Emmerson Mnangagwa, who until recently was one of Mugabe’s longest-serving and closest allies, will be sworn in as the new president on Friday offering Zimbabwe the chance to open a new chapter.
But his career as a hardline minister in the ZANU-PF party points to a new leader who could be just as keen to suppress opposition voices, restrict freedoms and govern with an iron fist.
“It’s a great relief that he is out of the way, but we shouldn’t get too excited about the new guy,” Patrick Moyo, a 38-year-old bank worker told AFP.
“People must not forget his past.”
Mnangagwa’s past allegedly includes two of the most infamous episodes of state-sponsored violence during Mugabe’s reign — both of which he is accused of overseeing.
After independence in 1980, Mnangagwa, then the state security minister, directed the “Gukurahundi” massacres of supposed dissidents in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.
The government, which drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, unleashed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on the Ndebele people leaving an estimated 20,000 people dead and deep scars on the national psyche.
– ‘Mugabe’s enforcer’ –
In the 2008 election, Mnangagwa was also seen as the architect of the wave of deadly violence and intimidation that forced the opposition to pull out of a run-off vote which Mugabe risked losing.
“This is a change of a leader within the same authoritarian system of ZANU-PF backed by the military,” Dewa Mavhinga, southern African director of Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
“It’s unlikely that there will be significant changes because Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s enforcer. He is likely to continue as far as abuses, impunity and lack of democratic change are concerned.
“He has to protect those who have been implicated in abuses because it is essentially the same team.”
Anthoni van Nieuwkerk, a politics professor at Wits University in Johannesburg, described Mnangagwa, 75, as having “blood on his hands”.
“He is not an angel or a democrat by any definition,” Van Nieuwkerk said. “He is an old politician with significant support inside the military and inside the ruling party.”
Other accusations against Mnangagwa include his alleged involvement in illegal gold and diamond mining that has helped fund the ZANU-PF regime as well as made him a wealthy man.
He is known as “The Crocodile” — both for his ruthlessness and his membership of “The Crocodile Gang”, a sabotage unit during the independence war against British colonial rule.
– ‘Another dictator’? –
“We need a complete overhaul, not just the removal of one person at the top. With any elements of ZANU-PF still in power, I doubt that we will move forward,” said Oscar Muponda, an office worker in the capital.
“We hate ZANU-PF and we don’t want to replace a dictator with another dictator.”
Mnangagwa was previously targeted by US and EU sanctions but is no longer blacklisted.
Despite his record, international diplomats have built a working relationship with him as a likely future leader who may usher in limited reforms.
He could also head a national unity government that would include opposition leaders and rule the country for some years before new elections.
Many hope he could at least bring rapid economic growth after Mugabe’s “indigenisation” policies and farm seizures saw investors flee, production collapse and unemployment rise to over 90 percent.
Under Mnangagwa, there could be “economic proposals aimed at Zimbabwe’s re-engagement with the international community,” said London-based analyst IHS Markit.
It is a hope that many Zimbabweans are clinging to as Mnangagwa prepares to take his oath of office.
“The main concern is about the financial crisis,” said Berry Makiyi, 35, an electrical engineering entrepreneur.
“He should tackle this issue first.”