The cunning crocodile who may devour Zimbabwe’s new dawn

Published by The Mail on Sunday (29th July, 2018)

Tomorrow marks a landmark in the cruel history of Zimbabwe: the first election since independence in 1980 without Robert Mugabe’s name on the ballot paper. This alone is cause to celebrate in a continent corroded by old men and their corrupt cliques clinging to power.

So it is a moment of hope for this beautiful nation. A moment when democrats can dare to dream of shaking off the shackles of an abhorrent regime that has slaughtered thousands, pillaged billions from diamond mines and unleashed the second-worst hyper-inflation in history.

But Zimbabweans are realists. They have been stockpiling food, filling up cars with fuel and trying to get their hands on scarce currency. For they know power does not change hands lightly in their land.

The favourite to win is current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, a ruthless 75-year-old nicknamed The Crocodile for his ability to devour rivals, who seeks to consolidate power seized in a bloodless coup last year with his pals in the army.

Yet for all his desperate attempts at rebranding – with a Zimbabwean flag scarf always slung around his neck, wooden interviews with fawning foreign media and a fleeting appearance at Davos – there should be no illusions about Mnangagwa.

This is a man linked to the worst excesses of the Mugabe era. He may be posing as a democrat now but his history is one of crushing dissent – such as in 2008 when he persuaded Mugabe not to quit after losing an election, then unleashed savage violence to terrorise the rival Movement for Democratic Change into accepting a coalition.

Following the death of the MDC’s brave if flawed leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the party is led by a clever 40-year-old lawyer and pastor called Nelson Chamisa. He has run a feisty campaign appealing to younger voters desperate for change and an end to corruption. Polls show the gap between the parties closing, with the energetic Chamisa speaking at twice as many rallies as his elderly opponent.

One video of soldiers urging people not to leave when Mnangagwa was delivering one of his dreary speeches went viral.

Chamisa even claims Mugabe and his reviled second wife Grace – stuck in their sprawling ‘Blue Roof’ mansion in Harare – are backing him, such is the ousted president’s loathing of his treacherous former spy chief.

The ruling Zanu-PF party claims to have created 4.5 million jobs since 2013, which causes bitter laughter in a nation of 16 million where people sleep in bank queues, formal jobs are almost unknown and ‘the economy is screaming’, as one columnist wrote last week.

Almost the entire national budget is consumed by the bloated civil service, stuffed with Zanu-PF supporters – yet they have just been given a hefty ‘special allowance’ bung.

Such is the fear of election deadlock, or defeat for The Crocodile leading to another explosion of violence, MDC supporters told me they are attending Mnangagwa rallies to collect his T-shirts as insurance against post-election attacks.

‘My sister saw I had one of the T-shirts in my car so she took it for her security,’ said one Harare resident. ‘She knows these people will come back later for retribution if they lose.’

The MDC is likely to sweep the cities again. In Zanu-PF’s rural heartlands, there have been reports of intimidation with soldiers and traditional leaders warning people not to vote ‘the wrong way’, while food aid from foreign donors has been used to buy loyalty.

Civil rights activists say 11 ‘bases’ have been established. Such places – run by loyalists, soldiers and the war veterans behind white farm seizures – have been used in past election campaigns for abductions, beatings and torture.

There have also been sightings of party thugs wandering around shaking matchboxes at people – an unsubtle reminder that their homes could burn if violence erupts. ‘I’m so tired – I just want this all over,’ said one pro-democracy campaigner.

Meanwhile, much of the media is a mouthpiece for Mnangagwa, the electoral commission is obviously partisan, and there are concerns over manipulation of the electoral roll. This is not surprising when it includes one voter aged 141 and another aged 134.

There is also concern over British ambassador Catriona Laing, a controversial character who I revealed two years ago was trying to fix a bailout for Mugabe’s regime. Western diplomats, backed by key MDC figures, claim she is supporting Zanu-PF.

One US source told me Laing had said to him: ‘We can do business with Mnangagwa.’ She was even accused of flaunting Mnangagwa’s campaign scarf in Downing Street this year, although she claimed it was a Christmas present in similar colours.

Certainly the political climate is freer than it was under Mugabe’s rigid one-party state. But who knows what will happen this week, especially with many former regime loyalists standing as independents and The Crocodile’s savage history.

Once again, fear walks hand in hand with hope in Harare. ‘All the schools are closed,’ said one friend. ‘We are just hoping there is no violence since the kids are all at home and the younger ones have not experienced such things before.’

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