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Zimbabwe: The Making of the Next Dictator?

The dust is now settling after the turmoil in Zimbabwe over the past few weeks. President Mnangagwa, aka “The Crocodile” has taken over from Robert Mugabe after 37 years at the helm of the country’s political affairs. Judging by the celebrations in Harare over the past week, the expectation of change is in the air. The question is how much change can we expect to see?

Even though the dictator, Robert Mugabe is no longer in power, the conditions which could lead to a continuation of dictatorship in the African nation are still very much alive.

President Mnangagwa has had a long career in government service as Mugabe’s right-hand man and advisor. His roles included serving as the head of the intelligence services, and with the ministries of justice and defence. However, these periods of office were marred with excessive government brutality bringing Mnangagwa’s leadership into question.

He was implicated in civilian murders in the 1980s. And while he is not as “establishment” as Grace “Gucci” Mugabe would have been he is still very much part of a regime which has been associated with corruption, brutality, and fiscal irresponsibility.

Opposition to Mnangagwa seems to be minimal and support for the ZANU-PF remains robust. Political scientist, Chipo Dendere suggests that the exit of a sizable portion of the adult population from the country has contributed to the erosion of opposition and the consistent growth of the ZANU-PF. In the midst of this weakened opposition to the party there may be no effective check on Mnangagwa ambitions.

There are international considerations. Over the past week, the role that China played in this month’s political events has come into the spotlight. This is because of the suspicious timing of the visit of the head of the Zimbabwe army to China; after Mnangagwa was sacked as vice-President by Mugabe and before the army placed him under house arrest.

There are obvious strategic interests for both these “all weather friends”. Zimbabwe being rich in natural resources and China being willing to invest in the country. Additionally, China and Zimbabwe have shared a long history of friendship and a mutual disdain for their colonial past. Since 2015, the ChineseYuan has also been the international trading currency for Zimbabwe following its isolation from the global markets after its economy went into a free-fall. Therefore, it is in China’s interest for a sustained and stable relationship with Zimbabwe that “Gucci Grace” would not be able to deliver.

Some observers suggest that direct Chinese involvement is not in keeping with Beijing’s playbook. But more important than this alleged involvement is the complete absence of the US from the events. This signal the continued retreat from global affairs by Trump’s Whitehouse and its replacement by China as a source of strength and support for smaller, poorer nations.

Mnangagwa has made his first steps as president in the right direction for the people of Zimbabwe with moves to tackle corruption and compensate farmers for the land that Mugabe confiscated from them.

But the unfolding events of the next weeks and months could see the making of the next great leader or the next dictator.

Image credit: CC by Mnangagwa/ Flickr