Can a crocodile change its teeth?

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After his disputed victory last week, Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa vowed that he wanted to turn his economically and socially-damaged country around. Well, all the early evidence is that he has already done so. But, unfortunately, the turnaround has been through all 360 degrees. Zimbabwe now looks to be facing exactly the same way and the same disasters as in the days of the fallen leader Robert Mugabe.

Mnangagwa, the candidate of Zanu-PF, which under Mugabe has ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1980, called for unity. But in the face of widespread protests by supporters of his defeated rival Nelson Chamisa, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, who had said the election had been rigged and was a “coup against the people’s will”, the brutal reaction of the police and army in which six people were killed suggests that unity has never been so far away.

Last Friday, armed groups began a series of raids in and around the capital Harare, which is an MDC stronghold. It is unclear if the gangs were Zanu-PF thugs or police and army in civilian clothes. There is certainly no evidence that police or security forces sought to intervene as the raiders abducted, raped and beat up opposition supporters.

There is, however, no doubt that it was the authorities who raided the MDC headquarters just as Chamisa was about to give a press conference and forced waiting journalists from the building.

Yet despite what seems to be a continuation of the long dark days of Mugabe’s dubious rule, there have been two surprising rays of hope. The first was an apology from Mnangagwa for the brutal behavior of the police, saying it had “no place in our society”. That statement was the more surprising coming from a former right-hand of the dictatorial former president. Mnangagwa, whose nickname is “the crocodile”, publicly masterminded attacks on opposition supporters during the 2008 election, which was internationally condemned as rigged. Such tactics clearly did then “have a place” in Zimbabwean society. The question that must be asked is if a leopard can never change its spots, can a crocodile really change its teeth?

The second surprise was that Mnangagwa announced that his rival had a role to play in the country’s future. It is not yet clear if he meant that Chamisa’s part would be as leader of the opposition in parliament or whether he was reaching out to his rival suggesting that he join in a national unity government.

In a country as deeply polarized as Zimbabwe, a unity government makes a lot of sense. But Chamisa and his fellow MDC politicians are likely to be chary of such a proposal. Mnangagwa ousted his old boss Mugabe with the backing of the army and the Zanu-PF establishment which have enriched themselves through their long control of the levers of power. Even if Mnangagwa himself did not authorize the post-election attacks on the opposition, some of his powerful political backers almost certainly did. The new president’s protests of good faith will easily be judged by the vigor with which he keeps his promise to track down and punish the police and army personnel guilty of shooting down opposition demonstrators, to say nothing of arresting the thugs that the authorities allowed to roam free in Harare.


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