Exit Mugabe

Zimbabwean Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and President Robert Mugabe at Mugabe’s ninety-second birthday celebrations, Masvingo, Zimbabwe, February 2016
Philimon Buiawayo/Reuters
Zimbabwean Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, left, and President Robert Mugabe at Mugabe’s ninety-second birthday celebrations, Masvingo, Zimbabwe, February 2016

In November 2017 Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s seventy-five-year-old vice-president, fell afoul of his mentor, President Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa, nicknamed the Crocodile, was a former guerrilla and a wily infighter who had kept his footing for years in the constantly shifting politics of Zimbabwe’s ruling African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), but a feud with the president’s ambitious wife, Grace Mugabe, had thrown him off balance. The previous August, Mnangagwa had nearly died after eating a picnic lunch at a rally in the town of Gwanda; the would-be killers, rumor had it, put arsenic in a dish of ice cream produced by Grace’s dairy farm. Only a medical evacuation by air to South Africa and days of treatment in a Johannesburg hospital had saved him. Now, after being described as disloyal by the man whom he hoped one day to succeed as president, Mnangagwa found himself out of a job, stripped of his security detail, and running for his life.

Disguised in oversized women’s sunglasses and a wide-brimmed safari hat, he set out from Zimbabwe for Mozambique in a three-car convoy with his three sons and a few supporters. But security agents recognized him at the border crossing, drew their guns, and forced the group to retreat. They took refuge in a mud hut outside the border town of Mutare. Then Mnangagwa, joined by his eldest son, Junior, walked along a smugglers’ trail through the mountains, traveling by moonlight to elude the police.

Searchlights and barking dogs forced him to crawl through the dirt. Near the border, he and his portly son—who was clutching his father’s $8,000 Louis Vuitton Président briefcase—inched across a minefield, a remnant of the guerrilla war of four decades earlier. Crossing into Mozambique, they were accosted by a local witch doctor who demanded a payoff to appease the ancestral spirits protecting the area from trespassers—“a very African toll gate,” Junior would later say—and narrowly avoided an untimely end at the hands of an AK-47-wielding bandit. After twenty-four hours on the run, Mnangagwa arrived, with blistered feet and mud-caked clothing, in the frontier town of Manica.

Two Weeks in November: The Astonishing Untold Story of the Operation That Toppled Mugabe by Douglas Rogers relates in dramatic detail Mnangagwa’s flight across the border and transformation—however briefly—into a sympathetic, even heroic figure, as well as the bizarre twists and turns that, a few days later, would lead to the overthrow of one of Africa’s longest-ruling dictators. A Rhodesia-born writer who has lived in the United States for almost two decades, Rogers is also the author of The Last Resort (2009), a bleakly comic account of his parents’ attempts to hold…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.