With the passing of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is finally moving away from the shadow of his 37-year reign. His successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa has made reforms his priority since he took over in 2017 to take the country’s economy and political structures into the 21st century.
Much has been made of Mnangagwa’s ties with his predecessor Mugabe – the two were compatriots in the liberation war against the racist Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. Mugabe even saved Mnangagwa from execution, according to the book Two Weeks in November by Douglas Rogers. Mnangagwa later served under Mugabe in an independent Zimbabwe, finally becoming vice president in 2014.
As the founding father of Zimbabwe and the man who empowered the black majority – especially the rural poor and women – through education, access to land and health care, Mugabe was widely respected across the continent. As he is laid to rest, this is what Zimbabweans and Africans remember him for.
He always was a defiant leader, a trait Mugabe maintained until the very end. But while his early contributions to his country and the continent are undeniable, Mugabe lost his way in the mid-90s, perhaps following the death of his first wife Sally, who is remembered fondly and was popularly known as “Amai” (mother) in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe’s marriage to his former secretary Grace – who is nicknamed “Gucci Grace” due to her exorbitant spending habits – set a shift in motion as well as the gradual decline of Zimbabwe, with the implementation of Mugabe’s controversial land reforms, which triggered the debilitating sanctions by the U.S. and EU, unprecedented unemployment, corruption, and hyperinflation.
The situation culminated when Grace, 41 years Mugabe’s junior, began jockeying for power and positioned herself as his successor. She surrounded herself with a cabal, the so-called Generation 40, that began to aggressively push her as Mugabe’s political heir, while denigrating the other leaders of the ruling Zanu-PF party who they deemed her potential rivals.
The aggressive tactics of intimidation by Grace Mugabe and her Generation 40 unnerved many in Zimbabwe, especially war veterans and senior leaders in government and the army. They were forced to act when Grace’s cabal turned its attention to Mnangagwa, the First Vice President and senior most leader after President Mugabe. Mnangagwa was found poisoned at an official lunch and survived only through emergency medical treatment.
After Grace publicly denounced Mnangagwa at several public rallies, Mugabe officially sacked his vice president, who was forced to flee into exile in Mozambique and later South Africa following death threats. At this point Zimbabwe’s army decisively intervened against Grace’s cabal. Once impeachment proceedings began against the president, Mugabe finally resigned.
Amid wild celebrations across the country, Mnangagwa returned from exile and took over as president. He subsequently won the presidential election in July 2018 on a reform platform, despite assassination attempts during the campaign, including a bomb that exploded at his rally in June last year.
Despite clear threats from remnants of Mugabe’s regime, President Mnangagwa has continued the reform process. He forgave Mugabe for his failings and allowed the former president and Grace to continue living in their opulent mansion in Harare. Unlike many other former African dictators, from Muammar Gaddafi to Idi Amin and “Emperor” Bokassa, Mugabe was allowed to live out his years in peace at home.
Zimbabwe, meanwhile, has moved ahead with dismantling the negative aspects of Mugabe’s legacy. The Mnangagwa government is reviewing 30 Mugabe-era bills and is in the process of upgrading them to Western standards. These include the much-criticized Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). The former was repealed last month and replaced by the Freedom of Information Bill, which seeks to uphold citizen’s rights to access information in line with the Zimbabwean Constitution and established international norms. The latter is expected to be succeeded by the Maintenance of Peace and Order Bill (MOPA) soon, which aims at ensuring the freedom of assembly and modernizing the management of public gatherings.
The economy had suffered the most under Mugabe’s nearly four-decade rule. President Mnangagwa inherited a struggling economy marked by hyperinflation, cash shortages, a budget deficit, endemic corruption, and a lack of monetary sovereignty.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “Robert Mugabe devastated a country with enormous potential…and catastrophically mismanaged the economy, turning the region’s breadbasket into one where much of the population requires international food assistance.”
Under Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe is now achieving tangible results with a budget surplus of ZW$ 803.6 million between January and July 2019, and a positive current account for the first time since the adoption of the multi-currency regime in 2009. And his government’s currency reform is supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with whom Zimbabwe signed a two-year monitoring programme that could earn it debt forgiveness and future financing.
Secretary Pompeo seemed encouraged, tweeting: “Zimbabweans have long deserved better and their leadership has an opportunity to set the country on a much different path. We will continue to stand with the Zimbabwean people in their efforts to forge a better, more prosperous future.”
A key milestone illustrating how far Zimbabwe has traveled under Mnangagwa, is his reform programme, which includes land ownership, marking a departure from his predecessor’s anti-white stance. Unlike Mugabe, who evicted white farmers and limited their land leases to five years, Mnangagwa publicly declared that white commercial farmers are now free to apply for land, extending 99-year leases to all farmers – independent of their skin color – and compensating white farmers.
This shows that with Mugabe’s death a shadow has been lifted from Zimbabwe, and President Mnangagwa can now fully focus on restoring this southern African country’s prosperous future.
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