Mugabe Out, Authoritarianism to Stay in Zimbabwe

On November 19, almost a week after the Zimbabwean military seized control of the country’s government, President Robert Mugabe resigned after 37 years in power. The world’s oldest head of state fought to the last minute, resigning only on the day when the parliament began its impeachment proceedings. Soon after, the country erupted into celebration, its citizens filling the streets dancing in joy with high hopes for their nation’s future.

Soon afterward, though, Zimbabweans, international actors, and observers alike all asked the critical question: Is democracy coming to Zimbabwe? The answer depends on how Mugabe’s successor chooses to proceed. For now, the country’s history leaves many highly pessimistic.

After a violent revolution that removed a white minority regime from power at the end of the 1970s, Mugabe and his allies in the ZANU-PF party took power and have remained there until now. In recent weeks, recognizing his old age--over 90--the president cleared the path for Grace Mugabe, his much younger wife, to succeed him. Sometimes known as “Gucci Grace” for her lavish taste in designer clothing, she transitioned from being a philanthropic president’s wife to being a politician in her own right, in charge of the “Generation 40” faction of ZANU-PF. Earlier in November, Mugabe ousted his vice president and longtime ally Emmerson Mnangagwa in favor of his wife, which precipitated the military coup.

The military seized power in the middle of last month, claiming their actions were not a coup and that they would relinquish power once order and stability have been achieved. (In political science, this is called a “guardian coup.”) After Mugabe’s resignation, his recent vice president Mnangagwa took power. Mnangagwa is the leader of the Lacoste faction in ZANU-PF, which opposes Grace Mugabe.

Mnangagwa, also known as “the Crocodile” for his savviness and propensity for hardline tactics, is not a newcomer to the stage. He has been a Mugabe ally since the “War of Liberation,” and has been accused of leading many of Mugabe’s harshest policies, including election-rigging in 2008. Human rights organizations have also accused him of being involved in massacring tens of thousands of civilians in the 1980s. A State Department report in 2000 said he was widely feared in Zimbabwe, and that he could be an even more oppressive leader than Mugabe.

In fact, in Mnangagwa’s first few days in power he has shown few or no signs of wanting to lead the country to democracy, despite some promises about bringing patriotic Zimbabweans together into a “new era of democracy.” Many hoped that he would include opposition members, such as former finance minister Tendai Biti, in his new cabinet as a sign of compromise. Mnangagwa, however, has taken the opposite path. He has just announced the appointment of several controversial loyalists and military generals to the highest cabinet posts. Notably, he appointed the face of the coup, General Sibusiso Moyo, as his new foreign minister.

With the new cabinet appointments and Mnangagwa’s strong ties to the Zimbabwean military, the idea that the military will “return to the barracks” and democracy will flourish in Zimbabwe seems far-fetched and overly idealistic. Zimbabwe will hold new elections in 2018, at which point some things may change or may not. For now, even with the resignation of longtime President Mugabe, it seems that an authoritarian regime is likely to remain in place.