Who is Emmerson Mnangagwa?

Zimbabwe's incoming president Emmerson Mnangagwa gestures as he speaks at Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party headquarters in Harare.
Zimbabwe's incoming president Emmerson Mnangagwa gestures as he speaks at Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party headquarters in Harare. PHOTO: AFP

HARARE • When Mr Robert Mugabe announced his resignation as president of Zimbabwe on Tuesday, after 37 years of increasingly authoritarian and erratic rule, a euphoric citizenry took to the streets to unleash decades of pent-up hopes for their country's future.

That public display of revelry and unity masked a deep anxiety about the man being installed as his successor: Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former director of intelligence and architect of Mr Mugabe's most brutal crackdowns on dissent. Mr Mnangagwa (pronounced um-nan-ga-gwa) is better known by his nom de guerre, "Garwe" or "The Crocodile".

In a radio interview two years ago, he explained that a crocodile never leaves the water to search for food. Instead, it waits patiently for its prey to approach. "It strikes at the appropriate time," he said.

That long-awaited time has now come for Mr Mnangagwa, 75.

He spent his early years steeped in the struggle against British colonial rule and white-minority governance. After receiving combat training in China and Egypt, he became a guerilla commander in the liberation war that brought Mr Mugabe to power in 1980.

Since then, he has mostly been by Mr Mugabe's side, entrusted with enforcing party loyalty.

Mr Mugabe bestowed on Mr Mnangagwa numerous ministerial posts, but his most influential role was as director of the Central Intelligence Organisation in the 1980s, when he cemented relationships with the leaders of Zimbabwe's all-powerful security forces.

In that role, Mr Mnangagwa is accused by many, including the United Nations, of orchestrating a vicious cleansing of political opposition in the country's Matabeleland region. As many as 20,000 were killed, mostly belonging to the Ndebele ethnic minority.

The crackdown, carried out by Zimbabwe's North Korean-trained military, was notable for its almost unimaginable brutality.

The State Department said in 2000 that Mr Mnangagwa was "widely feared and despised throughout the country" and "could be an even more repressive leader" than Mr Mugabe.


In the 2000s, Mr Mnangagwa designed sweeping new crackdowns.

In 2005, Operation Murambatsvina razed vast urban slums that were hotbeds for opposition to Mr Mugabe. And in 2008, after Mr Mugabe lost the first round of a presidential election, Mr Mnangagwa is accused by Zimbabwean civil rights activists of coordinating an intimidation campaign in which at least 200 were killed and thousands injured. Mr Mnangagwa denies any role.

Though Mr Mnangagwa lost Mr Mugabe's trust at various points, he always managed to ingratiate himself. He was appointed vice-president in late 2014.

But it was a final rift that opened this year - the culmination of political infighting within Mr Mugabe's ruling party - that set the stage for "The Crocodile" to make his long-awaited strike.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2017, with the headline 'Who is Emmerson Mnangagwa?'. Print Edition | Subscribe