Zimbabwe: Enter the Crocodile

Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images
Zimbabwean members of parliament celebrating President Mugabe’s resignation, Harare, November 21, 2017

In early December, three weeks after the military coup that unseated Zimbabwe’s ninety-three-year-old president, Robert Mugabe, I traveled to Harare, the country’s threadbare capital. A large white canvas tent had been set up on fairgrounds near the city center. Loyalists from the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), had gathered from across the country to attend a national assembly.

The assembly had been scheduled months earlier to endorse Mugabe as the party’s candidate in the 2018 presidential election and to rubber-stamp his selection of his fifty-two-year-old wife, Grace, as vice-president and likely successor. But the tumultuous events of the preceding weeks—including the mysterious poisoning of Mugabe’s rival Emmerson Mnangagwa and his subsequent clandestine flight across the border; a standoff at the airport between soldiers disguised as baggage handlers and Mugabe’s police force; and a ferocious shootout in an affluent Harare suburb—had forced a change of plans. Hastily printed ZANU–PF posters now displayed photos introducing Mnangagwa, a husky figure with an animated grin, as the country’s next president. Mugabe and his wife had been banished to their suburban villa, the Blue Roof, and were said to be on their way to Singapore and Malaysia for a lengthy vacation following their humiliation.

I drove along the road adjacent to the fairground, passing a parking lot filled with chartered buses painted green, red, yellow, and black—the ZANU–PF colors. As we approached the tent where Mnangagwa was scheduled to address the party faithful that afternoon, my companion, Prince Butawo, a hip-hop artist and journalist for a political website in Harare, pointed out men wearing bright yellow-green vests mingling with the crowd. They were ZANU–PF security officers, he told me, disguised as “air time” vendors for a local cell phone service provider. I circled the site to get a second look, but Butawo urged me not to slow down. “They have noticed you,” he told me. I had not bothered to acquire press credentials, and if I were pulled over, he warned, I stood a good chance of being arrested, beaten, and jailed. “It’s back to business as usual,” Butawo said.

Through transparent plastic panels in the side of the tent, I could observe hundreds of men and women, many clad in ZANU–PF T-shirts, packed shoulder to shoulder, waiting expectantly for the new president to speak. Known as “the Crocodile,” a nom de guerre he acquired as a teenage saboteur fighting white-minority rule in the 1960s, Mnangagwa had been a confidant of Mugabe’s for four decades. As security minister and justice minister, he had helped to quash—sometimes violently—repeated challenges to Mugabe’s rule. But as he stood before the throng, dressed in a green “Extraordinary ZANU–PF Congress” baseball cap and a matching jacket emblazoned with photos of himself, Mnangagwa expressed his dedication to tolerance and…

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