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Zimbabwe: Enter the Crocodile

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First Lady Grace Mugabe joins her first meeting of the Politburo of ZANU–PF. Image courtesy of Wikicommons user Brainy263. Zimbabwe, 2015.

First Lady Grace Mugabe joins her first meeting of the Politburo of ZANU–PF. Image courtesy of Wikicommons user Brainy263. Zimbabwe, 2015.

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The author, Joshua Hammer, on assignment at Matobo National Park in Matabeleland, a former refuge for liberation fighters against white minority rule in the 1970s and now a refuge for wildlife.

In early December, three weeks after the military coup that unseated Zimbabwe’s ninety-three-year-old president, Robert Mugabe, I traveled to Harare, the country’s threadbare capital. A large white canvas tent had been set up on fairgrounds near the city center. Loyalists from the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), had gathered from across the country to attend a national assembly.

The assembly had been scheduled months earlier to endorse Mugabe as the party’s candidate in the 2018 presidential election and to rubber-stamp his selection of his fifty-two-year-old wife, Grace, as vice-president and likely successor. But the tumultuous events of the preceding weeks—including the mysterious poisoning of Mugabe’s rival Emmerson Mnangagwa and his subsequent clandestine flight across the border; a standoff at the airport between soldiers disguised as baggage handlers and Mugabe’s police force; and a ferocious shootout in an affluent Harare suburb—had forced a change of plans. Hastily printed ZANU–PF posters now displayed photos introducing Mnangagwa, a husky figure with an animated grin, as the country’s next president. Mugabe and his wife had been banished to their suburban villa, the Blue Roof, and were said to be on their way to Singapore and Malaysia for a lengthy vacation following their humiliation.

I drove along the road adjacent to the fairground, passing a parking lot filled with chartered buses painted green, red, yellow, and black—the ZANU–PF colors. As we approached the tent where Mnangagwa was scheduled to address the party faithful that afternoon, my companion, Prince Butawo, a hip-hop artist and journalist for a political website in Harare, pointed out men wearing bright yellow-green vests mingling with the crowd. They were ZANU–PF security officers, he told me, disguised as “air time” vendors for a local cell phone service provider. I circled the site to get a second look, but Butawo urged me not to slow down. “They have noticed you,” he told me. I had not bothered to acquire press credentials, and if I were pulled over, he warned, I stood a good chance of being arrested, beaten, and jailed. “It’s back to business as usual,” Butawo said.

Through transparent plastic panels in the side of the tent, I could observe hundreds of men and women, many clad in ZANU–PF T-shirts, packed shoulder to shoulder, waiting expectantly for the new president to speak. Known as “the Crocodile,” a nom de guerre he acquired as a teenage saboteur fighting white-minority rule in the 1960s, Mnangagwa had been a confidant of Mugabe’s for four decades. As security minister and justice minister, he had helped to quash—sometimes violently—repeated challenges to Mugabe’s rule. But as he stood before the throng, dressed in a green “Extraordinary ZANU–PF Congress” baseball cap and a matching jacket emblazoned with photos of himself, Mnangagwa expressed his dedication to tolerance and human rights. “Democracy, equality, and the rule and respect of the law and the constitution runs through the very blood and genetic makeup of our party,” he declared.

Then he paused to acknowledge the mentor whom he had helped to depose. “I…pay homage to my predecessor and immediate first president of our party, comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe,” Mnangagwa intoned, “who steered the ship of our party and its government until I assumed [power] a few weeks ago.” At the same moment that he was outlining his vision for the post-Mugabe era, a city councilor in Harare was proposing that the “Robert Mugabe Road” through the capital be renamed after Mnangagwa. A cult of personality surrounding Zimbabwe’s new Big Man, it seemed, was already taking hold.

One evening in Harare I visited Temba Mliswa, a former national rugby team coach who rose to become a member of the ZANU–PF Central Committee and a confidant of Mugabe’s before splitting from the party in February 2015. A wiry, youthful figure with a touch of gray in his hair, Mliswa received me at his walled-off villa in Borrowdale, the verdant suburb where Mugabe lives. “Bob ruled well for fifteen years,” he told me, as he led me into his den and poured us glasses of South African wine. “After that, he should have passed the baton.”

In the 2000s, Mliswa witnessed the brutality that accompanied the seizure of white-owned farms by war veterans and others, some of whom killed farmers who resisted. He also observed the intimidation and murder of opposition supporters during the 2008 runoff election, which was held after Mugabe’s cronies tampered with the original vote totals. As many as four hundred activists were killed before Mugabe’s challenger withdrew, causing enough international outrage to force Mugabe to form a “unity government” for five years with the country’s leading opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). “That was the culture of the party,” Mliswa told me. “It has a liberation history, the struggle was very violent, and that fed into Zimbabwe, and any time [they] were under threat, they resorted to violence.” Mliswa also observed up close the growing ambitions and rapaciousness of Mugabe’s second wife, Grace—a former secretary in the presidential typing pool whom he had married in 1996, after the death from cancer of his popular first wife, Sally.

Derided as “Gucci Grace” for her extravagant shopping trips to Europe financed with stolen government funds, Grace Mugabe became her husband’s full-time nurse and adviser and gradually assumed a political position. “He relied on her, and she abused that reliance,” Mliswa said. In 2014 Mugabe appointed Grace head of the ZANU–PF women’s wing, giving her a seat on the party’s decision-making body, the Politburo. “The moment that she stepped into office, she realized that the taste of power was sweet,” Mliswa told me, “and she wanted more.”

The Mugabes were permitted a “discretionary fund” for their travels abroad, according to Mliswa, but Grace Mugabe abused that perk to a degree that astonished even the corrupt figures who dominated the inner circle. “They would load the presidential jet with hard currency,” Mliswa said. “On each trip abroad you were looking at a minimum of $3 million.” She became increasingly imperious toward her colleagues. “She said, ‘the cabinet ministers and vice-presidents must report to me, and bring notebooks, and take notes,’” in Mliswa’s words. She also formed a close alliance with Jonathan Moyo, the minister of higher education, an articulate opportunist who had once been one of Mugabe’s harshest critics but was now regarded as a slavish loyalist who had his ear. To bolster her intellectual credentials, Moyo reportedly arranged for her to receive a doctorate in sociology at the University of Zimbabwe, though she had studied there for just three months. Grace Mugabe, in turn, was said to have quashed an investigation by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission into Moyo’s alleged misappropriation of over $400,000 from the Zimbabwe Development Fund, overseen by his education ministry.

By the time Mugabe turned ninety, his memory was failing, he was nodding off in meetings, and the ZANU–PF was fragmenting into rival camps gathered around three possible successors. One leading candidate was Vice President Joice Mujuru, a former guerrilla nicknamed “Comrade Spillblood,” whose husband, General Solomon Mujuru, the commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, had turned against Mugabe following the violent 2008 election and died in a suspicious fire at his farmhouse in 2011. Joice Mujuru suspected Mugabe of having a hand in his death—and in 2014, Grace Mugabe accused her of conspiring to murder the president and engineered her firing and expulsion from the party. Grace also had her eye on the presidency, and was backed by a circle of youthful parliamentarians and sycophants known as “Generation 40.” Many had enriched themselves at the party trough, I was told, and saw an alliance with Grace as an opportunity for more. “If you hang around her, you get a license to loot,” said Samuel Sifelani, an Anglican priest and social activist in Harare. “That’s what it’s about. There is no ideological cement that binds them.”

The front-runner was Mnangagwa, who had been close to Mugabe since independence and had established himself as a ruthless executor of Mugabe’s desires. As minister of security in the 1980s, he helped oversee Operation Gukurahundi (a Shona word roughly translated as “the early rains that wash away the chaff”), deploying a North Korea–trained unit called the Fifth Brigade to eliminate Mugabe’s political rivals in the Ndebele ethnic group in southern Zimbabwe. Over a period of nine months in 1983, an estimated 20,000 people were killed. “They had the chairman [of the Ndebele party] shot on the spot, and on occasion whole families shot in their homes,” says David Coltart, a human rights lawyer and opposition leader from Bulawayo, who served as minister of education in the unity government between 2009 and 2013. “Mugabe was pretending that none of it is happening, while Mnangagwa was giving speeches, talking about people being cockroaches. He’s deeply implicated in this.”

Mnangagwa allegedly worked closely with the military in the election of 2008 to identify and hunt down MDC activists. “He secured Mugabe’s election victory,” Coltart told me. As defense minister in 2013, Mnangagwa also allegedly colluded with the army, deploying party operatives to vote repeatedly at polling stations and commit other acts of fraud. “It was clear that ZANU–PF was subverting the process and I told him so [in a cabinet meeting],” Coltart told me. “He growled at me and said, ‘Minister Coltart, stick to education and leave the politics to us.’”

In December 2016, the ZANU–PF endorsed the ninety-two-year-old Mugabe as its candidate in the 2018 presidential election. In a fulsome display that ignored the country’s troubles and the deep divisions within the party, ZANU–PF leaders heaped praise upon the fading leader. “I am not super, Mr. President. It is you who is super,” declared Minister of Information Technology Supa Mandiwanzira, punning on his own first name. The leader of the party’s youth wing suggested that Mugabe’s birth certificate should be changed to read “President Robert Mugabe.”

By then, Zimbabwe was at risk of an economic collapse similar to the one it suffered in the early and mid-2000s, when Mugabe had embarked on a series of disastrous reforms: land redistribution that destroyed commercial agriculture; restrictions on business ownership that killed foreign investment; a flood of new bank notes that made inflation soar. Now the country faced a critical dollar shortage, obliging Zimbabweans to spend hours—sometimes days—waiting in line at banks for a maximum daily withdrawal of $20. To make up for their unpaid salaries, the police set up checkpoints across the country, extorting cash from drivers for alleged violations; one white Zimbabwean importer-exporter told me that he typically encountered thirty roadblocks and paid between $150 and $300 in “fines” to get from the South African border to Harare. Drivers in Harare communicated via social media, reporting the whereabouts of roadblocks and suggesting back routes to avoid police.

Meanwhile, the long-simmering rivalry between Grace Mugabe and Mnangagwa was moving into the public eye. At one ZANU–PF outdoor rally last year, in front of thousands of party loyalists bussed in from rural areas, Mnangagwa climbed onto the stage accompanied by a rendition of a popular Zimbabwean song, “Mudara Achawiya,” or “The Big Guy Is Going to Come,” typically played for the president.

“It incensed Grace,” one observer told me. Following another rally that August, Mnangagwa was airlifted to a hospital in South Africa with an apparent case of food poisoning; his supporters blamed tainted ice cream from Grace Mugabe’s dairy farm, and he hinted publicly that the Mugabes had tried to murder him. “Why should I kill Mnangagwa?” Grace retorted on state television weeks later. “Who is Mnangagwa on this earth? Killing someone who was given a job by my husband? That’s nonsensical.” Shortly after that, Mugabe, in a stunning abandonment of his former closest ally, advised Mnangagwa to leave the party. “I am getting insulted in the name of Mnangagwa daily,” he said, responding to heckling at a rally. “I can even drop him tomorrow.” On November 6, Mnangagwa was dismissed from the government, expelled from the ZANU–PF, and stripped of his security detail. He fled by car to South Africa that day, reappearing in exile to issue a statement vowing to return soon and take power. “He was a threat. He knew that his life was in danger,” Mliswa told me. “He didn’t want to end up like [Solomon Mujuru].”

According to many people I spoke to in Zimbabwe, Grace Mugabe and her allies—including the minister of higher education, Jonathan Moyo—badly misplayed their hand in their effort to shove Mnangagwa aside. For one thing, they had neglected to gauge the depths of his support within Zimbabwe’s powerful military. He enjoyed a close relationship with the commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, Constantine Chiwenga. He had also worked closely with other important commanders during the 1983 killings in Matabeleland and in Mugabe’s last two election campaigns. Some military figures, I was told, were concerned about the dire economic straits of the country and viewed Grace as a meddlesome amateur who was unlikely to break from the ruinous policies of her husband.

Grace Mugabe and her circle had also incensed the armed forces by purging leading members of the National Liberation War Veterans Association, a revered group in Zimbabwean society. Generation 40 “wanted to create a new narrative that you didn’t have to fight in the war to lead the country,” Sifelani told me. “Anyone linked to the war had to be eliminated.” Several high-ranking war veterans forfeited farmland they had been given in Mugabe’s violent land-redistribution campaign, and some were jailed. “The war veterans are retired lieutenant generals, brigadiers, major generals, they fought in the war, they have sense of brotherhood,” I was told by Maynard Manyowa, a Zimbabwean journalist with high-ranking military sources. “It was clear to them there was no way that Grace Mugabe would get into power and spare them.”

On November 12, Mugabe, almost certainly acting under the influence of his wife, issued an order to the paramilitary police to arrest General Chiwenga at the military airport upon his return from a state visit to China. Tipped off about the plot, soldiers reportedly disguised in the uniforms of the Aviation Ground Services staff positioned themselves in the terminal, witnesses say, and pulled their weapons at the moment that the police attempted to detain the general. Chiwenga met with Mugabe and warned him that the military would intervene if the government continued to purge war veterans. The ZANU–PF youth secretary, a Mugabe loyalist, then accused Chiwenga and other commanders of hiding “behind the barrel of a gun” and of looting diamond mines and engaging in other crimes. For the military, I was told, it was an indication that there could be no turning back. “If Grace came to power, they feared that they would be hanged,” Manyowa told me.

Two days later, on November 14, as Mugabe sat in a cabinet meeting at the presidential headquarters in downtown Harare, military commanders ordered tanks to surround the Presidential Guard barracks across the city. At the same time, I was told, the commander of the Presidential Guard secretly renounced his allegiance to Mugabe and replaced troops loyal to the president with handpicked substitutes. At 6 PM, unaware that a plot was unfolding, Mugabe left the cabinet meeting with his wife and stepped into his five-ton bulletproof Mercedes.

As usual, his vehicle was in the middle of a long convoy that included four Mercedes filled with agents of the Central Intelligence Organization, half a dozen Land Rovers filled with police, and, at the rear, two army trucks carrying fifteen heavily armed members of the Presidential Guard, their faces concealed by black masks. As the convoy stopped in front of the ornate, Chinese-pagoda-style gate and pair of stone lions that mark the entrance to the Blue Roof, Mugabe’s residence, soldiers waiting there disarmed the CIO agents and other members of Mugabe’s security detail. The Presidential Guard, trained to shoot at the slightest provocation, stood by and did nothing. “That’s when Grace and Mugabe began to realize that a coup was underway,” I was told by one source close to the plotters.

Chiwenga’s troops fanned out across the city, detaining Grace Mugabe’s loyalists. Holed up in a villa in Harare, the finance minister, Ignatius Chombo, one of the few insiders who is said to know the locations of the Mugabes’ stolen wealth, deployed a private security force to defend him. Three guards died in the ensuing gun battle before Chombo was taken into custody. They were the only casualties during the coup.

Moyo, Grace Mugabe’s closest ally in the cabinet, escaped arrest and made his way to the Blue Roof, where he was eventually permitted to leave and fly into exile in Kenya. On November 21, ZANU–PF parliamentarians turned against Mugabe en masse, initiating impeachment proceedings. He resigned that afternoon, setting off celebrations and permitting Mnangagwa’s return from exile. “I think Bob couldn’t bear the disgrace of being an impeached president,” I was told by Acie Lumumba, a former ZANU–PF youth leader, as he downed a Red Bull on the pool deck of the Meikles Hotel, a notorious haunt for Mugabe’s intelligence agents. There were also, said Lumumba, pecuniary considerations. Gideon Gono—the former head of the Central Bank and now director of one of the country’s biggest private banks—“his trusted money guy, was telling him, ‘I can’t protect your money if you get impeached. It will be hard to protect your interests.’”

Three weeks after Mugabe’s resignation, I drove with Prince Butawo through downtown Harare to see what had changed in the initial days of Mnangagwa’s rule. The once-ubiquitous police checkpoints, the most overt symbol of the Mugabe regime’s corruption, had been dismantled on the day that the Crocodile took power. We passed the sprawling Parirenyatwa public hospital, a notorious deathtrap where critically ill patients are forced to buy their own IV fluids and those who cannot afford the $15 admission fee are often turned away at the door. “We say that this is where you go when you decide that heaven is your home,” Butawo told me. Days after the inauguration, First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa had come here disguised as an ordinary patient, trailed by a TV cameraman who secretly recorded her as she was ignored, humiliated, and forced to wait in line for hours. Going public with the video, Mnangagwa lambasted the hospital staff and demanded improvements. “It helped to establish her as a woman of the people,” Butawo said. “It was a good start, a positive sign.”

There were other indications that Mnangangwa would address Mugabe’s economic failures. One of his first gestures was to return land to a white farmer who was evicted in 2017 by an armed gang loyal to Grace Mugabe, and the new president has pledged compensation to other whites who forfeited their property during the calamitous land reforms. He promised to scrap large parts of Mugabe’s “indigenization” law, which had discouraged foreign investors by requiring that all businesses be 51 percent locally owned, and rebuild the country’s moribund manufacturing base, which, according to the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, is running at less than half its capacity. “He will liberalize the business environment, and clean up corruption as long as it’s not at the top,” Coltart predicted. “He will try to make the country more efficient.”

In other respects, however, the early days of Mnangagwa’s regime did not promise a dramatic break from the past. The new president filled his cabinet with cronies from the military who had participated in Operation Gukurahundi, the large-scale killing campaign of the 1980s. Several ministers had been involved in major corruption scandals, including a smuggling scheme at the Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe that siphoned off billions of dollars’ worth of the gems. “Much of the old guard was retained, and they are staggeringly corrupt, and some have blood on their hands,” Angus Shaw, the Rhodesia-born longtime Associated Press bureau chief in Harare, told me.

During the week that I spent traveling around Zimbabwe, I heard a range of opinions expressed about Mnangagwa’s capacity to break from the brutality and greed that had wrecked Zimbabwe. Samuel Sifelani, the activist priest and an Ndebele who lost relatives during Operation Gukurahundi, told me that he was willing to look past Mnangagwa’s participation in the killings. “I have no love for him, but Zimbabweans are forgiving people,” he said. “We have suffered so much at the hands of the Mugabe regime that anybody who stands up against him becomes a hero.” In Bulawayo, Moses Mzila, another Ndebele who served as deputy foreign minister in the unity government, saw nothing ahead but a continuation of Mugabe’s rapaciousness and authoritarianism. “You remove one pharaoh, and you install another, and whether that pharaoh is Tut or Rameses, he is still a pharaoh,” he said.

Nobody I spoke to had any expectation that the opposition could mount an effective challenge to the ruling party in the 2018 presidential election, expected to be held in September. Mnangagwa and the army are old hands at fixing elections through intimidation and fraud, they pointed out, and the country’s main opposition group, the MDC, has lost much credibility. Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, already tainted by his acceptance of a palatial home and other gifts from the ruling party, died of cancer in February, and no other figure has emerged to replace him. In the run-up to the election, the activist Patson Dzamara predicted, “we are going to see more repression, on a bigger scale than what we saw under Mugabe’s rule.” In February and March 2015, Dzamara’s brother, Itai, had staged a series of one-man protests against Mugabe in a public square in Harare; on March 9, 2015, he was grabbed by five men outside a barbershop and pushed into a car. He has not been seen since, and his family fears that state security forces murdered him.

On my last day in Zimbabwe, I drove north out of central Harare, passing pickup trucks bringing to the party assembly stacks of ZANU–PF T-shirts printed with Mnangagwa’s picture. Soon I began a climb into hills lush with jasmine, eucalyptus, and bougainvillea, navigating around two guard posts desultorily manned by the police. At last I arrived at the ten-foot-high white concrete wall that stretched along the road for a quarter of a mile and sealed off Mugabe’s residence from prying eyes.

The former president and his wife had just departed for Southeast Asia, and the usually heavy security surrounding the estate had been drawn down. Under the terms of his resignation, Mugabe had been guaranteed a life of comfort: a $10 million “golden handshake,” his Mercedes Pullman Guard limo, immunity from prosecution, a promise that no attempt would be made to seize his assets. But it would soon become clear that Mugabe was not willing to go quietly. Weeks after returning from his trip abroad, he would emerge from seclusion to host an African Union delegation at his mansion, slamming Mnangagwa’s rule as “unconstitutional” and urging the AU to “restore normalcy and democracy in Zimbabwe.” Mugabe predicted that the military would rig the next presidential election and accused the regime of threatening him and his family. “My wife is crying daily. They are persecuting her; that is obviously directed at me,” he said. Few people I talked to believed that Mugabe himself was in danger, but none could offer the same assurances about Grace. Given the animosity that the family had stirred up during decades of theft, violence, and misrule, many Zimbabweans predicted that, upon the death of her husband, she would waste no time to flee into a life in exile. “She’s not safe here,” said Shaw. “She would be stoned if she set foot in town.”