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The End of An Era?

Publishing Date : 28 November, 2017

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With the ouster of Mugabe, Zimbabweans have claimed only one scalp of the many-headed Hydra. BENSON C SAILI explains.

On November 15th 2017, The New York  Times asked Victor Matemadanda, secretary general of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Association,  to provide context as to how Emmerson Mnangagwa came to be known as “Ngwenya”, or  “The Crocodile” in English.  A plethora of theories have been bandied about in relation to how the hair-raising label came about, but Matemadanda would not be drawn into a labouring of the whys and wherefores. Instead, he cut straight to the chase.

“A crocodile patiently waits for his target, pretending to be a rock,” Matemadanda  said. “At times you think he doesn’t react, or doesn’t have any solution to what is happening. He doesn’t show irritation until the optimal moment and then he strikes. And when he does, he doesn’t miss his target!”

That day, Ngwenya  had been just under ten days in self-imposed exile in Mzansi and Robert Mugabe was yet to give up the ghost politically although he was long past  his expiry date. But one does not need to be a rocket scientist to get the  pith of what Matemandanda was intimating – that whatever was in the offing in Mugabe’s horoscope was entirely  the work of  the Crocodile. Mnangagwa schemed the palace coup and decided to stage it at a time when Mugabe was most vulnerable – jaded and enfeebled by old age, drowsy all the time even in meetings he himself chaired, stumbling and faltering with every step, his incorrigible kids openly flaunting the family’s ill-gotten wealth, and insinuations of a dynast in the making with his wayward and scandal-prone wife having publicly declared her wish to succeed him.


The axing of Emmerson Mnangagwa by Robert Mugabe arose at the urging of “Gucci” Grace, as she has been dubbed lately thanks to her exhibitionist, bling-bling shopping sprees. At a public gathering, Grace accused Mnangagwa of “fanning factionalism” and for being the architect of a foiled coup wayback in 1980. These accusations are not exactly a figment of Dis-Grace’s imagination: there’s a modicum of veracity to them.

To begin with, rumours having been swirling for some time that there’s a Shona versus Kalanga divide in the upper echelons of both the executive and the military, a scenario Grace was trying to exploit in her hare-brained bid for the vice-presidency. The Kalangas are the largest sub-group of the broader Shona ethnic group and Mnangagwa is a true-blue Kalanga. The tribe to which Mugabe belongs, the Zezurus, constitute one of the smallest of the Shona group, which is made up of the Kalanga (southern Shona); Rozvis; Zezurus (central Shona); and Korekores (northern Shona) in the main.

The attempted coup that Grace alluded to is not that well-known, perhaps because it occurred just shortly after Zimbabwe’s independence and to publicise it at the time would have cast the Mugabe government as fragile, weak-kneed, and unpopular when it had hardly set sail. It is indeed curious why Grace omitted to  make reference to the most serious attempt to oust Mugabe pre-2017 – the abortive coup of  2007. The coup was supposed to take place between  June 2 and June 15 2007. About 400 soldiers and up to 10 high-ranking army officers were enlisted in the attempted putsch. The plotters were not tried in a court of law but seven ring leaders, who included the alleged mastermind, Albert Matapo, were detained for seven years.

Now hear this: the seven detainees told their captors that the person who was actually behind the coup attempt was Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was then Minister of Rural Housing and Social Amenities, a post  he thought demeaned him as  a man of solid  revolutionary credentials.  It was he who would have become president had the coup succeeded: all others were no more than   foot soldiers.

Yet  Mnangagwa, and three other senior army officers,  namely Lt. Colonel Ben Ncube, Major-General Engelbert Rugele, and Vice Marshall Elson Moyo, were  not bothered at all: they remained in the army, which goes to show how powerful  Mnangagwa was.  Mnangagwa was untouchable even to Mugabe himself.  It stands to reason that the treasonous act would never have come to trial for fear of the beans the seven would have spilt about  Mnangagwa.


Addressing a rally after firing his seniormost vice president, Robert Mugabe said he sacked him for plotting to unseat him from the day he elevated him in 2014. Mugabe did not go into particulars but it is clear he did get wind of the plot that finally toppled him. The mistake he committed, which he will always rue, was to tread softly in his reaction when he should have gone for the jugular straightaway. Contrary to popular belief, the coup was not hatched in the wake of Mnangagwa’s dismissal.  According to the highly regarded, London-based newsletter Africa Confidential, the coup was devised several weeks prior. The dismissal of Mnangagwa simply served to fast-track it.

The coup was scheduled for December 2017, just before the ZANU-PF conference, where it was feared by the Mnangagwa faction, who called themselves Team Lacoste, that members of the Grace Mugabe faction, known as G-40, would ascend to plum party positions at the expense of Team Lacoste and therefore consign it to oblivion.

Before moving to execute the coup, Team Lacoste took soundings with three highly influential nations – China, the US, and  South Africa. General Chiwenga in fact travelled to China on November 5 and met that country’s defence minister Chang Wanquan to secure the Red Dragon’s blessings. The alarm bell Chiwenga sounded before China was that the imminent wholesale purge of the Lacoste Team  at the forthcoming December conference was certain to compromise China’s interests in the country as the G40 were populists who wanted to brandish the anti-China card as a rallying cry.

“In South Africa, Mnangagwa, Chiwenga and Chris Mutsavangwa, the 'war veterans' leader and former ambassador to China, talked to local security officials about the implications of their military action in Harare,” said Africa Confidential. “We understand they were given assurances of non-intervention by South Africa so long as the action didn't spill over the borders and remained 'broadly constitutional'. Chiwenga and Mnangagwa promised to find a way to avoid the action being stigmatised as a military coup by the African Union or the Southern African Development Community.”

Citing their own source, City Press, a leading South African Sunday paper,  also reported that,  “The Chinese were keen on knowing who would take over. When the diplomat informed them that it was Mnangagwa, they were thrilled as he is an old friend of China. He did his military training there.” As for the US being in on the plot too, the same City Press source said,  “I can confirm that at this stage, the United States was informed, but played no role in the plan.”

Chiwenga had undertaken the overseas journey on the pretext that he was following up on his routine medicals. During his absence, Mugabe’s informants disclosed to him the true nature of Chiwenga’s mission, whereupon Mugabe issued instructions to the effect that Chiwenga be arrested immediately upon his return. A tipped-off  Chiwenga returned not via the main airport in Harare  but via a little-used aerodrome, where military intelligence turned up in full force  to thwart any attempt on the part of the police to lead him away in  handcuffs. 


It is said behind every successful man there is a woman. But women have also been the downfall of many a successful man. The voluptuous Delilah led to strongman Samson’s eventual demise. The Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha expired in the arms of a prostitute after she fed him a poisoned apple in the afterglow of a torrid round of lovemaking. The architect of Mugabe’s downfall was none other than the ultra-ambitious and incredibly naive Grace Mugabe, who nudged her almost senile husband to alienate himself from the military top brass.

Mnangagwa was the Chairman  of the Joint  Operations Command, which   comprised of the  heads of the Zimbabwean Defence Force, the Zimbabwean National  Army, the Zimbabwe Air Force, the Zimbabwe Police, the Zimbabwe Prison Service, the Central Intelligence Organisation, the Minister of Defence, and the Governor of the Central Bank. In theory, he was more powerful than even Mugabe himself. To toy with him was therefore suicidal. Mugabe himself was aware how powerful and even indispensable Mnangagwa was, the reason why despite his glaring sins of yesteryears, Mugabe just could not give him the marching orders. 

That said, is Mnangagwa the best man to lead Zimbabwe from Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained? Was  the euphoria that we saw on the small silver screen  warranted or it was pure  delirium? Looking at Ngwenya’s CV, one is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. When about 20,000 Ndebeles were massacred by the  North Korean trained 5th Brigade, Mugabe’s professional thugs,  in 1980, Mnangagwa  is said to have been  the man who captained them.

But  is that really true? For at the time,  Mnangagwa was Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, not Defence Minister, Home Affairs Minister, or even Deputy Prime Minister. The Defence Minister in fact was Mugabe himself. So it is a bit of stretch to suggest that Mnangagwa  superintended over the Matabeleland  atrocities. If anybody is to blame for the carnage, it is Robert Mugabe himself,  who was at once Head of State and Defence Minister at the time. The reason Mugabe was seen to be mollycoddling Mnangagwa may be attributed in the main to Mnangagwa’s comprehensive knowledge of where Mugabe’s haul of bodies are buried.

In 1995 and 1996, Mnangagwa acted as Finance Minister. During that very brief period, he gained a reputation as the best Finance Minister the country had ever had. This was not cheap rhetoric: it was the unanimous  view of the senior technocrats who worked under him, including the ranks of the intelligentsia who majored in economics. So before we dismiss him as a scatterbrain who attained his ne plus ultra as a freedom fighter, let us cut him slack as he has reportedly what it takes to exhume his country from the economic grave and give it a new and sustainable lease of life. In any case, he’s a trained barrister – a lawyer. He’s no dunderhead at all.


Yet the ouster of Robert Mugabe must be seen in its proper context. It was not an Arab Spring kind of upheaval.  And it was not conducted in the interests of the body politic. It all was about schisms in the ranks of the ZANU-PF. The break-dancing and ululating citizenry who thronged the streets on November 21st to celebrate the departure of Mugabe were swept up in the hysteria of the moment without seriously analysing the causal factors and the politics at play. They celebrated change for its own sake without interrogating the bona fides of the forces that precipitated that change.

Look, the army Generals who put Mugabe to the sword were the same ones responsible for the death of about 200 people during the 2008 elections. It was they who presided over the closed doors rigging of the elections and it was they who issued that unforgettable barbarous threat – that they would never allow a person who did not have liberation credentials to ascend to the highest office in the land. But when their own vested political and economic interests were threatened, they did not hesitate to pounce and show Mugabe the door. Their own individual welfare was primary, whereas the welfare of the nation at large was secondary, if not irrelevant altogether.

As for the opposition coalition, they too have been played big time as pawns of the country’s military-industrial complex. It’s like they have blinkers over their eyes or are so myopic they cannot see beyond the points of their noises. By throwing in their lot behind the overthrow of Mugabe, all they have done is simply consolidate military rule behind the scenes and give legitimacy to a unconstitutional change of a constitutionally  elected president. What they have done is not to midwife a new era of a democratic dispensation but to aid and abet the chicanery of ZANU-PF. 

True, Mugabe has rode into the sunset of political history but only  one of the multiple heads of  the Lernaean Hydra  has been cut: the rest remain in place and unscathed. With such a creature at the helm, what guarantees are there that what happened in 2008 won’t be replicated in July 2018?

In 1991, Zambians dismissed Kenneth Kaunda, who wasn’t half a despot as Robert Mugabe, from a further conduct of their affairs. They celebrated as if they had just won self-rule from a draconian imperial power or toppled an Idi Amin or Jean Bedel Bokassa. It did not take more than five years for them to wish Kaunda had continued to rule for another 27 more years so pathetic was the regime that took over and in full conformity with  the parameters of an archetypal democracy for that matter. Politics, folks, is very fickle. What a dirty game it is!



Do you think the courts will help put the UDC, BMD impasse within reasonable time ahead of the 2019 General Election?