by an anonymous writer

A nonagenarian Marxist-Leninist and nominal Catholic, Robert Mugabe, one of Africa’s longest-serving authoritarian rulers, began his political life as a liberator. Thirty-seven years later, after decades of repression and disastrous policies he exits the scene leaving behind a state in ruin. For Zimbabwe, however, his departure hardly opens a new era: despite an abrupt change in leadership, political power remains firmly in the hands of those who sustained Mr. Mugabe’s long reign: the military and the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, a liberation war (1964-1979) veteran and ZANU-PF insider who was, until recently, Mr. Mugabe’s right-hand man, will be the country’s next president and is very likely to retain that position after elections planned for 2018. More than a new beginning, the recent sequence of events seems to illustrate how much truth there can be to the old cynical quip that for things to remain the same, everything must change.

After Zimbabwe won independence in 1980, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere reportedly told Mr. Mugabe that he had inherited “a jewel in Africa,” and should not “tarnish it.” But President Mugabe did.

In 2000, faced with mounting internal opposition, he began implementing a series of disastrous policies – including the so-called Fast Track Land Reform and an “indigenization” campaign – which stripped white farmers of their land without compensation, leading to the country’s isolation, economic collapse, food shortages and a massive exodus of the population. An estimated four million Zimbabweans have left their homeland permanently (the country’s entire population was 14.4 million in 2017). Over recent years, as Mr. Mugabe grew older and less popular, the issue of his succession became the consuming question for Zimbabwe’s future.

Party factions

As street protests against the regime escalated, the quiet struggle for succession created deep divisions among the ZANU-PF factions. The “G40” faction was led by the first lady, 52-year-old Grace Mugabe, and consisted of younger politicians such as Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, Patrick Zhuwao, Mr. Mugabe’s nephew and minister of labor and social welfare, and Jonathan Moyo, a higher education minister. Although this group contested the relevance of liberation credentials nearly four decades after the older generation’s armed struggle, this faction – popular among the party’s younger activists and backed by the state police – politically represented a hard line, defending land expropriations, indigenization policies and hostility towards the West. The 2014 expulsion on charges of disloyalty of vice president and war veteran Joyce Mujuru from the ruling ZANU-PF marked the start of the political rise of Grace Mugabe. Eventually, President Mugabe’s wife became one of his two possible successors. The second faction, known as “Team Lacoste” (after the French garment label), was led by Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Senior party members who had fought in the liberation war and had close links with the military belonged to that group.

The dismissal of Vice President Mnangagwa on November 6, 2017 (for alleged disloyalty and deceit), was a clear sign that Mr. Mugabe favored his wife in the succession race, to initiate a dynasty in power that would guarantee his family members’ safety and interests.

However, the president miscalculated: the move has cost him the support of two pillars that had sustained his personal rule throughout multiple crises before: the military and the ZANU-PF inner circle. The military refused to accept a leadership that looked down at their liberation credentials, while the dominant figures within the ZANU-PF did not trust Grace Mugabe and her G40 team. The deposed Mr. Mnangagwa was the link between these two pillars.

‘Not a coup’

The process that led to President Mugabe’s “voluntary” resignation was a complex plot put together by the veterans of the ZANU-PF dominant factions and implemented by the military with implicit support from the opposition. General Constantino Chiwenga, the commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces executed what looked like a classic coup d’etat in mid-November.

Throughout that operation – which included the president’s detention and the arrest of several key members of the G40 faction – the military insisted that whatever was going on, it was not a coup. There were good reasons for the commanders to toe that line.

First and foremost, international organizations and governments involved in Zimbabwe, particularly the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the United States, all adhere to a zero-tolerance policy regarding coups. Calling the operation of removing a sitting president what it was would not only raise questions about the legitimacy of the successor regime. It would also mean financial assistance to Zimbabwe drying up, at least in the near future.

Secondly, the idea of military rule has become widely unacceptable for a majority of Zimbabweans; if anything, citizens have been demanding more freedom and political rights. And finally, despite his fall, Robert Mugabe remains a living symbol of liberation from colonial rule for many Africans, Zimbabweans included.

Interestingly, the code name chosen by the military for the president’s removal was “Operation Restore Legacy.” This choice suggests not the beginning of a new era, but a continuity – as liberation war credentials remain determinant factors of political legitimacy and power in Zimbabwe.

According to his last speech, President Mugabe’s resignation was “voluntary,” but the ruling party’s decision to pursue his impeachment (in the case Mr. Mugabe did not step down) was unanimous. The opposition party MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, also agreed to support the impeachment process.

In a last-minute move, as it turned out, Robert Mugabe decided to exit the scene, but only after negotiating with the military the terms of his departure. The deal guarantees the former president and his family immunity from prosecution, safety of their assets plus a life annuity for the former leader. Several media sources in and outside Zimbabwe claim that, on top of these, Mr. Mugabe received a “golden handshake” worth $10 million.

However, besides the president’s resignation, the military and the ZANU-PF sought something else. They needed to secure the appointment of Mr. Mnangagwa, who quickly had been exonerated of his alleged transgression. Otherwise, the post would be assumed by Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko, a close ally of Grace Mugabe. When the vice president was out of the country, the ZANU-PF political committee appointed Mr. Mnangagwa to succeed Robert Mugabe until the next elections in 2018.

Power reconfiguration

The resignation of President Mugabe is a good outcome for Gen. Chiwenga, the prevailing faction within the ZANU-PF and a great many Zimbabweans, both in the country and in the diaspora. However, for the military and the ruling party, it is also vital to guarantee that the ZANU-PF retains its political clout and the presidency. This goal is not shared by the opposition and by a significant part of Zimbabwe’s civil society.

For the past few decades, war veterans in Zimbabwe had both the military strength and the political legitimacy required to sustain power. The National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) has played a vital role in Zimbabwe’s politics since the 1990s. Among its ranks, the ZNLWVA had members of Shona and Ndebele ethnic groups, which guaranteed it the ability to mobilize large groups in both rural and urban areas. In 2000, during the implementation of land seizures and in 2008, when the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) threatened Mr. Mugabe’s position, the military – particularly the Joint Operations Command – played a decisive role in shoring up his power.

The ZANU-PF party, although weakened by the dictator’s disastrous rule, by corruption scandals and its internal fractures, appears to have been invigorated by recent events. It will likely come together behind Mr. Mnangagwa, presenting itself again as a liberation party.

As the demographic and political weight of the so-called “born free” (born after 1980) generation is increasing in Zimbabwe (and in other countries dominated by liberation parties and ideology, especially in South Africa and Angola), war credentials inevitably become less and less relevant in legitimizing power. Zimbabwe’s elite needed to end the rule of its supreme liberator to retain the dominant position of its base, the ZANU-PF, in the new era.

The anointed new leader has boasted that the country was witnessing a “new and unfolding democracy,” yet serious doubts remain as to whether we are witnessing a transition from autocracy or a mere reconfiguration of power.

The ‘crocodile’

Emmerson Mnangagwa, also known as “the crocodile” for his political cunning and longevity, has been an important figure, although often behind the scenes, in post-independence Zimbabwe. His liberation credentials are impeccable. As a teenager, he joined the bush war against Ian Smith’s white regime of what was then Rhodesia. He went through training in Egypt and China in 1963. Arrested, he spent 10 years in prison, where he met Robert Mugabe. Later he became his assistant. In independent Zimbabwe, he was the minister of state security and chief of the Central Intelligence Organization during the infamous Gukurahundi massacres – carried out by the Zimbabwe army