‘The King is dead, long live the King!’, the traditional proclamation to announce the death of a monarch and herald the incoming replacement, could well have been used to announce the political demise of President Robert Mugabe on 21 November 2017, and the swift coronation of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, says Professor Keith Somerville.  

Mugabe isn’t dead, exiled or imprisoned. However, he is more-or-less confined to his luxurious residence looked after by a government-funded retinue of servants and security guards, and with a considerable pension and personal fortune.

The new king, Mnangagwa, quickly installed a cabinet with strong representation from the Zimbabwe National Army, which had been his chief supporter. They sit alongside war veterans and sections of the ZANU-PF party, which revered his active, violent and well-known liberation war career – a fighter where Mugabe had been a politician aloof from combat and usually far from the frontline. In a 1992 interview, Mnangagwa explained how he had personally killed a white settler during the start of the liberation war to get his ‘gu’. Other leading ZANU fighters and a historian of the Zimbabwean liberation war close to ZANU have confirmed his account of what was known as the ‘Crocodile Commando of ZANU’.

The struggle for power within ZANU-PF, ultimately between Grace Mugabe (the president’s young and ambitious wife) and Mnangagwa has elements of a Zimbabwean War of the Roses. Mugabe’s Zezuru clan as the Yorkists and the Karanga of Mnangagwa taking the place of the defeated Lancastrians and then the victorious Tudors, who won over key military figures. The Zezuru and the Karanga are two sub-groups within the wider Shona linguistic and cultural community from which ZANU originally drew most of its support. ZANU-PF has long seen competition for power and alliance making between the Shona clans: the Zezuru, Karanga, Manyika and Korekore.

Mugabe often carefully nurtured and manipulated party factionalism. He did this to maintain his power and that of the tight circle of his wife’s family members, the Zezuru elites within the party and security forces, and the rich business people he trusted. In return, they received rewards with rents at first skimmed and of late, gouged from Zimbabwe’s natural resource income – particularly the alluvial diamond fields directly controlled by the party and military for their own enrichment and political patronage.

With this year’s elections looming, the eyes of the Zimbabwe watchers of Western states, not to mention those of the Zimbabwean people who so warmly welcomed Mugabe’s overthrow, are on Mnangagwa. They want to see if and then how he chooses to transform the ailing economy, overcome Zimbabwe’s international isolation and woo the electorate after years of ZANU-PF elections won under Mugabe through violence, fraud and bribery.

They will also be watching the divided, fractious and at times tragically comic opposition. The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change is led Nelson Chamisa, a politician opposed by many within his own party and who recently, to considerable surprise, offered his young sister in marriage to the 75 year-old president if the latter won many votes in the coming election. Chamisa told the BBC that he struggled to understand what was wrong with his offer, adding that he was happy to make the bet ‘because I know it won’t happen’.

Robert MugabeHow did Zimbabwe get to the point where competitive party politics seems such a farce and Mugabe himself became a victim of a political system he created? An ideal place to begin to looking for answers is in the commendably concise but sharp-edged biography entitled ‘Robert Mugabe’ by Dr Sue Onslow, deputy director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and Martin Plaut one of the institute’s senior research fellows and a journalist specialising in the Horn of Africa and South Africa.

From the start, the authors have analysed the complexity of the man, his forthright, didactic but at times withdrawn personality. And rightly, in my view, they come to the conclusion that while the evolution of Zimbabwe’s politics, society and economy are tightly bound up with the Mugabe’s policies, political machinations and personality, they cannot ‘be distilled down to the attitude and actions of just one man’ (p.14).

They emphasise that Mugabe’s rise to power and political outlook were ‘intricately linked to the outcome of the original struggle for independence and the end of white domination in 1980’. However, they stress that while he has shaped much of what has happened since, to concentrate just on him, as the West has often done, misunderstands the ‘political cultures and structures of power in Zimbabwe’ (p.14).

This inability of the West, and one might also say of Grace Mugabe, to understand political culture and power in Zimbabwe explains why they failed to see Mugabe’s demise coming (expecting death or senility, not a politico-military coup, to remove him from power) and underestimated the strength of Mnangagwa’s supporters.

Plaut and Onslow astutely identified that ‘Mugabe served the interests of the military, political and business elites who kept him in power for nearly four decades’ until, fearful he would install his wife Grace in the presidency, and that she would oust those who had enriched themselves during his rule, they finally turned on him (p.17). With this in mind, Mnangagwa does not represent massive transformation but the protection of the long-term interests of entrenched elites.

This fascinating analysis both charts Mugabe’s life and political career, and examines the sometimes seemingly contradictory policies and ways in which he maintained power, appealing to the masses through radical rhetoric while cultivating and enriching his key supporters in the military. And with Mnangagwa as his willing and enthusiastic security chief, ridding himself of those who failed to conform to his schoolmaster-ish control of ZANU-PF.

Over the years Mugabe’s erstwhile political allies, along with opposition politicians and their families, were victims of an amazing number of car accidents, mystery illnesses and fires. They range from ZANU military leader Josiah Tongogara (just before independence) and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s wife, Susan, to the former head of the army and leading political and business figure Solomon Mujuru, with many other lesser party members falling victim along the way (p. 166).

Mugabe was a man of contradictions – strongly suspicious and justifiably resentful of Britain’s role in the occupation, subjugation and exploitation of Zimbabwe by a racist white minority. He also hugely admired the Queen and loved the law-based, complex structure of the quintessentially English game of cricket, which he encouraged as a sport in Zimbabwe’s schools and clubs.

More seriously, for Zimbabwe, he consistently held to a radically transformative, redistributive view of the Zimbabwean economy and society and worked for it through Africanisation in government and business, and land seizures. But the egalitarianism he espoused did not materialise as transformation and generally took the form, as the authors note, of ‘embourgeoisement’ serving the vested ‘interests of ZANU-PF party elite and its allies in their search for resource accumulation’ (24).

As you look to what Mnangagwa might or might not do to transform his damaged country, reading this book will help. While its focus is on Mugabe, it is on Mugabe as a product and integral part of Zimbabwe’s political culture and institutions of power and privilege.  Mnangagwa had a different trajectory to power, but was part of and relied on many of the same institutions and repositories of privilege and power for his survival and ascendancy.

Professor Keith Somerville teaches at the Centre for Journalism, and is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. He is also a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a research associate at the Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere at King’s College, London.