How did things turn so bad for Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa? He won the disputed elections in August 2018, but even before the results were officially announced, protesters were being shot in the street, with the security forces laying into the protesters in front of the world’s press and international election observers. If those observers were contemplating a reluctant and muted endorsement of the results, then the shootings served to ensure that endorsement was not forthcoming.
Riot police armed with tear gas also threatened to storm the Bronte Hotel where many observers were staying – to prevent a press conference by the leader of the opposition, Nelson Chamisa. I witnessed this as I was staying at the very same hotel.
Once again, their threatening posture was filmed and broadcast in real time, and many observers – senior figures in their own countries – standing near me were pushed about by the security forces, as was I. And so Mnangagwa’s mantra of Zimbabwe being open for business began to wilt away right from the outset.
But more was to come. In January 2019, riots broke out to protest a huge hike in the price of fuel. Mnangagwa announced the price rise before leaving the country to visit Eastern Europe to seek investment and address the World Economic Forum event in Davos.
It was as if he was unaware of the fury a doubling in petrol costs would trigger. With former defence chief General Constantine Chiwenga in charge as acting President, the protesters were met with a furious militarised response.
The response was so radical that police officials secretly showed The Guardian journalist Jason Burke documents directly implicating the military. Government claims that those involved in the shootings and beatings were gangsters in stolen uniforms seem highly unlikely.
Mnangagwa hurried back without making it to Davos, and promptly promised that those who had killed, beaten and raped citizens would be punished. But he must know that to do so he will have to take on Chiwenga – and many Zimbabweans are convinced that Chiwenga, a hard military man rumoured to have the army behind him and never convincing in a civilian suit, seeks the presidency for himself. He would likely relish a confrontation with Mnangagwa as a prelude to deposing him or forcing him to resign.
Three things are clear as Zimbabwe enters what looks set to be a troubled 2019.
First, there is a divided leadership – whether rumours of palace coups are real or not. This is partly because no one knows how to lead Zimbabwe out of its economic mess. And, as things become more chaotic, many in the ruling ZANU-PF party think there is no choice but to brazen out the economic meltdown by ruthlessly squashing any political protest.
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