals have to be locked up for this.”

Not only is the new president the most feared man in Zimbabwe but he is also reputed to be the richest. “He is the wealthiest man in the country,” said Tendai Biti, a former finance minister and an opposition leader.

How he acquired that wealth is a ­matter of great speculation. His business interests include a chain of petrol stations, ethanol production and gold panning. Eyebrows were raised when, in his inauguration speech, he called for an end to corruption. “As we focus on recovering our economy, we must shed misbehaviours and acts of indiscipline, which have characterised the past,” he said.

Demonstrators outside parliament on the day it began impeachment proceedings against Robert MugabeDemonstrators outside parliament on the day it began impeachment proceedings against Robert Mugabe

A UN security council report accused him of plundering diamonds from the Democratic Republic of Congo when Zimbabwean troops intervened to prop up the government of President Laurent Kabila in the late 1990s. According to the 2002 report, Mnangagwa was “key strategist for the Zimbabwean branch of the elite network” looting precious minerals.

This dark history makes some doubt his pledges to bring in a new Zimbabwe, particularly when he ended his first speech after Mugabe’s resignation by saying in Shona, “The dogs may keep on barking but Zanu-PF will keep on ruling”, and then departing in a long motorcade.

After all the euphoria of the past 12 days, some Zimbabweans are starting to wonder if they have been fooled. “It’s a Zanu-PF squabble we allowed ourselves to be sucked into,” said Shari Eppel, director of the Solidarity Peace Trust and one of the authors of the Gukurahundi report. “It was never about a return to democracy. I feel people en masse are succumbing to Stockholm syndrome, mistaking their captors for liberators,” she warned as she watched people hug soldiers and praise the army, which launched the coup that led to Mugabe’s resignation. “The army are not our friends and liberators. They never have been and never will be, particularly in this area.”

On Friday the military was clearly in evidence at Mnangagwa’s inauguration in a packed Harare stadium to watch him take the chains of office. It was followed by a fly-past and a 21-gun salute.

“We have no time to squander,” he told cheering crowds. The biggest challenge is an economic crisis so severe that the country has only enough money to fund one month of imports and more than nine out of 10 people are jobless.

Celebrations in the streets of Harare as news of Robert Mugabe’s resignation spreadsCelebrations in the streets of Harare as news of Robert Mugabe’s resignation spreads

Post-apocalyptic scenes lay before us as we drove from Harare to Bulawayo and then Tsholotsho: farms derelict, hotels abandoned, grass growing in factories and long queues outside banks. Big companies such as Sisco steel and Sable Chemicals have closed. Villages like Ndlovu’s are still ploughed by donkey, water must be collected from wells and most huts have only a little grain. “We’ve actually gone backwards,” said Moyo, the head man.

For this to change Mnangagwa needs the help of the international community, and he pledged in his speech to re-engage with the world. Opposition leaders are urging the international community to demand in return the freeing of state media and the holding of free and fair elections overseen by a unity government. He is expected to announce his cabinet this week. But many in the ruling party see no need to bring in opposition.

“Why should we?” asked Terence Mukupe, MP for Harare East. “The constitution says if you recall the president, the party in power stays till next election. If MDC were the ones in this scenario they wouldn’t be asking for a coalition.”

A former Wall Street banker, Mukupe is a supporter of Mnangagwa who is a close friend of his father-in-law and was guest of honour at his wedding, and says his fearsome reputation is unfair. Emmerson is a very humble guy, a man of few words,” he said. “He listens, whereas President Mugabe became detached from the people and the only person he listened to was Grace and her cabal.”

“People who say he is ruthless are people from the opposition. No one in the street has a problem with Emmerson coming. Everyone is celebrating and singing songs about him.”

The song he mentions, Mudhara Achauya, means The Big Man Is Coming.