Will Zimbabwe's new leader bring change?

  • Former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa is to take office on Friday
  • The transition follows a week of military takeover and president Robert Mugabe's resignation Tuesday
  • Amid celebration, many caution Mnangagwe's longtime support of a brutal regime
Zimbabweans drink, sing, and dance as they celebrate at night at an intersection in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. Mugabe resigned as president with immediate effect Tuesday after 37 years in power, shortly after parliament began impeachment proceedings against him.
Belal Khaled | NurPhoto
Zimbabweans drink, sing, and dance as they celebrate at night at an intersection in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. Mugabe resigned as president with immediate effect Tuesday after 37 years in power, shortly after parliament began impeachment proceedings against him.

Zimbabwe's former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, will be sworn in as the country's interim president on Friday.

Mnangagwa, 75, is scheduled to return to the capital Harare on Wednesday after a brief exile in South Africa.

Amid euphoric celebrations over longtime President Robert Mugabe's resignation Tuesday, many are questioning whether the strongman's successor — a longtime Mugabe ally — will actually bring about much-needed change.

"Never should the nation be held at ransom by one person ever again, whose desire is to die in office whatever the cost of the nation," Mnangagwa said in a statement Tuesday, hours before Mugabe's resignation announcement.

Mnangagwa's swearing-in will be the second time the nation will have a new president since its independence from British rule in 1980, when Mugabe took power as prime minister. Mugabe became president in 1987, after Zimbabwe's first post-independence president, Canaan Banana, relinquished the post to him.

The 93-year-old's resignation followed a roller-coaster week that saw Zimbabwe's military take over the government and hold him under house arrest. Mugabe's 37-year rule was marked by corruption and violent oppression of dissent.

'The Crocodile'

Nicknamed "The Crocodile" for his political acumen, Mnangagwa's loyalty to Mugabe long preceded his appointment as vice president in 2014. The two have been comrades for more than three decades, with Mugabe making him the country's first minister of national security in 1980.

A leading guerrilla fighter during Zimbabwe's War of Liberation in the 1970s, Mnanagwa's powerful hand in government following independence saw him rise to top spymaster of the country's Central Intelligence Organization. In the 1980s, he oversaw the Gukurahundi massacres, a civil conflict during which thousands of Zimbabweans from the ethnic Ndele group were killed. Still feared by many and largely believed to be responsible, he has denied any responsibility.

Veterans of the liberation war have long dominated Zimbabwean politics. Mnangagwa's leadership of the Joint Operations Command kept him in good stead with the country's security forces, whose support paved the way for his impending accession to the presidency.

A note of caution

"The coup is unlikely to bring about a new democratic era. There are significant uncertainties over, for instance, a transitional government and a timeframe for elections," Alisha Patel, Africa analyst at AKE, told CNBC on Friday.

"Before talk of IMF funding and a resumption of ties with Western donors can even begin, the victors of this coup will need to restore the constitutional order. On top of this, they face a divided party, an economic crisis, and a political context which has stifled, rather than encouraged, democracy."

A man takes part in a demonstration demanding the resignation of Zimbabwe's president with a sign featuring deputy president Emmerson Mnangagwa in the windshield of his car on November 18, 2017 in Harare.
AFP | Getty Images
A man takes part in a demonstration demanding the resignation of Zimbabwe's president with a sign featuring deputy president Emmerson Mnangagwa in the windshield of his car on November 18, 2017 in Harare.

Others are more optimistic. Analysts have suggested major economic growth potential for the southern African nation of 16 million following years of damaging economic mismanagement and international sanctions. Zimbabwe is one of the world's top producers of platinum and lithium, among other highly valued extractives. Currently, poverty exceeds 70 percent and Zimbabwe ranked 154 out of 176 nations in Transparency International's 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.

"Mnangagwa's apparent support for pro-business reforms are cause for cautious optimism after decades of mismanagement under Mugabe," said Ryan Turner, analyst at Protection Group International.

'People are hopeful'

"People are hopeful. Much of the resentment is because of the economic difficulties that have been left to fester," Jean Devlin, partner at Control Risks, told CNBC on Tuesday.

"It's unrealistic to expect you'd get anyone who hasn't been a significant political influencer in the last 20 years coming in as leader," Devlin said. "There certainly is a strong element of continuity (with Mnangagwa), but we can't underestimate the fact that anyone who's going to come in is a different character and will be able to exercise leadership in a different way."

A man buys a newspaper at a stand on a street corner in Harare on November 22, 2017, the day after the resignation of President Robert Mugabe who ruled for 37 years last night.
TONY KARUMBA | AFP
A man buys a newspaper at a stand on a street corner in Harare on November 22, 2017, the day after the resignation of President Robert Mugabe who ruled for 37 years last night.

Mnangagwa was sacked in early November after losing a power struggle for succession to Mugabe's wife Grace, who is widely reviled in the country. His firing is believed to have been the catalyst for the military's intervention. On Sunday, prior to the resignation announcement, Mugabe's own leading ZANU-PF party sacked him as party chief and gave him an ultimatum to leave voluntarily or face impeachment.

China's influence in the country remains significant, with Beijing having provided it with billions of dollars in loans and investments since its economic isolation from the West. Some observers suspecting China's leadership had prior knowledge of the coup. A Chinese government statement said the country's policy toward Zimbabwe would "not change" in light of the political transition.

The incoming leader's China connection goes back decades. In the 1960s, Mnangagwa and his fellow liberation fighters underwent several months of combat training, supported by the Chinese Communist Party, in Beijing and Nanjing.

Correction: This story was revised to correct that Mugabe was Zimbabwe's second president.