Interview with “The Crocodile”: Insights from Mnangagwa’s recent interview

Last weekend, The Herald published an interview of Vice President Mnangagwa with Baffour Ankomah of the New African, a pan-African news journal.

Alex T. Magaisa
Alex T. Magaisa

This was the second major interview that Mnagagwa has given in the last couple of months, the first having been with CCTV, China’s television network during his official tour of China in July 2015.

The interview is important as it gives us yet more connecting dots over the man who has not spoken much in public until his elevation to the Vice Presidency in December last year and is, at present, widely regarded as the odds-on favourite to succeed President Mugabe, who is in the sunset years of his political career.

Even this close lieutenant of his, said to be a smooth operator who gives little away, had a slip when he spoke of his boss in terms that hinted at the inevitability of his departure – “We shall miss him greatly,” said the normally guarded Mnangagwa, also known as Ngwena, The Crocodile.

Although designed to extol the unparalleled virtues of President Mugabe, Mnangagwa’s critics were quick to pounce on this and raise questions at the meaning and implications of the statement.

That’s rather premature, sniped Professor Jonathan Moyo, a Cabinet Minister but also said to belong to a rival faction that is not keen on a Mnangagwa Presidency. Moyo was responding to the “We shall miss him greatly” remark by Mnangwagwa, the underlying view being that the Vice President, also his boss, had spoken out of turn.

In Zanu PF, as in most organisations where the leader holds total power, speaking of or contemplating life after the leader’s departure is treated with suspicion; indeed, it is regarded as almost treasonous.

It is seen as a sign of disrespect; as indicative of an unhealthy ambition to replace the leader, who, so the thinking goes, must rule forever. Mnangagwa’s error, according to his critics, was to speak of missing Mugabe while he is still alive and in power.

The Mnangagwa–Moyo sideshow is not unimportant. It indicates yet against the simmering tensions within the ruling party, between factions that are vying to succeed President Mugabe when he eventually departs office.

It comes after Moyo was shifted to higher education from the information ministry, where he controlled the government’s propaganda machinery, and where his rivals feared he wielded too much power. The information structure is an important pillar of power, from which structural power is derived and Moyo had used it most effectively during his two tenures. This caused discomfort to his rivals.

Having lost the information ministry, Moyo nevertheless retained space in the media via social media. With hindsight, it seems his entrance into social media earlier this year was in contemplation of a departure from the information ministry.

It was important to retain his presence in the media, preferably a space that he could control, even without control of the state media.

And for better or worse, his social media presence did not go unnoticed – if anything, it gained him a new audience, both friendly and hostile across the borders, mostly in South Africa. Moyo liked to ruffle feathers on the other side of the Limpopo and on more than one occasion, he was the subject of ‘twars’, as wars on Twitter are called, with leading figures in South Africa, including former Governor of its central bank, Tito Mboweni.

But he also used it to challenge his Zanu PF colleagues, with some tweets seemingly being directed towards Mnangagwa and his supporters. The problem is not factionalism but ambitionism deriving from a sense of entitlement that it is one’s destiny to rule, he sniped in one of his tweets. It is not far-fetched that this was directed at Mnangagwa’s camp.

Mnangagwa and Foreign Media

As for Mnangagwa, a conspicuous feature of his interviews is that both have been conducted with foreign media houses, both of which may be regarded as friendly territory.

CCTV is a Chinese television network and New African magazine has always played on the Zanu PF team. Mnangagwa is choosing his spaces carefully, as he tries to build and project his profile internationally. In this regard he is selecting friendly territory.

Perhaps interviews with the likes of CNN and the BBC will come later as his handlers try to project the man who wants to be President to the Western markets but it is more likely a channel regarded as less hostile, like Al Jazeera, may get it first.

CCTV and New African were friendly and did not ask the difficult questions, which would inevitably be asked by Western media – including human rights issues and previous events like Gukurahundi. That would be a more difficult path to tread and perhaps the presidential aspirant is not yet prepared for that.

It is telling that state media has not given him an interview or that he has not accepted an interview with them, yet they have been happy enough to reproduce the New African interview. Why wouldn’t any of the state media houses have an interview with the man who is the odds-on favourite to succeed President Mugabe and rely instead on a transcript from an interview with a foreign paper?

The answer probably lies in the tight control of the state media and the fear of upsetting the balance of power. The person they normally accord space for such long interviews in the leadership is President Mugabe.

Interviewing Mnangagwa as CCTV and New African have done might be seen as too bold a step; indeed, as getting ahead of oneself. The likely criticism within the ruling party would be that he is trying to outshine the President; that he is taking the boss’ space.

The political dynamics in Zimbabwe are such that it is not just the opposition politicians who struggle to get positive space in the state media. Those in the ruling party are also stifled as they cannot use state media space without upsetting their boss or those who get angry on his behalf.

So perhaps, then it is not entirely out of choice that Mnangagwa has to rely on foreign media to project himself and his ideas, but that he is forced to do so because space in the otherwise friendly state media is not available.

It only becomes available in an indirect way, as in this recent case when the state media re-publishes interviews done with foreign media.

But what do we learn from and of Mnangagwa in this interview with New African? I have a number of quotes extracted from the interview which give us more hints on the man and the succession wars in Zanu PF. Here, I analyse the implications.

Succession and Rivals

Mnangagwa said:

“The current army commanders were very young at the time [of the liberation war], and I can guarantee you that there is nobody in the army who is of our generation. Those who are heading the military now were junior officers during the struggle because all their commanders have either died or retired”

I thought this was an interesting insight into Mnangagwa’s view of rivals in the succession race. A number of times, there have been suggestions that people like current Armed Forces Commander, General Constantine Chiwenga are also potential successors to President Mugabe.

But here Mnangwagwa is referring to them as “junior officers” during the struggle and excluding them from what he calls “our generation”, that is, the generation of the leaders of the liberation struggle.

The statement is almost dismissive of these juniors’ ambitions, and is a reminder that there is a distinct hierarchy in which those outside Mnangwagwa’s general, even those heading the military are junior. In other words, following that hierarchy, they must await their turn.

Revolutionary Ideology and the Hard-liner?

Mnangwagwa said,

“The “revolutionary correct line” also known as “the correct line of the revolution”. This correct line “is where we ought to go because there is a difference between “where we want to go” and “where we ought to go”. A leader must not take the people where they want to go, but where they ought to go, whether the people or the leaders want it or not, or whether it is hard or not.”

In this regard, Mnangagwa is speaking the language normally espoused by his boss Mugabe. It suggests a rigid approach to leadership and direction, where the leader knows everything and must direct the people, whether or not they like it.

In this style of leadership, it is not what the people want but what the leader thinks is best for the people. People don’t know what is good for them, only the leader does and he must persevere, even at their expense, because ultimately, it will be good for them. This seems to be the notion of the “revolutionary correct line” described by Mnangagwa.

Reflecting upon this, it’s hardly a democratic model by any stretch of imagination. It’s a system where the leader dictates. This is exactly how President Mugabe has led the country for the past 35 years and if this is truly how Mnangagwa sees the future, then Zimbabwe can prepare itself for more of the same.

The statement, which places the wishes of the leader above the aspirations of the people is a hard-line stance, which seems to conform to the image of the man as projected in the media – that he is a hard-man who insists on his way.

But on other occasions Mnangagwa has tried to portray himself differently. He is, after all, an astute businessman, who, despite the government’s apparent hostility towards whites and foreigners, has both prominent white and foreign business moguls as business associates and friends – men like Billy Rautenbach and John Bredenkamp.

Could it, therefore, be that these hard-line statements are deliberately designed to reassure his boss, President Mugabe, while masking his true intentions? After all, it would be politically suicidal for anyone, including Mnangagwa to articulate an ideology and vision that differs markedly from that espoused by their leader.

It is often said that Mugabe fears that his legacy will be betrayed by those who will come after him; that he has held on because he doesn’t trust even his closest lieutenants to carry forward his ideas. Could Mnangagwa be making these hard-line declarations, using Mugabe’s language of the “revolutionary correct line” in order to assuage his boss’ fears?

Could it be an effort to gain trust that he will not betray his boss’ vision; a message to his boss that he can trust him? It is not improbable and in this regard, one must be guarded when reading Mnangagwa’s hard-line states on the so-called “revolutionary correct line”.

Favourite for Presidency?

Mnangagwa said,

“Those inside ZPF know that being VP or being a member of the Politburo or Central Committee is not a stepping stone to becoming president. A President is elected at the party Congress”. He says a person walking to China from Harare would get there before a person reaches State House – the official residence of the President”.

I don’t think much is to be read from this denial. He is just repeating what he is expected to say as saying otherwise would be regarded as too boisterous and a sign of over-confidence and taking things for granted.

Mugabe himself has said there is no guaranteed successor so it would be impossible for Mnangagwa to declare himself odds-on favourite to succeed him.

Moyo has also previously insisted that being Vice President is no guarantee that one will succeed Mugabe. Grace Mugabe recently repeated a similar line. It would be unwise if Mnangagwa were to say anything different.

However, we are able to pick an important point regarding succession, which is that should there be a vacancy, Zanu PF’s choice of the next President will be by election via a Congress, probably an extra-ordinary Congress.

The Constitution of Zimbabwe says if the President dies or resigns, his position will be filled by a nominee of the ruling party but it does not say how the ruling party makes that choice. Here Mnangagwa is telling us that this choice would be made by election at Congress. It is therefore important that there is clarity into the method of voting, the eligibility of the voters and other aspects, in order to avoid problems.

The Cunning Crocodile

Mnangagwa said,

“You know the trait of a crocodile, don’t you? It never hunts outside water. It always goes into the water to catch its prey. It never goes in the villages or in the bush looking for food. It strikes at the appropriate time. So a good guerrilla leader strikes at the appropriate time. That’s the import of the nicknames we give each other.”

This was Mnangagwa responding to a question about the meaning of his nickname, Ngwena (the crocodile). The crocodile waits patiently in the water, he says, and waits for its prey. If that prey is the Presidency, Mnangagwa is prepared to wait, as he has done for so long.

He is not going to go out hunting for it, just like the crocodile, which does not go out into the villages or the bush, looking for prey. Rather, he waits and “strikes at the appropriate time”. This is Mnangagwa directing his message to his rivals: that he is prepared to wait and will strike when it is most appropriate.

Mnangagwa’s interview gave some interesting insights into the man – many of them subtle. You can’t read his answers and take them at face value. He is trying to say the right things to his boss and giving coded warnings to his rivals. But one thing for sure, which is captured in that vivid description of the crocodile and its habits, is that the crocodile is still waiting for the ultimate prey and will strike at the most appropriate opportunity.

This article was first published on www.alexmagaisa.com Follow on Twitter @wamagaisa  Contact at wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk

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