'We dare not squander the moment': Zimbabwe looks to the future as Mnangagwa officially replaces Mugabe

There are still doubts that Mr Mnangagwa – as a former strong ally of Robert Mugabe – will push through the deep reforms he has promised

Kim Sengupta
Friday 24 November 2017 18:53 GMT
Emmerson Mnangagwa is sworn in as new President of Zimbabwe

The new President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa – inaugurated amid singing, dancing, gun salutes and a fly-past at a packed national football stadium – has promised to sweep away the darkness of Robert Mugabe’s reign with fundamental reforms at home and reconciliation abroad.

“We dare not squander the moment,” Mr Mnangagwa said as he pledged that elections will be held next year along with a drive begin to eradicate chronic corruption which has crippled the country. He said that white farmers who have had their land seized, an episode which has left a legacy of bitterness, would be paid compensation and jobs will be created across society to tackle the massive problem of unemployment.

Zimbabwe, the new President stressed, needed to recover from the pariah status which has come with years of international sanctions and condemnation in reaction to widespread human rights abuses. “We ask those who have punished us in the past to reconsider,” Mr Mnangagwa said, that adding “all foreign investment will be safe in Zimbabwe”. It was an attempt at reassurance which served as reminder of how this once prosperous land is now largely shunned by foreign commerce and industry due to a near breakdown of the legal system and the rapacity of officials and ministers.

“Acts of corruption must stop forthwith. Where these occur, swift justice must be served. The culture of government must change and change now,” he said. He would do his utmost, he added, to mend the political system which has “poisoned and polarised”, and strengthen democratic institutions.

Much of the theme was about breaking away from the Mugabe era. The former president was expected to appear at the ceremony at the invitation of ruling party, Zanu-PF, but failed to do so at the last minute. One explanation was that this was due to objections from Mr Mnangagwa and his team. But Mr Mugabe, according to his press secretary George Charamba, had declined the invitation himself. “Feelings are still running high. He spoke to the President [Mr Mnangagwa] last night and they agreed it was not a good idea, security wise.”

The focus at the ceremony was very much on the new man of the moment, and his pledges were rapturously received by the crowd.

But major doubts remain about their fulfilment. Seventy-five year old Mr Mnangagwa has spent most of his life in the higher echelons of Zanu-PF as an ally of 93-year-old Mr Mugabe – until the two men fell out – and he has featured in the accusations of graft and election-rigging levelled at the party.

A glaring sign of the obvious discord and popular anger came during the swearing-in of the heads of security agencies at the ceremony. The arrival of police chief Augustine Chihuri was greeted with deafening booing and whistling around the stadium for five and half minutes. This was followed by chants of “he must go” and hoots of laughter when he came to the part of the oath where he vowed to defend the people.

The police are hugely unpopular across the country with allegations of extortion and brutality levelled against them regularly. They have hardly been seen in the streets since last week’s military coup which removed Mr Mugabe from power, resulting in, say members of public, an actual drop in crime.

The vast rallies and marches demanding Mr Mugabe should step down have taken place with little police presence, and no violence and looting. Mr Chihuri also suffers from being seen as a confidant of Grace Mugabe, the former president’s wife nicknamed “Gucci Grace” or “DisGrace” for her lavish spending and allegations of corruption that have dogged her.

The military, in contrast, are highly regarded. The applause and cheers for general Constantino Chiwenga – who led the military takeover – were louder than that for the new President. The police, supposedly on Mr Chihuri’s orders, had attempted to arrest the general just before the putsch.

Asked by The Independent about the vastly different public reaction to him and the police chief, and what should happen to Mr Chihuri, general Chiwenga laughed and responded: “What’s past is the past. We should try and put that behind us and move forward. My responsibility is the armed forces; the police must do what it needs to do.”

General Chiwenga denied there was any possibility, as had happened in some other countries across the continent, that the military, once tasting power, would be averse to going back to the barracks. “That will not happen here, let me assure you of that. We haven’t hung on to power and I am glad you are here to see that. We will stick to our job of defending the country and serving our President,” he said.

Loyalty to the civilian government, the general insisted, would continue if opposition parties came to power.

The head of the organisation of war veterans involved in the fight against white rule – an enormously influential group which had played a key part in driving Mr Mugabe from power by bringing out the crowds – was more forthright about the police chief.

Speaking to The Independent Christopher Mutsvangwa said: “If the man had any shame he would have resigned by now. He tied himself to Grace Mugabe, who basically has an empty cranium. There needs to be wholesale changes in the police. They have been trying to turn themselves into a paramilitary force, that has to stop. Anyone guilty of crime in the police deserves to be punished.”

Mr Mutsvangwa said he accepted the decision taken to give Mr Mugabe immunity from prosecution: “He is a very old man and despite everything he had served our country well in the past. The fact he has gone is enough for now.” But on extending that immunity to Grace Mugabe as Mr Mugabe had demanded, he said: “I don’t under what part of our law that can be done. Justice must be done, we shall see what happens.”

Kenneth Kaunda, the eminent former leader of Zambia – a contemporary of Mr Mugabe – was present at the ceremony, as were the current presidents of Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia. The first non-African minister to arrive since Mr Mugabe’s resignation was the Foreign Office’s Africa Minister, Rory Stewart, who was scheduled to hold talks with Mr Mnangagwa later on Friday.

The war veterans’ leader met Mr Stewart on Thursday afternoon, calling him “a very nice, polite young man who is very interested in what’s going on here”.

“We want to have the closest possible ties with Britain in every way. The ties between us go far beyond colonial power and colony and they must be rebuilt,” Mr Mutsvangwa added.

Britain, after Brexit, he pointed out, would need new trading partners. “This region has been a source of great wealth for the British in the past, some of their biggest companies traded here,” Mr Mutsvangwa said. “Perhaps the UK should join SADC [the South African Development Community]!”

The veterans’ leader added that Zimbabwe needed “to open up to the outside world, undo the damage done by Mugabe”.

The new President, Mr Mnangagwa, had fled to South Africa after being fired by Mr Mugabe, at the instigation, allegedly, of Grace Mugabe. But at the inauguration he was fulsome in his praise of his predecessor: “Let me at this stage pay tribute to the only surviving founding father of our nation, Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Let us all accept and acknowledge his immense contribution to the building of our nation.”

There were some muted cheers and a few desultory boos the words. Robert Mugabe was a man of the past – as Zimbabwe looks forward, with flickering hopes, to the future.

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