Mnangagwa is probably hoping that his refusal to taste the sweet fruit of revenge, in favour of astute political rationality, will be understood and viewed favourably by voters as the action of a mature and sober politician.
The praise lavished on Mugabe is politic for several reasons. It is important for Mnangagwa to counter claims that he came to power via a coup. A simple syllogism thus advances Mnangagwa’s cause: coup plotters denigrate those they depose and do not praise them; Mnangagwa praises Mugabe; ergo Mnangagwa is not a coup plotter. Praise for Mugabe also supports the narrative of the ‘military-assisted transition’.
On this version of events, Mugabe was not the target of the intervention by the military. The intervention sought only to neutralise the ‘criminal elements’ around him – including his ‘scheming’ wife.
It is these elements, the military claim, that subverted the constitution and usurped presidential authority. Vilifying the former president might suggest that Robert Mugabe was the real target, and not the ‘criminal cabal’.
African presidents are also understandably sensitive about being such targets. The AU and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) tolerate all manner of human rights abuses and violations of good governance, but will not tolerate an ‘unconstitutional change of government’.
Both policies – tolerating human rights abuses and not tolerating coups – are designed to maintain the status quo and keep incumbents in power.
While a Muammar Gaddafi ending for Mugabe would have isolated Mnangagwa in the region, the soft landing provides a dignified exit for Mugabe and enables Mnangagwa to secure support from regional leaders, or at least annul disapproval. There are also those who genuinely revere Mugabe as a liberation icon, and earning their antipathy gains nothing.
Furthermore, debate continues to rage as to whether the November military intervention that led to Mnangagwa’s presidency constituted a coup. The person who could give an irrefutable answer to this – Mugabe – has remained studiously mute, to Mnangagwa’s considerable advantage.
Things might have been otherwise without the cushy pension benefits Mnangagwa has ordered to be paid to Mugabe, and with a policy of revilement against him.
Last, and certainly not least, although politicians can be notoriously thick-skinned about such things, there is the fact that Mnangagwa was closely associated with Mugabe and his policies.
He had been fulsome in his praise of his predecessor only a few months before his departure. Mud slung at Mugabe would inevitably boomerang, and for Mnangagwa to suddenly change tack to one of harsh criticism would engender considerable cynicism and cast him as a shameless opportunist.
In the case of Mnangagwa, then, it seems in his permanent interest to have Mugabe as a permanent friend.
By Derek Matyszak.This article first appeared in ISS Today