It is now more than three years after President Emmerson Mnangagwa ascended to power through a military coup that toppled his long-time ruler and mentor, the late President Robert Gabriel Mugabe in November 2017.
He won a disputed general election in July 2018 and his victory was confirmed by the country’s constitutional court that is headed by his close ally Chief Justice Luke Malaba.
The security sector
He started by elbowing out Constantino Chiwenga – his rival for the presidency in the ruling party Zanu PF. Chiwenga, the then Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commander, had played a key role in planning and executing the military coup.
Mnangagwa began by retiring and reassigning military top officials, who were Chiwenga’s loyalists, to foreign diplomatic posts and replacing them with his long-time friends and clansmen from the Midlands Province.
Insiders say Mnangagwa and the military had agreed before the coup that he would serve one term and leave the seat for Chiwenga. But the president and his allies in the ruling party started pushing for the Zanu PF leader to run in the 2023 elections, from as early as December 2018.
After Chiwenga retired as ZDF commander to take a civilian role as the country’s vice president, Mnangagwa replaced him with Philip Valerio Sibanda, a loyalist to the president and who hails from the president’s Karanga clan.
In February 2019, while Chiwenga was battling ill-health in China, Mnangagwa appointed former presidential guard commander Nhamo Anselem Sanyatwe to serve in the diplomatic service in Tanzania.
Sanyatwe, a key military official who played a critical role in the removal of Mugabe, was replaced by Fidelis Mhonda, who was first deputised by David Nyasha, and recently promoted to brigadier-general. Mnangagwa’s former aide-de-camp Never Jones Makuyana took over from Nyasha.
Other commanders who pivoted the coup, and were retired ahead of diplomatic posts in 2019, include Zimbabwe National Army chief-of-staff, retired Lieutenant-General Douglas Nyikayaramba, who was posted to Mozambique and retired Lieutenant-General Martin Chedondo.
For the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), the secret police in Zimbabwe, in December 2017, Mnangagwa appointed Isaac Moyo, another Karanga clansman. Other top security chiefs loyal to Mnangagwa include state security minister Owen Ncube, a ruthless long-time friend from the Midlands Province.
It is a well-lubricated machine with each part playing a salutary role in the power-retention strategy. Thus, the military [plays its part] when the going gets tough for Zanu PF.
The security sector is key as it enables him to rule with an iron fist. Abductions of opposition party members, activists and the forceful crackdown of protesters are done by security services.
- In January 2019, when Zimbabweans took to the streets to protest against Mnangagwa’s decision to hike fuel prices by over 150%, the military killed 17 people.
- In August 2018, when people protested in the streets of Harare over the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s late announcement of the July general elections results, the military – led by Sanyatwe – shot dead six people.
Karanga clansmen…just like before
Just like Mugabe did with the Zezurus, Mnangagwa is surrounding himself with Karanga clansmen. “It is part of the neo-patrimonial style of rule where nepotism, clanism and ethnicity assume supreme salience in the game of power politics,” Eldred Masunungure, a leading political analyst tells The Africa Report.
“Ethnicity is politicised while politics is ethnicised as a strategy to keep power in the hands of the incumbent. It is also a primitive instinct that blood is thicker than water and that those from your ethnic group are more trustworthy and loyal than ‘aliens’ from outside the ethnic grouping.”
He says to understand Mnangagwa’s power politics and that of Zanu-PF, one must realise that the regime is a tightly knit system with many parts that work together to achieve the same purpose; in this case, to maintain and expand power.
“It is a well-lubricated machine with each part playing a salutary role in the power-retention strategy. Thus, the military [plays its part] when the going gets tough for Zanu PF,” says Masunungure.
Political analyst, Farai Gwenhure says patronage breeds some lower-level loyalty where subjects feed off the patron’s hand, thereby protecting him to lengthen their time at the feeding trough.
“The fact that they are Karangas becomes a bonus but they are already loyal,” he says.
Chief Justice Luke Malaba and the judiciary
A high court judge legitimised the November 2017 military coup, ruling that it was not a coup, even after citizens had challenged irregularities in the military interventions.
Luke Malaba played a key role in confirming Mnangagwa’s victory in the 2018 general elections, after the main opposition party leader Nelson Chamisa had challenged the results at the constitutional court.
In a letter dated 26 October 2020, the judges in Zimbabwe wrote a letter to the president and the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, claiming that the judiciary was under siege; with judges being captured and therefore unable to independently execute their duties without interference from the executive and state agencies.
The judiciary has been on overdrive during Mnangagwa’s reign with opposition party members, independent journalists and critics arrested and denied bail for petty issues such as criticising the president.
Mnangagwa needed the Douglas Mwonzora-led opposition party, MDC-T, a faction of MDC Alliance, to pave way for the passage of the Constitutional Amendment (No. 2) that gives him authoritarian power.
Working with the local government minister, July Moyo – another close friend of Mnangagwa – the MDC-T recalled Chamisa’s legislators from parliament.
Zanu PF had also lost, due to various reasons including deaths, its two-thirds majority rule acquired after the 2018 general elections; so the party needed support from the MDC-T to pass the amendment.
The amendment allowed Mnangagwa to keep Malaba who was supposed to retire on 15 May as the country’s chief justice at the age of 70, ahead of the 2023 general elections.
Mnangagwa extended Malaba’s tenure but the move was declared illegal by the high court after lawyers and critics challenged the move.
“All Mnangagwa is doing is authoritarian consolidation. The judiciary service is a key factor in gaining and retaining power in Zimbabwe’s transition matrix. So, Mnangagwa is doing all he can to not only appease this sector but ensuring he has his trusted people there,” political analyst Maxwell Sungweme tells The Africa Report.
READ MORE Zimbabwe: The Mnangagwa squad
Masunungure says he believes that for Malaba, it is a question of his track record.
“That he probably delivered favourable judgements at critical junctures and can be counted to do the same in similar circumstances in the future. The 2023 elections are probably more critical for Mnangagwa than the 2018 elections because they are a test of his performance in the previous five years and he certainly would like to avoid the humiliating litigation surrounding his victory,” he says.
Business ‘kingpin’ Kudakwashe Tagwirei
Business kingpin, Kudakwashe Tagwirei – who was recently slapped with sanctions by the United States – runs a cartel with Mnangagwa and other business associates.
Tagwirei, who has close ties to top security chiefs and Zanu PF big wigs, might not have power but he is critical when it comes to looting the country’s resources.
“The business cartels are an integral part of that system and they will also play their role in the fortification of Zanu PF power,” says Masunungure.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options