With Mugabe’s Exit, Zimbabwe Will Need All the Help It Can Get

In light of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s resignation, the United States should be prepared to work with his likely successor, a man who is subject to US sanctions, said the Atlantic Council’s J. Peter Pham.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose ouster from the vice presidency by Mugabe early in November triggered the current political crisis in the first place, will likely be the next leader of Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa is the subject of US Treasury sanctions imposed in the early 2000s for his role in undermining democratic processes and institutions in the country.

Noting that a prominent opposition leader and longtime Mugabe foe, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has embraced Mnangagwa, Pham, who is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said: “We’re not saying whitewash the past, but it is in the interests of everyone that Zimbabwe is engaged at this critical time.” 

Mugabe has held power for nearly four decades, and his hold on authority has led to political and civil unrest throughout Zimbabwe. With not only the opposition, but also his own party calling for his departure from office, the country may begin to see a degree of political unity.

[Update: Mugabe abruptly resigned on November 21 as impeachment proceedings against him got underway in parliament.]

“If Zimbabweans who bled for their country are willing to engage with [Mnangagwa] and if these erstwhile opponents are themselves, in turn, willing to hold out the olive branch of inclusivity, it behooves the international community to respect that decision,” Pham said.

What is happening in Zimbabwe?

Mugabe was placed under house arrest by the military on November 15 after he not only fired Mnangagwa—ostensibly clearing the path for his second wife, Grace, to succeed him—but apparently sought to have him killed and tried to arrest the chief of the defense staff, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga. Mugabe then stunned the nation by refusing to resign in a televised address despite massive protests and the fact this his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), ousted him as its leader.

Party leaders then sought to impeach Mugabe.

Who are the main players?

Emmerson Mnangagwa: ZANU-PF’s new leader, Mnangagwa is supported by the military and the powerful war veterans. He headed an elite band of guerillas known as the Crocodile Fighters during Zimbabwe’s independence struggle. He has also served as minister of defense, minister of justice, speaker of parliament, and until November 6 as vice president of Zimbabwe.

Gen. Constantino Chiwenga: He is Zimbabwe’s military leader who placed Mugabe under house arrest. He has refused to call his actions a coup and has, at least so far, shown no political ambitions beyond protecting the interests of the military and security services in general and those of their longtime patron Mnangagwa in particular.

Grace Mugabe: The president’s second wife started her career as a typist in Mugabe’s office. She began an affair with the president while his widely respected first wife, Sally, was dying of cancer. She is deeply unpopular among war veterans, the military, and ZANU-PF, both because she did not participate in the national liberation struggle, but also because of her lavish spending (one of her nicknames is “Gucci Grace”). She is believed to have orchestrated Mnangagwa’s firing as a way to secure the path to assume the presidency from her husband. Grace Mugabe has not appeared in public since Nov. 15.

What happens next?

J. Peter Pham spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: Over the past week we have seen the army put Robert Mugabe under house arrest, his party oust him as its leader, and massive protests in the streets. How did the tide turn so rapidly against this longtime ruler?

Pham: For Mugabe, it was a perfect storm. Although in this case it might be a storm that one could say is helping open the door to a new era in Zimbabwe by washing out some of the detritus that had accumulated over recent years in that country’s leadership. The military move against the attempts to install Grace Mugabe as the president’s successor was clearly a case of internal regime competition playing itself out, but it also opened the valves for a lot of long-repressed, pent up emotion on the part of Zimbabweans.

The displays we saw over the weekend where crowds marched alongside and hugged soldiers sitting in tanks and armored personnel carriers were extraordinary. Seemingly for a moment the entire country came together: longtime opposition people, longtime cadres of the ZANU-PF, and the military expressing the common will of the Zimbabwean people.

Everyone was expecting Mugabe’s resignation, but instead he talked about chairing ZANU-PF’s national congress. That shows how detached he is from reality.

That the generals sat somewhat stony faced while this was going on shows that they are bending over backwards in trying to observe legal and constitutional formality. One opposition leader, Tendai Biti, the former finance minister whom we have hosted at the Atlantic Council on several occasions, expressed it best when he said that as eager as Zimbabweans were to get rid of Mugabe, they can’t simply short circuit constitutional processes. The generals are cognizant of that and it is heartening to see a longtime opposition leader, whom one could understand would be eager to get rid of Mugabe, speaking of processes.

Q: What is the process for impeaching the president?

Pham: This is not the first time that impeachment proceedings have been started against Mugabe. The opposition has tried before, but since they didn’t have the requisite numbers in parliament it never went anywhere.

This time, with his own party producing the motions, the opposition certainly isn’t going to vote against impeachment. So, I don’t think it is going to require much to get the threshold of two-thirds.

Whether it needs to go there or not is really up to Mugabe. He has already been removed as party leader, which is humiliating enough. Does he actually want to be removed constitutionally by parliament or does he want to gracefully walk out with his head held as high as it can be held under the circumstances?

The big question is, we know Mugabe is ninety-three, [and] his wife exercises a great deal of influence on him, so how much is he really making his own decisions? How much is that decision-making process informed by the reality of what has happened in Zimbabwe?

Q: What is the best-case outcome?

Pham: There is no doubt that the outcome is going to be that Mugabe is no longer in control of Zimbabwe. The question is how this comes about. Under the Zimbabwean constitution, if Mugabe resigns or if parliament impeaches him, the ruling party gets to designate someone to take his place. That person fills out the remainder of the term. Now that ZANU-PF has chosen Emmerson Mnangagwa as its leader, presumably he will be designated to lead.

Given the unity that the Zimbabwean people have shown, it will be a grand gesture as well as a significant step forward if Mnangagwa were to bring into his government—since the term left to serve is under a year—members of the opposition, civil society, and technocrats to give a broad coalition of Zimbabweans a stake in a smooth transition toward far more credible elections than they have had in years and a real democratic transition.

To make that work, the international community has to find a way to engage the new leadership. That means not just SADC [Southern African Development Community] or the African Union, but also Zimbabwe’s other partners, including the European Union and the United States.

Q: Has Mnangagwa shown any indication that he would be a more democratic leader than Mugabe?

Pham: Mnangagwa certainly made his career as a loyalist of ZANU-PF. On the other hand, it is telling that since the disputed 2008 election, where he certainly played a significant role in the repression of the opposition, he has also developed a good personal rapport with Morgan Tsvangirai, the man who most people believe was cheated, if not out of the presidency, then a fair chance at the presidency in 2008.

Yes, Mnangagwa has his past, but there are some promising indications that he is much more pragmatic. Given all that Morgan Tsvangirai has suffered over the years, it behooves the international community not to forget what Mnangagwa may have done going back to the 1980s, but if the people who have literally suffered and bled for Zimbabwe are willing to work with him then perhaps the international community should respect that decision.

That applies, in particular, to countries like the United States, where Mnangagwa as well as Constantino Chiwenga, the chief of the military, remain on US Treasury sanctions list dating to the early 2000s for suppressing democratic opposition in Zimbabwe.

Q: Should those sanctions be lifted?

Pham: We’re not saying whitewash the past, but it is in the interests of everyone that Zimbabwe is engaged at this critical time. If Zimbabweans who bled for their country are willing to engage with them and if these erstwhile opponents are themselves, in turn, willing to hold out the olive branch of inclusivity, it behooves the international community to respect that decision.

Q: What are the challenges ahead for whomever succeeds Mugabe, and will international intervention be necessary to stabilize the country?

Pham: Zimbabwe, thanks to the gross mismanagement of Mugabe, has been turned literally from southern Africa’s breadbasket into a basket case. This is a country that used to export food to its neighbors and was critical part of the food security of southern Africa. Now, at least three million—and possibly as many as five million—Zimbabweans have left the country to find a way to survive. Those remaining in the country are heavily dependent on humanitarian assistance. Agricultural productivity, thanks to Mugabe’s raids on commercial farming, has cratered.

As Steve Hanke has pointed out, the country is in hyperinflation. Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, who is among the Mugabe loyalists detained, belatedly acknowledged the week before the military’s intervention that the country’s budget gap to close out this year is four times what the regime had previously stated it to be.

Whatever new government emerges will have to find a way to pay the military, security services, and civil services. This expenditure consumes most of the current national budget. Beyond that, democracy is important, but staying alive is even more important for many people. 

Some sort of engagement is necessary to give the government breathing room—it needs to be held to benchmarks, certainly—in order for it to move toward what one hopes will be a free, transparent, credible electoral process in 2018.

Q: How will Mugabe be remembered?

Pham: Unfortunately, he will be remembered more for his later inertia than for the accomplishments of his earlier days. He was a figure that was held in reverence across Africa for his role in the national liberation struggle against the white minority government in what was then Rhodesia.

When he took power in 1980, in the first ten years he, by and large, maintained an open attitude toward the economy and commercial farmers (he was less open to political challengers, real and perceived). If he had served the first few terms and retired he would probably have been remembered with great admiration. His decision to stay on and do so by violence; the economic mismanagement, in fact the utter ruination of a once thriving economy; and the fact that in the end his own people pushed him out, in many respects led to it ending very badly.

Maybe it’s a salutary lesson to many leaders that end of the day no one person is indispensable even if that person is an icon of a national liberation struggle.

Q: How is that lesson resonating in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo where Joseph Kabila appears to be clinging to power?

Pham: As an analyst, I see certain trends and wonder what information about them other leaders are being fed and what information they are processing. These are open questions.

That being said, if someone as iconic as Mugabe can fall, for the others who don’t even hold a candle to him in terms of historic stature, the foundations of their rule beyond the legitimacy conferred to them by their own people is questionable. That legitimacy can be withdrawn, and will be, if they fail to deliver on their promises or otherwise fail to respect the will of the people.

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Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and J. Peter Pham

Image: A protester carried a posted calling on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to step down as the political crisis sharpened in Harare, Zimbabwe, on November 18. (Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)