Plus ça change, plus la même chose...

Zimbabwe: The Mnangagwa squad

By Patrick Smith, Frank Chikowore in Harare

Posted on November 6, 2020 09:29


Propelled into prime position by the military coup that overthrew President Robert Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa holds the reins of power in Harare. The Africa Report examines how tightly he is holding on and how his current and former allies and opponents are protecting their interests.

Armoured cars and tanks had been trundling across the capital all day on 14 November, 2017. It was not until the early hours of the next day that Zimbabweans heard a hesitant General Sibusiso Moyo explain that Robert Gabriel Mugabe, president for 37 years, was under house arrest.

The Zimbabwe Defence Force would be dealing with the “criminals” around the President who were responsible for the country’s “socio-economic problems”. Of course, this was not a coup d’état, added Moyo, who was later appointed foreign minister.

Mnangagwa arrives to the scene

On this point, Moyo contrived to convince South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and Guinea’s sceptical President Alpha Condé, who chaired the African Union at the time. In Zimbabwe, people were more interested in the coming man – Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, who had fled into exile a week earlier. Tales of derring-do circulated about how Mnangagwa and sons sneaked into Mozambique via bush paths, dodging would-be assassins, before winding up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

Back in Harare, the generals and the image-­makers coordinated demonstrations bringing tens of thousands onto the streets to celebrate the toppling of Mugabe. Days later, Mnangagwa flew into a rockstar’s reception, promising “jobs, jobs, jobs” to the people and “Zimbabwe is open for business” to foreign investors. From his days as personal secretary to Mugabe, Mnangagwa had cannily positioned himself as the heir apparent by sidelining his rivals until only one serious contender was left – Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

The November 2017 coup took out both Mugabe and his wife, leaving Mnangagwa space to launch his project: fixing the Zimbabwe economy and reuniting the ruling party for another decade in power. Within a year it had failed. The economy weakened further due to corruption and patronage as well as a regional drought. Political fights within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) became even more bitter and the all-important military lost confidence in Mnangagwa.

READ MORE Mugabe’s legacy: an elite astray, but a consolidated country

Some citizens believed the promises of free elections; diplomats mulled lifting sanctions, and companies started signing deals. Three years later, the new order is cracking open. Clean water and power are sporadic, inflation is more than 750% and the relaunched local dollar has crashed against its US counterpart. The team that brought Mnangagwa to power now speaks of buyer’s remorse.

TAR113_p37_FEATURE_PROFILE_POLICE_732x419 © A police officer removes tyres set by protesters during demonstrations against the doubling of fuel prices in 2019

Plots and putsches are in the air. In response, Mnangagwa and the first family are circling the wagons. Loyalty, if not blood ties, is the defining test in the inner circle. Former minister for higher education Godfrey Gandawa warns about the direction the country is going in: “The ZANU-PF has turned the security forces into a militia which they use as a coercive tool.

The minister of state security has been implicated as a key cog in the abuses of the rights of citizens since January 2019.”

Who runs this town?

Mnangagwa has brought the levers of security under direct control of the presidency, although saboteurs can still cause damage. Gandawa says the presidency has gone further still: “Zimbabwe’s courts, including the chief justice and the Constitutional Court, are captured by the executive. People [are] being arrested for insulting the President even though the law setting out this crime is patently unconstitutional.”

As President Mnangagwa has centralised power around his office and its immediate satellites, opponents have taken cover elsewhere. The circle around Deputy President General Constantino Chiwenga has become a staging post for regime sceptics. Zimbabwe has two heads who often disagree. Mnangawagwa has doubled down on personal security but Chiwenga, as former army commander, is closer to the ranks of the military. No one knows how these formations will hold up under the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Gen. Chiwenga has clashed with Mnangagwa behind closed doors and is accused of plotting against him.

LISTEN Zimbabwe after Mugabe, plus ça change…

The original accord under which Mnangagwa was to serve a single term before handing over to Chiwenga, 10 years his junior, has been torn up. Mnangagwa’s allies thwarted a plan by Chiwenga’s acolytes to oust the President in January. Officers say these rumblings explain Mnangagwa’s enthusiasm for a lengthy and comprehensive lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Senior officers are increasingly critical of the shenanigans of ZANU-PF politicians, often allies of Mnangagwa.

Those divisions surfaced more publicly at a meeting of the ZANU-PF politburo in July, when intelligence chief Isaac Moyo tabled a report claiming that two members of the committee had been storing posters and placards calling for the overthrow of Mnangagwa and praising Chiwenga. According to Moyo, the plotters had planned to use a national demonstration by opposition parties on 31 July as cover for the operation.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Ease sanctions for Zimbabwe and Sudan pleads AU Chair

A few weeks earlier, senior state officials held a bizarre press conference denying that they had uncovered coup plots against Mnangagwa. Some say a cohort of younger officers and politicians is preparing to take over. But most of the names mooted have an air of surrealism about them. Two things have become clear from the chatter.

For now, Mnangagwa has a wrestler’s grip on the army and state security, and he wants to run for a second term in 2023. Any attempt to oust him by capitalising on dissent within the regime is likely to seek some sort of endorsement from Chiwenga and Sibusiso Moyo.

Zimbabwe’s open for business. Really?

The lobbying, in the wake of the November 2017 coup, run by foreign minister Sibusiso Moyo and business ally Edwin Manikai, yielded dividends quickly.

Rory Stewart, Britain’s Africa minister at the time, jumped on a plane to Zimbabwe within hours, talking of a new era in Harare-London relations. Within a year, ministers were claiming some $15bn of new investment had been pledged. Two big foreign operators in Zimbabwe – London-based Gemcorp and Cairo-based Afreximbank – provided lines of credit, said to be secured by mineral exports. But the government struggled to widen its pool of backers.

Despite a stream of high-profile deals, little moved on the ground. Most of these multibillion- dollar deals with opaque outfits, such as Cyprus-based Karo group, Russia’s Vi Holding and Great Dyke Investments (GDI), were premised on state access to mineral assets such as platinum or gold, and they stumbled on raising finance.

LISTEN Zimbabwe on the brink: Inflation, currency, clashes – what next?

The Vi Holdings and GDI platinum mine will require $2bn in investment but bankers say that Zimbabwe will not be able to raise the money as long as the US representative on the World Bank and IMF boards insists on opposing any finance or guarantees for the Mnangagwa government or entities close to it. Much of the talk about opening doors to foreign companies and governments was aimed at impressing voters before the presidential elections in July 2018.

When the state’s electoral commission announced a narrow victory for Mnangagwa against a background of claims of fraud by the opposition and the shooting dead of at least six civilians in a Harare demonstration, the goodwill dissipated. Mnangagwa appointed Mthuli Ncube, formerly a vice-president with the African Development Bank, as finance minister, to reopen negotiations with the World Bank. But Ncube’s hands were tied as forex and monetary policy were under tight political control.

The government’s mantra – Zimbabwe is open for business – has become a hollow ­cliché. The three most important embassies in Harare – South Africa, China and Russia – all focus on economic interests. Relations between Harare and Pretoria are deteriorating because President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government blames Mnangagwa’s mismanagement for the continuing exodus of Zimbabweans southwards across the Limpopo. Russia’s mining and security deals with Harare are struggling to raise finance.

READ MORE Zimbabwe’s critical choice: state collapse or people-powered change

Although China has the financial resources to prop up the Mnangagwa government, it will not sign blank cheques. Since January, the Mnangagwa government has stepped up attacks on opposition parties, civil activists, journalists and other suspected dissidents.

This year’s campaign against dissidents started around the time that senior military officers were mulling a plan to oust Mnangagwa, replacing him with an army-backed ‘national transitional authority’ in cooperation with opposition politicians, civic activists and technocrats.

This country will deal with you mysteriously

While the myriad state security operations such as the ‘Ferret’ Force abduct, detain and torture oppositionists, other state operatives are fostering divisions in opposition ranks. The hammer of repression will continue, according to deputy defence minister Victor Matemadanda: “I told other people that if you are a sell-out […] this country has something that it will do to you. You will disappear without anyone touching you. This country will deal with you mysteriously. This country is a mystery, you just can’t do as you please.”

In the face of this, young activists, trade unionists and students are often ahead of the opposition parties in terms of organising protests. Some activists see the latest wave of state repression as a negotiating stance by Mnangagwa en route to an agreement on a power-sharing government of the sort that South African ministers want to see.

Monopoly money

The local business scene is dominated by two business moguls: the ultimate insider Kudakwashe Tagwirei, a Seventh Day Adventist with a politically charged rolodex and an ever-expanding roster of business interests; and the ultimate outsider, Strive Masiyiwa – in exile between London and South Africa, from where he presides over Econet and EcoCash, the dominant telecoms and money-transfer companies in Zimbabwe.

Government efforts to prise open Masiyiwa’s corporate empire are going to new lengths. In June, after the local dollar crashed, the military’s Joint Operations Command ordered the suspension of the stock exchange and all mobile-money transactions above $50 a day. That has almost halved the value of Econet’s mobile-money operations in Zimbabwe.

Ministers accused Masiyiwa’s Econet of money laundering and illegal foreign-exchange trading. But the company insists it keeps to all financial reporting protocols with the Reserve Bank governor, under which it takes US dollars overseas and pays the equivalent in Zimbabwe dollars at the official rate into local bank accounts.

READ MORE Zimbabwe’s restrictions on mobile money punish the users, not the offenders

Company insiders suspect some ruling-party politicians want to team up with Tagwirei to take on Masiyiwa’s empire. The Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe, part-owned by government, is launching a mobile-money service, charging less than half the commission that Econet demands. As state action ramps up against Econet, Tagwirei’s empire expands and diversifies into fuel trading, construction, transport, pharmaceuticals and healthcare companies.

His highwater mark was Sakunda Holdings’ operations with the Command Agriculture programme: a state programme of which $3bn was not accounted for, according to parliament’s public accounts committee. Lewis Matutu, ZANU-PF’s former deputy secretary for youth affairs, accused Tagwirei of running a monopoly over the fuel trade, agricultural inputs and local money supply through parallel market operations: “How does an individual withdraw money amounting to $500,000 cash, to do what?

At one time his accounts were frozen. As far as we are concerned, the majority of Zimbabwe’s problems are because of Kuda Tagwirei,” said Matutu. Tagwirei’s Landela Mining Venture has taken over several gold mines, some owned by the state and some by South African businessman Mzi Khumalo. Tagwirei is now under US sanctions and accused of grand corruption.

The US authorities are looking at his Sotic International company, based in Mauritius, a regional centre for Zimbabwean businesses externalising foreign exchange. Keeping close ties to both senior ZANU-PF figures and top military officers, Tagwirei’s position looks secure for now.

He is bankrolling the ‘Open for Business Investment Forum’, which has signed a memorandum of understanding with the mines ministry to evaluate mineral assets in the country. A neat arrangement given that investment in mineral assets is precisely where Tagwirei’s Landela is now expanding its activities.

This article is part of a print edition of The Africa Report magazine: ‘Where is Nigeria (really) heading?’

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