President Robert Mugabe, 93, concluded his 37-year tenure as leader of Zimbabwe November 19th. The resignation came amid pressure not only from the military but also from government officials who had begun the national impeachment process. The news was gladly received by politicians in the country’s parliament and citizens cheering in the capital, Harare. Zimbabwe, with the recent political developments, has been presented with a constitutional crisis to resolve.
The recent political event began a week prior to the resignation when military vehicles were spotted in Harare. Such military presence led to speculation of a Coup d’état, resulting in national as well as international monitoring of the political situation. After General Constantino Chiwenga, head of Zimbabwe’s military forces, ordered a temporary seizure of the state broadcaster and for the president to be placed under house arrest, it became clear that Mugabe’s days were numbered. Military officials and Mugabe’s party, Zanu-PF, acted fearing that Mr Mugabe’s wife, Grace, was to succeed the president, thus creating a dynastical system of governance. Gen Chiwenga aimed to replace Mr Mugabe with the former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who maintains a close alliance with the military.
Mr Mugabe, under Zanu-PF, began his rule as Prime Minister over Zimbabwe in 1980 when the African state was granted independence from minority-white domination. After receiving seven academic degrees and working as a school teacher, Mugabe began to challenge white exploitation in Zimbabwe. The 1970s consisted of numerous Guerrilla wars fought by various factions. Many of the guerrilla fighters, such as Mugabe, went on to monopolize political power. In 1987, Mugabe widened his executive power by changing the constitution, placing himself in the newly created role of President. In the early 2000s, Mugabe began presenting his dictatorial character by seizing lucrative white-owned farms, in an act of vengeance, restricting the freedom of the media and even ordering slum evictions which affected over 700,000 people.
‘In the 1980’s Mnangagwa began gaining more powerful roles in Zanu-PF and oversaw the killing of thousands of Zimbabweans.’
Zimbabwe is left in dire economic, social and political conditions. As a result of Mugabe’s leadership, Zimbabwe now has over 90% of its population unemployed and 74% of people surviving on a mere $5.50 per day. Mugabe’s economic mismanagement caused hyperinflation, completely devaluing the Zimbabwean dollar and prompting its abandonment. The human rights violations, autocratic environment, and pillaging of national funds succeeded in ridding the country of Western allies, engendering the introduction of strict sanctions. Zimbabweans have been forced to use the US dollar and South African rand as currency amid current economic collapse. Contrasting with his unpopular policies, Mugabe did usher in drastic educational reform, which has resulted in Zimbabwe having an 89% adult literacy rate, one of the highest rates in the continent.
The former president’s wife, Grace, remains at the centre of the political crisis. She married Mr Mugabe in 1996, and the two went on to have three children. Mrs Mugabe is known for being a politically astute and calculating figure. She began her political career as the typist for Mr Mugabe and, after their marriage, rose the ranks of Zanu-PF. She attracted criticism from many Zimbabweans for her frivolous spending habits, who referred to her mockingly as ‘Gucci Grace’, ‘The First Shopper’ and ‘Dis-Grace’. In recent years, due to Mr Mugabe’s old age and ailments, she garnered greater power and influence and even began coordinating the sackings of senior party officials who she deemed a threat to her succession of her husband. Mrs Mugabe, though gaining support from young demographics, became a deeply divisive figure who would use her public platform to speak brazenly about her biggest political rival, Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa, like many in Zimbabwe’s ruling class, began his political career in the 1970s as a guerrilla fighter in the war for independence. In the 1980’s, he began playing more powerful roles in Zanu-PF and was accused of working closely on operations that resulted in the killing of thousands of Zimbabweans, during subsequent civil disputes. Not only does he maintain strong links with the military, but also with the intelligence agencies, Zanu-PF party and Chinese diplomats. Mnangagwa had always been known for wanting to succeed Mr Mugabe, and his aggressive determination to reach the top office led to him being nicknamed ‘The Crocodile’. Prior to Mrs Mugabe’s pursuit of power, Mnangagwa had been Mugabe’s closest political ally. Tensions between himself and the First Lady were openly displayed after he fell ill in August at a political rally and made subliminal statements accusing key individuals in Zanu-PF of poisoning him. Mnangagwa, like the Mugabes, is sanctioned by most Western nations and is seen to have abused national funds for personal profit. Many commentators have noted that rule under Mnangagwa may not bring the liberal reforms that many Zimbabweans have called for.
China is seen to have played a role in the recent political events through their support of the military. Just days before the military placed Mr Mugabe under house arrest, Gen Chiwenga had been in Beijing. It has been reported that Chiwenga, a growing critic of the Mugabe’s, had been made aware of the former president’s plan to arrest him, so he sought the confidence of Chinese diplomats whilst on his pre-arranged trip. Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has always maintained a supportive exterior towards Mr Mugabe, but in recent years Jinping has refused to further grant financial assistance, unless Zimbabwe prepares a suitable successor for Mugabe and repairs its broken relationship with Western institutions; this has been seen as prompting the talks between Zimbabwe and the International Monetary Fund. Despite China having been a consistent ally of Mr Mugabe, it is apparent that the rising superpower had exerted its economic strength in favour of Mr Mugabe’s critics.
‘many commentators have noted that rule under mnangagwa may not bring the liberal reforms that many zimbabweans have called for.’
To understand Zimbabwe’s predicaments, one must acknowledge the colonial context that clouds African politics. After WW2 African nations began to fight vociferously for independence; nationalist leaders, like Mugabe, were faced with the task of repairing countries that had been abused from years of Western exploitation. Mugabe, like his contemporaries, saw socialism as a means to an end; this set up Zimbabwe’s turbulent relationship with the formerly-imperial and capitalist West. The subsequent string of development projects offered by the West and China can be seen less as an attempt to aid Zimbabwe and more as a form of financial investment. Britain, through its colonial pillaging, may be seen as contributing to Zimbabwe’s current political, social and economic problems as it abandoned the former colony in a state of disorder without leaving provisions in place to aid restoration.
Along with Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet, Mugabe joins a long list of divisive figures whose political legacies are marked by continuous contradictions. By allowing Mugabe to leave office in a show of dignity, Zimbabwe proved that despite his despotic leadership, they are yet to lose respect for the man who broke the shackles of colonialism. The new president, Mnangagwa, is to be met with the vast challenge of revitalising a country that has endured decades of economic decay. Mnangagwa must rebuild relationships with foreign donors, establish a stable currency, and drastically raise the absurdly-low employment figures if he is to win the confidence of political allies, fellow citizens, and the wider Zimbabwean diaspora. Mugabe leaves Zimbabwe on its knees, wading through unchartered waters.