“I am as soft as wool. I am a very soft person in life,” Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa told the BBC in a recent interview, but his nickname is ‘The Crocodile’. There is probably no more ruthless person active in Zimbabwe’s politics, and three months ago he looked like a shoo-in to win the presidential election due to be held on 30 July.
It was ‘ED’ (as he is understandably known for short) whose dismissal as Vice-President last year triggered the military coup that finally forced the resignation of Robert Mugabe, the elderly and authoritarian president whose 37-year rule had ruined the country economically. Mnangagwa emerged from that as the interim president of Zimbabwe, and this election was supposed to put the seal of legitimacy on his rule.
It seemed an easy win because the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, is an alliance of seven smaller parties, and the MDC’s founder and leader for almost two decades died in February. But it isn’t turning out like that at all. Three months ago Mnangagwa led the new MDC leader, Nelson Chamisa, by 11 points in the opinion polls, but by last week his lead had shrunk to only 3 percent.
Many people are still afraid to reveal their true voting intentions due to their ingrained fear of the ruling Zanu-PF Party’s frequent use of deadly violence against opposition supporters in the past, so Chamisa could even come in ahead of Mnangagwa in next Monday’s vote. But there are 23 presidential candidates in this round, and unless Chamisa gets more than half the votes that would mean a second, run-off election between the two.
The ruling Zanu-PF party has largely abstained from violence this time, but if it knew it was likely to lose the presidency in the second round the gloves might come off. The army’s senior officers, all Zanu-PF members, count on Mnangagwa to maintain their privileged status in a relatively poor country, and his past record contains a great deal of violence.
A veteran of Zimbabwe’s independence war, he gained a fearsome reputation as national security minister during Zanu-PF’s war against a rival independence movement in the 1980s, during which thousands were killed and tens of thousands tortured.
He also orchestrated the violence in the early 2000s when Zimbabwe’s white farmers were driven from their land (much of which was taken by senior Zanu-PF people). He did it again after the first round of the 2008 presidential election, when the MDC leader got more votes than Mugabe. Mnangagwa directed the violence that killed hundreds of opposition supporters and forced the MDC to drop out of the second round.
So he’s probably not afraid to use force again, and neither are his generals. But the army’s junior officers might not follow them, since they are not getting rich out of the current arrangement. It could get very messy, and many Zimbabweans hope for a coalition government after the first round in which Mnangagwa narrowly wins the presidency but gives experienced MDC leaders most of the powerful ministries.
That might work well, since Mnangagwa could be a good president so long as his power and wealth were safe. His campaign focuses firmly on fixing the economy, which is in desperate need of repair, and he argues, quite plausibly, that if only the country could show that it was stable then foreign investment would flood in.
Mugabe ruined the economy – at one point the GDP was down by half – and even now Zimbabweans are 15% poorer than they were in 1980. Millions have left the country seeking work elsewhere (mostly in South Africa). But it is rich in resources, and it has one of Africa’s best-educated populations: more than two-thirds of Zimbabweans aged 15-49 have attended secondary school.
So it really could attract the investment if it emerged from all this as a stable, democratic country – but the paradox is that it might be less stable under a genuinely democratic government led by Nelson Chamisa. The threat of military intervention would be ever-present. Yet it is actually possible that Chamisa could win over 50 percent of the votes and become president in the first round.
The unknown factor is the youth vote. Zimbabwe is a young country, with almost half the registered voters under 35, and they have never voted in a free and fair election before. Almost all of them, even the poorest, have mobile phones. They also have a reasonably good education, and they face a staggeringly high unemployment rate.
So are these ambitious, frustrated young men and women more likely vote for dour, 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, who bears the stains of almost every crime committed in Mugabe’s long rule, or for a quick-witted, humorous, 40-year-old newcomer called Nelson Chamisa? Stay tuned.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries. His new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.