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 onto their farm and backpackers lodge in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands near Mozambique at the height of Mugabe’s violent and disastrous land reform campaign. That book captured the capriciousness of life under an aging, vindictive ruler and recounted the wily games that the elderly couple played—including turning one wing of the lodge into a brothel serving local politicians—to ward off Mugabe’s goons. A decade later, while Rogers was on a return trip to Africa to see his parents and to travel with three friends through Mozambique in a vintage Mercedes—“The Hangover set in Latin Africa,” he calls it—Mugabe’s grip on power began to falter. Rogers cut his Mozambican idyll short and headed to Harare, where he witnessed the last act in an African tragedy.
In 1980 Mugabe was elected prime minister after an eight-year insurgency against Rhodesia’s white-minority government, which had unilaterally declared independence from Great Britain in 1965, and changed the country’s name to Zimbabwe. He inherited a modern infrastructure and an economy that, though battered by the conflict, remained largely intact. White-owned farms produced tobacco for export, and the country could draw upon vast reserves of gold, silver, chrome, diamonds, and other resources. Mugabe preached reconciliation and continuity, asking Zimbabwe’s 270,000 whites, including 4,500 farmers, to stay and help build the country, downplaying his Marxist background, and reaching out to Western democracies for economic and technical support. In 1990, when I visited Zimbabwe for the first time, it had one of the continent’s most literate populations, its best health care system, and a thriving tourism industry. Mugabe was revered across Africa as a giant of anticolonialism and a victor over a white racist regime.
Within a few years, however, Zimbabwe had become a failed state. In 1998 Mugabe sent thousands of troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo, ostensibly to prop up the shaky regime of President Laurent Kabila, but also to loot the country’s diamonds and other minerals. The invasion turned into a costly failure that stirred up resentment toward Mugabe’s corrupt inner circle and helped the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the popular opposition party, gain support.
A few years later, Mugabe unleashed war veterans and cronies to seize, often at gunpoint, the property of white farmers, many of whom were MDC supporters. Thousands of farms passed into the hands of people who had no experience in commercial agriculture, with predictably disastrous results. Exports of tobacco, Zimbabwe’s main cash crop, collapsed, foreign exchange dried up, and imported goods disappeared from stores. Mugabe ordered his finance minister to print money in ever-greater amounts to pay government salaries, setting off an inflationary spiral that reached 80 billion percent in 2008. Schools and hospitals collapsed, literacy plummeted, and infant mortality rates soared. Mugabe oversaw the most precipitous economic collapse outside of war in decades—a distinction that has only recently been surpassed by Niedés Maduro in Venezuela.
In 2008 Morgan Tsvangirai, the charismatic leader of the MDC, defeated Mugabe in the presidential election. ZANU–PF officials falsified the vote count, forcing a second round, and thugs carried out beatings, torture, and the murders of more than 193 MDC activists in order to intimidate the opposition. Tsvangirai dropped out of the race to stop the violence. South Africa and other nations in the region then pressured Mugabe into accepting a “Government of National Unity” that included representatives of the MDC, but this did little to restrain the ZANU–PF’s excesses. In 2013 David Coltart, a human rights attorney from Bulawayo and MDC leader who was serving as the minister of education, confronted Mnangagwa, then the defense minister, in a cabinet meeting with evidence that ZANU–PF was plotting to steal the next election. “Stick to education,” Mnangagwa growled, “and leave the politics to us.”
By 2017, ZANU–PF’s brand of politics had turned particularly brutish. Mugabe was ninety-three and falling asleep at meetings, and the question of succession preoccupied his underlings. The story of the infighting that tore the party apart and set the stage for Mugabe’s fall has been told before,* but Rogers unearths a trove of new details. At the time, the favorite to succeed Mugabe was Mnangagwa, who had been appointed vice-president in December 2014. A teenage fighter in a guerrilla unit called the Crocodile Gang during a 1960s insurgency (from which he got his nickname), he was captured and sentenced by a Rhodesian court to death, later commuted to ten years in prison, for blowing up a train; after he served his prison term, he was released into exile in Zambia. Mnangagwa studied law in Lusaka and grew close to Mugabe in Mozambique during the insurgency of the 1970s. After Britain officially granted Zimbabwe independence in 1980, he rose rapidly through the ranks of ZANU–PF. “If Robert Mugabe was bookish, wiry and erudite, ED was his physical and verbal opposite,” writes Rogers, referring to Mnangagwa by another of his nicknames, formed from the initials of his first and middle names. “Burly and broad-shouldered, he had the lumbering gait of a buffalo, and an inscrutable, taciturn manner.”
Mnangagwa carried out some of the regime’s darkest deeds. As Mugabe’s national security minister in 1983, he gathered intelligence on opposition figures and helped to oversee Operation Gukurahundi (Shona for “the early rain that washes away the chaff”), the army’s massacre of about 20,000 putative dissidents from the Ndebele ethnic group in Matabeleland. “He’s deeply implicated in all of this,” David Coltart told me. Fifteen years later, according to Coltart, Mnangagwa had a hand in the looting of diamonds in Congo that enriched Mugabe’s inner circle. Several sources claim that in 2008 he helped coordinate the targeting of Tsvangirai’s supporters across the country.
On the other side loomed Grace Mugabe. A former secretary in the presidential office pool, she had caught Mugabe’s eye in 1988 while his first wife, Sally, was dying of cancer. Grace married him in 1996, four years after Sally’s death. Dynamic and rapacious, the First Lady had grown accustomed to the spoils of power, including a $23 million Chinese-style villa known as Blue Roof, a profitable fruit and dairy farm seized from a white owner, and getaways to Malaysia and Singapore aboard a commandeered Air Zimbabwe jet. Her frequent shopping trips abroad had earned her the derisive nickname Gucci Grace. In 2014 her husband appointed her the head of the ZANU–PF Women’s League and a member of the party’s decision-making body, the Politburo. In that position, she engineered the ouster of another rival, Vice President Joice Mujuru, a former guerrilla nicknamed Comrade Spill Blood.
Mnangagwa had the allegiance of the ruling party’s old guard, known as the “Lacoste” group, after the French fashion line with the crocodile logo. He also could count on the support of the National Liberation War Veterans Association, the shock troops of Mugabe’s violent land seizures, and elements of Zimbabwe’s armed forces, including the commander in chief, Constantino Chiwenga, with whom he had overseen Operation Gukurahundi. Grace Mugabe’s party support rested on a circle of young, social media–savvy politicians known as Generation 40, or G40, a “new guard” that believed the revered war veterans had accumulated too much power. G40, named by Jonathan Moyo, a Svengali-like figure who served as Grace Mugabe’s closest aide and stirred her presidential ambitions, “wanted to create a new narrative that you didn’t have to fight in the war to lead the country,” one party insider told me in December 2017. “Anyone linked to the war had to be eliminated.” The split between the two factions had little to do with ideology or a vision for the country. “Both factions were corrupt,” writes Rogers. “They had all been part of a government and party that had pillaged the nation for decades.”
As Rogers tells the story, the battle over succession intensified toward the end of 2017. That winter, Mugabe embarked on a series of Presidential Youth Interface Rallies designed to stoke enthusiasm for ZANU–PF before the next presidential election in 2018. Grace traveled with him and, with Mugabe often too enfeebled to address the crowds, filled in with gusto. She used the opportunity to make a move against Mnangagwa. Rogers writes:
At rally after rally the First Lady, 51, long-limbed as an antelope, glamorous in designer glasses and chic beret…prowled the stages, mic in hand, verbally assaulting her elder rival as he sat numb and emotionless just a few yards away from her. He was a “usurper,” she said, a “traitor”; he was plotting a military coup against her husband.
Mnangagwa brought matters to a head at a rally in Bulawayo in early November. He and his aides bussed in hundreds of war veterans and other supporters to a soccer stadium and, as Grace Mugabe began another diatribe from the stage, the crowd started booing her. “It was unheard of,” Rogers writes. At that point, the nonagenarian president “stumbled to the microphone and waved a bony finger in the air. ‘We are denigrated and insulted in the name of Mnangagwa?…I will remove him!’” Mnangagwa was out of power—and on the run—within days.
Mnangagwa’s flight to Mozambique and then refuge in South Africa prompted an outpouring of jubilation among members of the G40 faction. Grace Mugabe, it seemed, was on her way to coronation as Zimbabwe’s vice-president, one weakening heartbeat away from the presidency. The drama might have ended there were it not for a coalition of disaffected spies, ZANU–PF officials of wavering loyalty, and longtime Mugabe opponents who had been meeting across the border in South Africa for two years, reaching out to potential allies there in the ruling party and the military, quietly eroding Mugabe’s support.
Rogers devotes half his book to this previously unknown campaign, focusing on several of the participants. Tom Ellis, a white Zimbabwean who had fled the country as a teenager in 1980, owned a small home maintenance business in Randburg, a neighborhood in northwest Johannesburg, but he devoted most of his time to providing moral support to the opposition in exile. Ellis had helped smuggle Movement for Democratic Change activists out of Zimbabwe during the crackdown that followed Tsvangirai’s victory in 2008; met regularly in a smoke-filled sports bar called the Sundowner with a procession of opposition activists, human rights lawyers, and dispossessed farmers; and organized visits to the International Criminal Court at The Hague to draw attention to Mugabe’s abuses. “His thing—his love, his passion, his all-consuming obsession—was the politics and business of Zimbabwe,” Rogers writes.
Charles Wezhira, aka Agent Kasper, a karate blackbelt, former member of a paramilitary police unit known as the Black Boots, and agent with Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organization, had spied for years on Zimbabwe’s diaspora in Johannesburg. In 2015 he received an assignment from his spymasters to assassinate Ellis by shooting him at an ATM to make it look like a robbery. Ellis noticed he was being followed and turned the tables on his would-be killer, blocking his car at a traffic light and inviting him for a drink at the Sundowner. Wezhira, as it turned out, had grown disenchanted with the regime and his job, and the encounter led to a strategic partnership.
The most prominent figure in the nascent coalition was Christopher Mutsvangwa, a war veteran and longtime ZANU–PF stalwart. Described by Rogers as “a broad-shouldered middleweight with a perfectly round shaved head and a penchant for sharp suits and colourful silk ties,” he had run the state-owned TV network; overseen the Mineral Marketing Corporation, which is responsible for selling Zimbabwe’s diamonds; and served as ambassador to China during the Look East policy of the 2000s, when US and European economic sanctions obliged Mugabe to seek other support for his regime. Mutsvangwa also served as the head of a war veterans group, which by 2016 was under near daily attack by Grace Mugabe and her G40 allies, who accused them of being “drunks” and “lunatics.” Robert Mugabe fired Mutsvangwa following a protest march organized by the veterans in Harare. After publicly denouncing the First Lady as “a mad woman latched onto the tenuous blessings of a marriage certificate,” Mutsvangwa began contacting senior military officers, warning them that the Mugabes were destroying the country. He also flew to South Africa, where he met Ellis. As Rogers writes, the two men formed an unlikely alliance:
By rights they should have been enemies: Mutsvangwa was a famous member of the political party that had laid waste to Zimbabwe. He was the Chairman of an organisation that had taken [Ellis’s] sister’s farm and those of dozens of his friends; it was war veterans who had assaulted white farmers, beaten and killed their workers. War veterans were the shock troops Mugabe could always call on for violence.
A series of meetings between the anti-Mugabe diaspora community and disillusioned Mugabe loyalists led, in the summer of 2016, to the Northgate Declaration, a verbal pact that committed the participants to oppose G40 and support Mnangagwa for the presidency. Ellis and his cohorts had little affection for the Crocodile. Even so, they regarded the fragmented and weakened MDC as ineffective, viewed Grace as a meddlesome amateur who was unlikely to break from the ruinous policies of her husband, and were reassured by the pro-Western, pro-business messages carried by Mnangagwa’s emissaries to South Africa. Over the next months, Wezhira moved between Johannesburg and Harare, trying to turn his contacts in the security agencies against Mugabe. Mutsvangwa continued his efforts to line up support among senior military officers, while Ellis sought to overcome the suspicions of the MDC leadership and bring all the parties together.
How important was this group in expediting the Mugabes’ downfall? The president’s strategic blunders probably contributed the most to it. After Mnangagwa’s escape from Zimbabwe, Mugabe, fearing betrayal, ordered his paramilitary police to arrest Constantino Chiwenga, the commander in chief of the armed forces, upon his return from a state visit to China. Chiwenga’s allies got wind of the plot and deployed elite troops disguised as aviation ground services personnel at the airport. On November 12 the troops pulled their weapons at the moment that the paramilitaries attempted to detain the general, and disarmed them. The foiled arrest turned the country’s most powerful military leaders against Mugabe and prompted defections throughout the officer corps. Still, the secret dialogue carried out by the Northgate Declaration group arguably made it easier for many military men and other security officers to switch sides. Two nights later, on November 14, the military launched Operation Restore Legacy, detaining top members of the G40 faction and placing the Mugabes under house arrest.
The Johannesburg alliance also proved essential in making the Mugabes’ ouster—essentially a military coup—palatable to the international community. As Mugabe dithered, refusing to step down, it mobilized a broad coalition of war veterans, MDC activists, business and religious leaders, and ordinary citizens to march against him through the streets of Harare. Mutsvangwa gained tentative support for Mugabe’s removal from the African Union and the South African government. Pressure mounted on the ZANU–PF provincial committees to renounce Mugabe, Parliament moved to impeach him, and he finally resigned on November 21, two weeks after Mnangagwa’s flight.
In the euphoric days that followed Mugabe’s fall, Mnangagwa promised government transparency, an end to corruption, and the return of foreign investment. He removed the roadblocks that had sprung up during the last two years of Mugabe’s misrule, manned by policemen owed months of back wages who had cited drivers for fake violations and shaken them down for bribes. Mnangagwa’s wife made a visit under an assumed name to Harare’s worst public hospital with a video camera secretly in tow and exposed the hours-long waits, rudeness, and other abuses that ordinary Zimbabweans experienced while seeking health care. Mnangagwa even talked of establishing a truth and reconciliation commission to look into some of Mugabe’s more egregious abuses—including Operation Gukurahundi, the politically motivated massacres in Matabeleland in which the Crocodile himself had participated.
Yet doubts surfaced from the earliest days of the new regime about the sincerity of Mnangagwa’s commitment to reform. He appointed a cabinet filled with ZANU–PF hard-liners, including the two military men who, according to Coltart and other MDC leaders, had stood with him and Mugabe in the Matabeleland ethnic massacres and the stealing of the presidential election a quarter of a century later: Constantino Chiwenga became vice-president, and Penence Shiri was named the minister of lands. On July 30, 2018, Zimbabwe conducted, for the first time since independence, a presidential election without Robert Mugabe on the ballot. Mnangagwa welcomed international observers, but they cited a list of abuses: voter intimidation, distribution of food aid only to ZANU–PF loyalists, lack of media coverage for the opposition. Mnangagwa defeated Nelson Chamisa, his forty-year-old opponent from the resurgent MDC, with 50.8 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff; ZANU–PF won nearly two thirds of the seats in Parliament. On August 1, troops opened fire on MDC supporters in Harare who were protesting the slow vote count, killing seven people and wounding dozens; the next day, police raided MDC headquarters, arresting twenty-seven people and seizing computers.
Since then, Mnangagwa’s blundering economic policies have kicked off a new round of hyperinflation, tripling the cost of fuel and other necessities. They have also created a wide disparity between the official rate of exchange and the black market rate, allowing privileged regime insiders to earn millions through currency trading while ordinary people grow more desperate. In January 2019 tens of thousands of Zimbabweans took to the streets to protest soaring prices. Troops opened fire in Harare and Bulawayo; seventeen people died. “Mugabe was the monster, and getting rid of him was an opportunity to start anew, but I think the whole transition has been a disappointment,” I was told by Sam Sifelani, an Anglican priest and social activist in Harare. David Coltart, who now serves as secretary treasurer of the MDC, told me that “the president says all of the right things, but in some respects he’s been even harsher than Mugabe.”
In the months before Mugabe’s death at age ninety-five on September 6, the deposed president seemed a sad, defeated figure. Mugabe spent most of his final months undergoing medical treatment in Singapore or sitting idly alongside Grace at the couple’s walled-off villa, Blue Roof, in the wealthy Borrowdale neighborhood of Harare, brooding about his fall and nursing grudges against those who brought him down. Shortly before the presidential election last year, Mugabe held a surprise press conference; looking spectral and vaguely sinister behind opaque sunglasses, he mumbled a seeming endorsement of the MDC. “The two [candidates] don’t seem to offer very much,” he said. “So what is there? I think it is just Chamisa.” Then he provided a self-pitying coda to his thirty-seven-year rule. “I was sacked from the party I founded,” he said. “I was regarded as an enemy.” The removal of the dictator brought a brief moment of elation and hope to Zimbabwe, as Rogers’s book memorably conveys. But nearly two years into the post-Mugabe era, Zimbabweans are increasingly coming to regard Mnangagwa as the enemy.