Zimbabwe: Activists worry as Mnangagwa builds an imperial presidency

By Michelle Chifamba
Posted on Tuesday, 11 May 2021 19:17, updated on Wednesday, 26 May 2021 16:35

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa arrives for the presentation of the 2020 national budget at Parliament Building in Harare, Zimbabwe, 14 November 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

“[President Emmerson] Mnangagwa is a true student of Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa’s administration has introduced a lot of legislation including the Constitutional Amendment Bill and the Patriotic Bill which reflect the consolidation of power by an authoritarian leader and a continuation of Mugabe’s legacy,” Bhekezela Gumbo, a Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) researcher tells The Africa Report.

Mnangagwa’s ascent to power through a military coup in November 2017, brought some hopes for change. At the dawn of his presidency, Mnangagwa promised the country a new beginning: revival of the economy from the brink of collapse through foreign investment, war on corruption and alleviation of the human rights situation.

However, Mnangagwa’s past human rights record and current policies show that he is not interested in improving governance. The Gukurahundi massacres — described by some as a ‘moment of madness’ — shaped Zimbabwe’s political history. At the time, Mnangagwa was in charge of national security and played a crucial role in unleashing terror in Matebeleland and Midlands.

Civil society organisations in Zimbabwe describe Mnangagwa as a ‘corrupt dictator’ who wants to gain more power instead of improve welfare of citizens.

That escalated quickly

Political analysts tell The Africa Report that Mnangagwa is merely working towards safeguarding his tenure.

It is the strategy used for authoritarian consolidation. The introduction of the National Youth Service, the Constitution Amendment Bill and the Patriotic Act, all of them reveal that the ghost of [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini’s fascism will be birthed in Zimbabwe,” Gumbo says.

Since 2017, the government has escalated its arbitrary arrests, attacks, abductions, torture and abuse of government critics as well as political and human rights activists. The courts are said to be supporting the government by denying bail and imprisoning critics.

Gumbo says: “The militarisation of state institutions has accelerated during the Mnangagwa era compared to Mugabe. Mnangagwa has deployed the military more than once in a very short space of time in his presidency. We are worried over a series of military deployments if we give him 40 years like Mugabe.”


Punishing dissent is said to be high on the government’s agenda. Legislators allied to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) have proposed the Patriotic Bill, aimed at protecting Mnangagwa from criticism.

Political analysts say that should the bill become law, opposing the government will be punishable as a criminal offence.

Owen Dhliwayo, a political analyst based in Harare, tells The Africa Report that Mnangagwa is afraid of scrutiny and dissenting voices that can hold his administration to account.

“It is a reflection of who Mnangagwa is, an authoritarian dictator. There is talk of corruption and accountability, so he is coming up with these bills so that his government is not questioned for his bad governance and human rights violations,” says Dhliwayo.

“In order to deal with dissenting voices, he is coming up with legislation that instils fear on the citizens. The bill will be a very toxic piece of legislation because it will be used against people on conspiracy allegations,” he says.

Centralising power

The government is contributing to and taking advantage of the disarray in the opposition. Movement for Democratic Change legislators were expelled from parliament due to a dispute between leaders Nelson Chamisa and Thokozani Khuphe. ZANU-PF is now in control majority in the house of assembly which enabled it to pass Constitutional Amendment Bill No.2.

The bill which seeks to amend 27 provisions within constitution, centralises power in the executive and expands the powers of the president.

It would also enable Mnangagwa keep his allies in the judiciary, as it allows for an extension of the tenure of superior court judges appointed by the president who are older than 70 years.

Gumbo says the proposed amendments of the constitution will create an imperial president who has power over all the branches of government.

“It removes oversight role of the cabinet because it allows the president to appoint unelected people into ministries, who will be serving at his pleasure. The way they want to alter the operation of the judiciary means there will be no separation of powers in action. Vice-presidents will exercise oversight against the executive they are handpicked [by], like what used to happen during the Mugabe era,” Gumbo tells The Africa Report.

He says: “Mnangagwa wants to go back to the Mugabe era. All the amendments that are going to be effected because of the bill show that Mnangagwa wants to go back to the previous constitution and enjoy the benefits that are there.”

Separation of powers

Zimbabwe’s current constitution was adopted in 2013 through a referendum.

Rashid Mahiya, leader of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, says the 2013 constitution was adopted as a way of decentralising power from the executive, as well as promoting the separation of powers between the three branches of government.

“People have lost confidence in the judiciary. We expect the state to do actions that create confidence in the arms of the state. We want to go to court and know that the president has no say on the judgement that is being given by the judges so that citizens can enjoy their rights,” Mahiya tells The Africa Report.

Power by other means

Analysts also say the government’s recent reintroduction of the National Youth Service is a political tactic to strengthen its position and capture more votes from this demographic.

The ZANU-PF government created the service in 2001, when a wave of opposition was rising. Members of the populations accused the service members of brutality, thuggery and crime, especially in rural areas.

Gumbo says: “It is the strategy used for authoritarian consolidation. The introduction of the National Youth Service, the Constitution Amendment Bill and the Patriotic Act, all of them reveal that the ghost of [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini’s fascism will be birthed in Zimbabwe.”

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