Most Western and African leaders – as well as most Zimbabweans – believed it was high time for Robert Mugabe to go when he relinquished the presidency of Zimbabwe last November. But his legacy of authoritarian misrule will be difficult to expunge. Like Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, his successor and long-standing political ally, appears determined to utilise the army to ensure the victory of the ruling Zimbabwean African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) party in elections scheduled for August 2018.

On the evening of 14 November 2017, tanks rolled into downtown Harare, starting a process that would bring Robert Mugabe’s 37-year-long rule of Zimbabwe to an end. The 94-year-old former revolutionary guerrilla leader had been considered the ‘father of the nation’, and probably will continue to be so regarded. The Zimbabwe Defence Forces, led by General Constantino Chiwenga, took over the national broadcasting house and announced that Mugabe and his controversial wife Grace, who had sought to succeed him, had been placed under house arrest. After days of tense negotiations, including a televised address to the nation in which Mugabe refused to even mention stepping down, the president formally relinquished control of government on 21 November. Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of Mugabe’s long-standing political allies and a senior figure in the ruling Zimbabwean African National Union–Patriotic Front (Zanu–PF) party, was sworn into office, declaring that the country was ‘witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy’.

While images of jubilant Zimbabweans were beamed around the world, at this stage there is little reason to believe that Mugabe’s political demise will constitute a clean break with the past. Once a stable democracy bolstered by a mixed economy, foreign capital and a reasonably skilled work force, the catastrophic economic crisis induced by Mugabe and Zanu–PF effectively transformed Zimbabwe into an impoverished kleptocracy. The new government seemed intent on demonstrating to the international community that it was leaving the Mugabe era behind, promising to hold national elections later this year. But maintaining the profitable collusion between ruling party elites and the army was, for many observers, the core motivation for the so-called ‘coup’. Signalling continuity, Mnangagwa’s first acts in public office were to place senior military commanders in key cabinet positions and to launch a vituperative campaign aimed at purging political rivals.

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Zimbabwe after Mugabe

Robert Mugabe’s legacy of authoritarian misrule will be difficult to expunge. President Emmerson Mnangagwa appears determined to utilise the army to ensure party victory in forthcoming elections.