Following the announcement of Emmerson Mnangagwa’s victory in the 2018 election, there is very little indication Zimbabwe is becoming a more democratic and fair nation. Indeed, the allegations of fraud in the election by both the opposition and international monitors suggest there will be few significant improvements for a nation ruled by only one party since its independence. This was proved shortly after the election, when the army used deadly force to suppress opposition protests.
Of course, many in Zimbabwe have hoped that Mnangagwa’s election promises of revitalising the economy will improve the lives of ordinary people during his next term as president. He has been on a drive to bring in foreign investment since he took over from Robert Mugabe in the 2017 coup, and thus has portrayed himself as an economic reformer. This was almost a dream come true for many members of the international community, with Britain being especially eager to support this new government as soon as Mnangagwa talked of re-joining the commonwealth.
Of course, Mnangagwa is not necessarily a force for change and there is little chance that the 2017 coup or this election will bring about a less oppressive Zimbabwe. Whilst some foreign powers and media outlets were happy to portray the November 2017 coup as some sort of revolution, it was merely the end result of a power struggle over who would succeed Robert Mugabe.
Efforts to hold a free and fair election were necessary to attract foreign investors back to a country with failing infrastructure and high levels of public debt. Restarting the economy is crucial for Zimbabwe but without foreign investment, it is unlikely that this could be achieved. The president, therefore, is simply putting on a show for the international community without changing anything about the way Zimbabwe is ruled. These are the signs of a shrewd political operator, who understands how important the international perception of Zimbabwe is to the success of its economy. Indeed, this attitude is a striking departure from the rhetoric of Robert Mugabe who blamed the west for many of Zimbabwe’s economic woes. This is exactly why we should be so cautious of President Mnangagwa.
We must remember that this is a man who, for years, carefully built up loyal support within the senior ranks of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces. Up until November 2017, he held a senior position in the Mugabe administration and was a likely successor until he was purged and forced to flee the country.
The coup which would install him as president was no uprising by the masses against years of misrule. It was a desperate act by Zimbabwe’s military leadership and a faction within the ZANU-PF to prevent them from being removed from their positions of power by Grace Mugabe. His motivation for becoming president was clearly to establish his faction as the dominant political force, and so, the international community should be extremely wary about the promises of reform he made during the election.
Robert Mugabe is gone from Zimbabwean politics, but his legacy of oppression may live on in President Mnangagwa. It is possible that his business friendly approach and diplomatic efforts may lead to increased economic growth in Zimbabwe, but it is doubtful whether Zimbabwean society will become anymore free and fair as a result. The international community has a duty to maintain economic and diplomatic pressure on Zimbabwe until the ruling party proves it is serious about its commitment to democracy and human rights. Otherwise, we may be handing an autocrat increased economic security and simultaneously undermining the efforts of opposition parties to stand up to President Mnangagwa.