Africa

Zimbabwe's Emmerson Mnangagwa - Mugabe's heir apparent

Zimbabwe's Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare on 10 December 2014 Image copyright AFP

Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, known in Zimbabwe as "ngwena" or "crocodile" because of his political cunning, is now President Robert Mugabe's heir apparent.

The 68-year-old may be more than 20 years Mr Mugabe's junior, but he is steeped in the political intrigues of Zanu-PF, the ruling party which has its roots in the war to end white-minority rule.

As the announcement was made that he was to be Mr Mugabe's deputy, he looked up, smiled and accepted a few hugs as party supporters roared and cheered with joy.

Mr Mnangagwa is considered the ultimate insider: He served time in jail before independence in 1980 and since then in government - traversing security, justice, housing cabinet posts as well as a stint as speaker of parliament.

Many are fearful of his reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness, as well as his darting eyes.

When I once asked him why he arouses such a response, he replied, with his eyes shut: "I don't know, but you have come and spent time with me, is there anything to fear?"

Unlike other party officials, he often drives himself around town without his security.

Insiders within Zimbabwe's state security service say he is "a hands-on person" - the link-man between Zanu-PF and the country's influential military and spy agencies.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Emmerson Mnangagwa has close links with the security forces

In the early 1980s, he was Zimbabwe's spymaster at the time of the Gukurahundi atrocities, when the North Korean-trained Fifth army brigade killed thousands of civilians as it dealt with an alleged insurgency in the south of the country.

He has denied any role in the massacres, blaming the army.

'Soft side'

Zanu-PF MP Joramu Gumbo, an ally of Mr Mnangagwa, admits the new party vice-president "rarely smiles" but says he is "misunderstood by many".

"If you get to understand him, you will soon discover he is a down-to-earth person.

"He is very humorous, very intelligent."

Earlier this year as justice minister, Mr Mnangagwa refused to sign the death warrants for 97 murder convicts, saying the "sentence is too harsh and must be done away with".

"That explains his softer side, partly shaped by his background during the war and experience," says Mr Gumbo.

Others see the roots of his fearsome reputation in the liberation war.

In 1963, soon after the formation of the Zanu party, he led the first group of party cadres to China for military training.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa met in the central prison in the capital

A decision had been reached to wage a military offensive to tilt the political scales against Ian Smith, then leader of Rhodesia.

On his return, Mr Mnangagwa led a group of fighters known as "the crocodile gang", which blew up some trains and also killed a white farmer. He was caught in 1965 and sentenced to death.

He escaped that penalty because of he was under 21, but his close associates say he was brutally tortured using techniques such as water boarding and being hung by his legs. The beatings he received at the time have affected the hearing in his left ear.

"He has scars of that period. He was young and brave," says a close friend of Mr Mnangagwa, who asked not to be named.

"Perhaps that explains why he is indifferent. Horrible things happened to him when he was young."

Lawyer

After his release from jail in the early 1970s, he completed his law studies in Zambia, and then joined Mr Mugabe, who he had met in jail, in Mozambique and Tanzania.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Despite a brief fallout in 2004, Mr Mnangagwa has always been Mr Mugabe's right-hand man
Image copyright AP
Image caption Robert Mugabe now picks his own deputies, before they used to be chosen by party provincial committees

"That's where the bond between the two developed. He looked up to Mugabe as his father, not brother," says Mr Gumbo.

"He has been respectful and loyal since… the time they met in prison at Harare Central, where Mugabe taught him law he was doing by correspondence."

He was elected as Mr Mugabe's special assistant in 1977, becoming head of both the civil and military divisions of Zanu.

Their relationship remained close until 10 years ago when he faced the wrath of Mr Mugabe for holding an unofficial meeting with Zanu-PF provincial chairpersons to seek support to become the party vice-president - a position that was then chosen by the provinces.

The president sent him into political oblivion, stripping him of senior government and party positions.

But like a true crocodile, he lurked in the water - only raising his head above water when necessary - and striking when the opportunity arose.

This came in 2008 when he is rumoured to have masterminded Zanu-PF's political campaign, co-ordinating the party links with both army and intelligence.

After opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential election, the military and state security organisations are accused of unleashing a campaign of violence against opposition supporters, leaving hundreds dead and forced thousands from their homes.

Mr Tsvangirai then pulled out of the second round and Mr Mugabe was re-elected.

Mr Mnangagwa has not commented on allegations he was involved in planning the violence.

An insider in the party's security department confirmed Mr Mnangagwa is the political link between the army, intelligence and Zanu-PF.

"He cuts party finance deals, organises the campaign that links both security and party. He has Mugabe's ear on everything."

'Party purged'

This year he paired up with first lady Grace Mugabe to rid his political rival Joice Mujuru of any power in the party.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption First lady Grace Mugabe recently led a campaign against Mr Mnangagwa's rivals in Zanu-PF

But political analyst Takura Zhangazha says as Mr Mugabe's deputy, he will have "limited room to manoeuvre" and must remember who is boss.

If he does become president, commentator Pedzisai Ruhanya believes little will change.

"In appointing Mnangagwa, Mugabe is appointing someone who mirrors his leadership style. Mnangagwa is a hardliner, and hardliners aren't known for liberal democratic practices."

Pro-democracy campaigner Lovemore Madhuku agrees: "He is a hardliner. The way he ascended to power speaks to that. Many people have been purged. That's his style; no change can come from anyone within Zanu-PF."

Yet a former intelligence officer, who operated in the internal wing of CIO under Mr Mnangagwa, thinks he is a pragmatist and will be a reformer.

"Mnangagwa understands the nuts and bolts of business, capital. He isn't a hardliner as many people say.

"Should he become president, he is going to work more with the business community; he wants money and that which is good for the country. He isn't hostile to progress."

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