President’s fall offers hope to Zimbabwe – but it must abandon its ruinous past
Since independence from Britain in 1980, the story of Zimbabwe has been one of gross economic mismanagement, the misery of its people and complete disregard for human rights. In recent years, however, attention has turned towards succession, and manoeuvring to replace its 93-year-old president, Robert Mugabe, has increasingly come to dominate its political landscape.
Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa has long been seen as the front-runner. He had always been one of Mugabe's closest and most trusted henchmen, having been at the president's right-hand side since independence.
Grace Mugabe, the president's 53-year-old wife, conscious of her husband's advanced age and frailty, has more recently been moving with speed and ruthlessness to establish herself as his successor. In the latest of a series of purges to remove potential rivals, she persuaded the president last week to dismiss Mnangagwa.
Her manoeuvring has backfired spectacularly. Tanks are on the streets of the capital, President Mugabe is under house arrest, and Grace is reported to have fled the country.
The beneficiary of these dramatic developments would appear to be Emmerson Mnangagwa. He has always been close to the security establishment and to the long-time head of the armed forces, General Constantine Chiwenga.
Mr Mnangagwa and his associates have been careful to avoid portraying their move as a coup, since they will be conscious of the high regard in which the African Union and neighbouring countries continue to hold President Mugabe, despite the ruin he has brought to his country. But, clearly, what is unfolding is a coup in all but name.
The question now is: might this usher in better days for Zimbabwe?
There will be relief in many quarters at the end of the Mugabe era, and the removal of the president's deeply unpopular wife. There will equally be hope that Mr Mnangagwa, who is viewed by many, including in the opposition, as a more pragmatic and business-friendly figure, can arrest Zimbabwe's downward spiral.
But it's important to recognise that the action taken by the military this week was apparently not a rejection of the disastrous policies long pursued by Zanu-PF, of which they have been enthusiastic backers.
On the contrary, it was the result of an internal Zanu-PF power struggle to reassert what the security forces would regard as the rightful presidential succession. This would ensure their continued access to the economic benefits of power, which Grace Mugabe's purge risked disrupting.
Mr Mnangagwa may indeed prove to be a more competent leader than President Mugabe - it would be difficult not to be - but his career sadly offers little evidence to support this.
As Zimbabwe's first minister of security in the immediate aftermath of independence, he was closely involved in overseeing the massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s. He has held ministerial positions almost exclusively within the security establishment. The army, and those allied with it, have been at the forefront of the pillaging of Zimbabwe's mineral wealth and the wholesale seizure of farms from white Zimbabweans.
But it is equally true that the developments now unfolding could be the catalyst for positive and more far-reaching change. The key will be to judge Mr Mnangagwa not on his record, which as a Zanu-PF enforcer contains few positives, but on his actions should he gain the leadership position.
The international community should encourage Mr Mnangagwa to establish a government of national unity, such as the one formed in the wake of the 2008 election. Despite President Mugabe's constant efforts to thwart its effectiveness, that coalition made significant progress in halting the slide of the economy, and improved the lives of the Zimbabwean people.
Zimbabwe's opposition has always been divided, but there are many in its ranks, such as David Coltart and Tendai Biti, who have the experience, credibility and commitment to make a substantial contribution to national rebuilding. Mr Mnangagwa should draw on their talent, while making genuine strides to reassert good governance and creating the conditions for peaceful and fair elections in mid-2018.
Zimbabwe has all the ingredients to claw its way back to the prosperity which its long-suffering citizens deserve. These latest developments usher in an opportunity to reverse this sad story of collapse - but only if Mr Mugabe's successor has the courage to abandon the disastrous policies of the past.
Mark Canning was British Ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2009-11