Emmerson Mnangagwa: Ruthless 'Crocodile' who is Mugabe's heir apparent in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa (above, in a 2008 file photo), who was anointed by Robert Mugabe as his vice-president and heir apparent Wednesday, has been waiting for his moment to shine for over 30 years. -- PHOTO: AFP
Zimbabwean Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa (above, in a 2008 file photo), who was anointed by Robert Mugabe as his vice-president and heir apparent Wednesday, has been waiting for his moment to shine for over 30 years. -- PHOTO: AFP

HARARE (AFP) - Zimbabwean Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was anointed by Robert Mugabe as his vice-president and heir apparent Wednesday, has been waiting for his moment to shine for over 30 years.

Nicknamed "Ngwena" (The Crocodile) because of his fearsome power and ruthlessness against rivals, the 68-year-old securocrat has a reputation for taking no prisoners.

That reputation was forged in the early days of independence from Britain, when Mugabe made the the young lawyer his minister for national security.

Since then he has occupied a host of cabinet positions.

But relations between Mnangagwa and his 90-year-old mentor, who has a habit of toying with potential successors, have not always been cosy.

Mnangagwa was himself the victim of a purge in 2004, when he lost his post as the secretary for administration in the ruling ZANU-PF party after being accused of openly angling for the post of vice-president.

Four years in the relative wilderness followed, during which his rival Joice Mujuru became vice-president and the favourite to succeed Mugabe.

The 2008 elections, when he was made Mugabe's chief election agent, were to change Mnangagwa's fortunes.

Mugabe lost the first round, but his supporters were not going to make the same mistake in the second round, which was marred by violence, intimidation and allegations of vote-rigging.

In the same year he took over from Didymus Mutasa as head of the Joint Operations Command, a committee of security chiefs, which has been accused by rights groups of organising violent campaigns to crush dissent.

Mnangagwa was targeted by EU and US sanctions imposed on Mugabe and his close allies over the elections and violence, but promptly given control of the powerful defence ministry.

It was a return to the spiritual home that made him a force in Zimbabwean politics in the first place.

'DESTROY AND KILL'

Mnangagwa's political career has mirrored his path through the security services.

Born in the southwestern Zvishavana district on Sept 15, 1946, he completed his early education in Zimbabwe before his family relocated to neighbouring Zambia.

His grandfather was a traditional leader and his father a political agitator for the repeal of colonial laws that disadvantaged blacks.

In 1966, Mnangagwa joined the struggle for independence from Britain, becoming one of the young combatants who helped direct the war after undergoing training in China and Egypt.

He was part of a group that carried out several raids against government facilities, including blowing up a train near the southeastern town of Masvingo.

He was arrested and sentenced to death but his sentence was later commuted to 10 years in prison because of his young age.

After independence in 1980, he directed a crackdown on opposition supporters that claimed thousands of lives in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.

His role in the crackdown, stern demeanour and uncompromising language earned him a fearsome reputation.

He once remarked that he had been taught to "destroy and kill" - although he later claimed to be a born-again Christian.

He has accused the West of trying to plunder Zimbabwe's resources.

"Our detractors with the help of sellouts have been working hard to bring about anarchy in Zimbabwe but that will not help because we will crush them."

Dismissing threats of street protests by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) last year, Mnangagwa said: "We will not be distracted by toothless and harmless dogs."

Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist at Masvingo State University says Mnangagwa is "a hardliner to the core."

"He calls himself soft as wool and wants to portray himself as a soft and diplomatic person but the truth is he is a hardliner to the core," Zhou told AFP.

"Many people are afraid of him. Whether he will change remains to be seen."

If he does eventually go on to succeed Mugabe, he would bring to the office vast riches.

A US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks in 2008 claimed Mnangagwa had amassed "extraordinary wealth" during Zimbabwe's 1998 intervention in gold-and-diamond-rich Democratic Republic of Congo.