MUTARE, Zimbabwe—Three years after a military coup that toppled Zimbabwe’s long-time dictator Robert Mugabe, many people in the country have come to a conclusion they can scarcely believe: they regret replacing the old despot.
Though many people in Zimbabwe are glad Mugabe was ousted before he died last year, they have deep regrets about Emmerson Mnangagwa. His ascent to power was greeted in 2017 with jubilant street parties in Harare and promises from the new leader that: “We are witnessing the beginning of a new unfolding democracy.”
As the economy and human rights in the country continue to nosedive, Mnangagwa has proven to be ruthless and corrupt.
“Mnangagwa is worse than Mugabe,” said Lovemore Muradzikwa, a Zimbabwean pro-democracy and human rights activist.
In recent months, scores of people have been arrested, some brutalised or killed as Mnangagwa’s regime mounts an unprecedented clampdown on pro-democracy campaigners, opposition political party members, journalists, and ordinary citizens daring to voice disquiet over rising corruption, the failing economy and a human rights crisis.
In 2018, six people were brutally killed when soldiers opened fire on opposition supporters who were protesting against attempts by the ruling ZANU-PF party to steal a tightly contested general election. And last year, 17 more people were killed when soldiers openly fired shots at citizens protesting over massive fuel price hikes.
Western countries that had warmed to Mnangangwa’s leadership after the November 2017 coup are backing down and expressing frustration over his deteriorating human rights record.
“I can say the only mistake we made was to accept a coup. We never thought Mugabe will be replaced by Mnangagwa,” Muradzikwa told The Daily Beast. “We wanted [the ruling party] ZANU-PF to go as a whole system, not Mugabe alone,”
Muradzikwa said many people in the country thought a transitional arrangement was going to be formed after Mugabe’s unceremonious exit.
“But ZANU-PF and the army disregarded the will of the people. We are in this mess because of the military,” he said.
The removal of Mugabe from power by the army showed how deeply the security forces are embedded in the country’s domestic politics, and the military has only solidified its dominance within the ruling party under Mnangagwa. There are already fears within ZANU-PF that the army could remove Mnangagwa amid reports that the military is no longer satisfied with his performance.
Nicholas Mukundidza, a resident of Mutare district, eastern Zimbabwe, said after more than three decades of Mugabe’s iron fist many people thought the coup was a reprieve from oppression but the new regime has proved to be a nightmare.
“We have thrown ourselves deep into a crisis by supporting a clueless person as an alternative; the country has completely collapsed. The only success [Mnangagwa] has achieved is promoting corruption, increase in human rights violations, massive self and family enrichment which we never experienced under Mugabe,” Mukundidza told The Daily Beast.
Mnangagwa’s administration is struggling under a collapsing economy: national debt is ballooning; the agricultural sector, which was once thriving, is on its knees; teachers, nurses and doctors are constantly on strike over salaries. Corruption is also rampant in all sectors of the economy, particularly gold and diamond mining, the oil industry, and government tenders. The country is reportedly losing billions of dollars a year through the pilfering of gold and diamonds by companies or individuals linked to senior politicians and government officials. At the same time, business people with strong connections to senior politicians and government officials have control of the country’s lucrative oil sector.
Mukundidza said Mugabe got all the blame as the leader of ZANU-PF and head of the government but he was sitting on a destructive system over which he did not have much direct control by the end of his decades in power. Many senior members in his party had become involved in corrupt schemes.
“Out of suffering and desperation for another leader other than Mugabe, we blindly supported his removal. It’s like someone who has been confined to darkness over a long period of time; when you get exposed to a ray of light you celebrate for finally seeing the light, which turns out to be a small light from a melting candle and does not last long before darkness comes back again,” he said.
While Mnangagwa has maintained that he will contest the next presidential election in 2023, some experts believe he might be pushed out of power before then as public resentment continues to grow. There have been reports of plots to remove Mnangagwa through a vote of no confidence within his party or another military assisted intervention.
David Panganai, a spokesman for the MDC Alliance opposition party, told The Daily Beast that Mugabe had not been a better leader, but life under Mnangagwa had become worse.
“Under Mugabe, people were disappeared and tortured; human rights were never respected, and nothing has changed, if anything, it’s worse. The populace is now living in extreme fear from those who are supposed to defend and protect them; the economy has taken a serious knock since the coup,” Panganai said.
He said many Zimbabweans had given Mnangagwa the benefit of doubt when he spoke of his intention to fight corruption, which has been one of the major sources of the country’s economic decay, but instead corruption is getting worse.
The leader of the MDC Alliance has vowed to block the 2023 general elections if Mnangagwa has not implemented necessary political and electoral reforms for a free and fair election. At the same time, Mnangagwa is reportedly courting minor political parties to try to form a coalition government and forego the 2023 election. It is alleged that the coalition and the ongoing “Political Actors Dialogue” is meant to hoodwink the international community into believing that there are political reforms underway in Zimbabwe.
“While Mugabe had overstayed his welcome, the truth is there was, and there still is, no one from his party, Mnangagwa included, who has any clue on how to resolve the crises which are affecting the country,” Panganai said.
“Zimbabweans are their own liberators; we need reforms and to freely choose our own visionary leaders without blood on their hands.”