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Who is Zimbabwe's New President Emmerson Mnangagwa?

Former Zimbabwe VP Emmerson Mnangagwa

The swearing in of Zimbabwe’s new President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa marked a new era for the country ruled by former President Robert Mugabe from independence in 1980, until his dramatic downfall.

But who is Emmerson Mnangagwa?

Mnangagwa was born in Zvishavane, the Midlands Province in 1942 and is from the Karanga sub-group of Zimbabwe's majority Shona ethnic group. In an exclusive interview with VOA Studio 7 for Zimbabwe following his 2014 appointment as Vice President, Mnangagwa described himself as “a villager from Zvishavane, brought up by the revolution and continues to serve his country as a revolutionary.”

To many Zimbabweans, Mnangagwa has remained largely an enigma, both loved and loathed at the same time. Asked why some Zimbabweans fear him, he said “I believe that those who fear me are not honest people, they are afraid of relating to an honest person and those who love me know that my life is a straight one, an open book.”

The Crocodile

Mnangagwa is referred to as “Ngwena” (crocodile). Asked about the origins of the nickname, Mnangagwa said, “I think this came about in 1964 during the Crocodile Group. I was among that group and I am the only survivor, I think it comes from there. Other people may have varying interpretations.”

During the colonial era in the 1960’s, the Chinese trained Crocodile Group engaged in acts of sabotage as a form of resisting colonial rule. The moniker gained popularity as his political shrewdness has seen him survive seemingly dire situations.

Relationship with President Mugabe

In an interview with VOA Zimbabwe, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jonnie Carson described Mnangagwa as a “clone” of Mr. Mugabe.

Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, left, and Emmerson Mnangagwa, at State House press conference, Harare, July, 30, 2013.
Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, left, and Emmerson Mnangagwa, at State House press conference, Harare, July, 30, 2013.

This, Mnangagwa himself seemed to confirm when he released a press statement when he went into temporary exile this this month after being ousted from government. “I have been very close to the President ever since (liberation war).

He added, “We have avoided life threatening situations together. I even doubled up as his personal bodyguard. In return, the President has passed on to me life skills which have put me in good stead throughout my long period in government. Our relationship has over the years blossomed beyond that of master and servant but to father and son.” Mnangagwa says he came face to face with Mr Mugabe in May 1964 at the Zanu-PF Congress.

Liberation War Credentials

Mr Mnangagwa joined the United National Independent Party (UNIP) led by former Zambian President Dr. Kenneth Kaunda at a very tender age. At 18 years of age he was recruited by the late Willie Musarurwa to join ZAPU and sent for military training to Tanzania and Egypt. A year later in August 1963 be broke away with some cadres to join the newly formed Zimbabwe African National Union.

In 1965 Mr Mnangagwa said in a press statement he was “arrested, tortured and sentenced to death.” He adds that, “the death sentence was subsequently commuted on a technicality to ten years imprisonment which I served in various prisons in Zimbabwe while at the same time I advanced my education through correspondence.”

After his release, he was deported back to Zambia where he completed his Law Degree. After completing his Law Degree, he says he voluntarily left Zambia to join the Liberation struggle in Mozambique in 1976 where he was assigned as the Special Assistant to Mr Mugabe.

Though former president Mugabe supported the death penalty in independent Zimbabwe, Mr Mnangagwa opposed it, “I want to pronounce myself clearly that the death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights and a cold blooded and abhorrent killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice,” Mr Mnangagwa said.

Zimbabwe’s new Constitution, enacted in 2013, abolished mandatory death sentences and limited the death penalty to cases of murder “committed in aggravating circumstances”. It bars death sentences for women and men aged under 21 or over 70 at the time of committing the crime.

Alleged Human Rights Abuses

As National Security Minister, Mr Mnangagwa was in charge of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), which is accused of working with the army to commit atrocities in the 1980’s. At least 20,000 civilians are said to have been killed when Mugabe deployed a North Korean trained military unit, the fifth brigade in the Matebeleland and Midlands regions supposedly to hunt down dissidents.

A report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace noted that, in the years following independence, ZANU PF sought to weaken and eventually destroy the other main independence force, ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African People's Union), led by Joshua Nkomo. Thousands of innocent civilians - mainly ethnic Ndebeles, seen as Zapu supporters - were killed before the two parties merged to form Zanu-PF in 1987.

The State controlled Chronicle newspaper reported in 1983 that Mnanagwa reportedly referred to the dissidents as “cockroaches” and the Fifth Brigade as “DDT”-a synthetic insecticide belonging to the family of organic halogen compounds, highly toxic toward a wide variety of insects as a contact poison. He is quoted as having said, “Blessed are they who will follow the path of the government laws, for their days on earth will be increased? But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents for we will certainly shorten their stay on earth,” Mnangagwa also said.

Mnangagwa later issued a statement dismissing the story as “false and malicious” but without offering details. Mr Mugabe somewhat apologized calling the massacres “a moment of madness.”

Denying Opposition Victory?

After Mr Mugabe lost the first round of the presidential election to opposition leader and trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008, Mr Mnangagwa was alleged to have masterminded Zanu-PF's political campaign in the run off, coordinating the party's links with both army and intelligence.


More than 150 mostly opposition supporters died, 200-plus were abducted and missing, hundreds more were jailed on spurious charges, thousands beaten and tens of thousands forced from their homes. Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw from the presidential race. The list of the soldiers that allegedly terrorized the opposition was later leaked to VOA Studio 7 for Zimbabwe by officials who had been expelled from the party.

The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper recently noted Mr Mnangagwa’s role in shoring up Mr Mugabe, “Mnangagwa, a former security aide and personal assistant to the president, as well as his key minister in security portfolios in government, did all the dirty operations for Mugabe. He was his political enforcer; gangland-style if needs be.

The paper adds, “From crushing the opposition by systematically wiping out their support bases through demonization, intimidation, detentions, violence and torture, via Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s, liquidating real or imagined enemies, triggering waves of violence and killings after 2000 to stealing elections; he was the President’s henchman.” Mr Mnangagwa was also probably the biggest accomplice in the Mugabe regime’s misrule, economic mismanagement and corruption. He was in the mix of everything; the good, bad and ugly.”

Mnangagwa supporters.

Mnangagwa is held in high esteem by the army and veterans of the liberation war. He even revealed that he was in constant contact with military leaders who took over the country last week facilitating the ouster of Mr Mugabe.

Zimbabwe Army Commander, Gen Constantino Chiwenga
Zimbabwe Army Commander, Gen Constantino Chiwenga

He told party supporters in Harare Tuesday that, “I was in constant contact with the service chiefs throughout. I wish also to thank the manner in which our defense forces and General (Constantino) Chiwenga have managed this process very peacefully.”

Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association secretary general, Victor Matemadanda did not shy away from backing Mnangagwa. “We have the right to support a person we feel has the capacity to lead this country going forward, this is why we went to fight in the bush so that our people have a better life,” he said.

Member of Parliament and former deputy justice minister, Fortune Chasi who worked under Mnangagwa said he is a pleasant character to work with. “I found him to be a very intelligent and hardworking leader. When I worked with him he gave me a very long leash and allowed me fair play in the ministry…those that will be lucky to be in his cabinet will find working with him to be a most worthwhile experience, so long as they apply themselves. He is indeed likeable and funny person to work with and I think we are going to see results.