Mr. Mnangagwa raised hopes when he took power last November after Mr. Mugabe, 94, was removed from power, having ruled since Zimbabwe won independence from British colonial rule in 1980. Mr. Mugabe distributed the spoils of power to his friends and governed with an iron fist, but upon his departure, Mr. Mnangagwa unleashed a period of loosening up and more freedoms. He removed bribe-taking police on the roads, allowed free expression of political views and promised to break with the Mugabe methods of corruption and repression. Hopes rose that if a new Zimbabwe did appear, the United States would lift sanctions and open the door to desperately needed help from the International Monetary Fund.
The election to succeed Mr. Mugabe was also different: There were certainly flaws, but candidates “were generally free to campaign across the country without the widespread violence and harassment of the past,” a group of U.S. election observers reported. There were no large-scale confrontations, although the observers noted attempts to tip the balance by using state resources to help Mr. Mnangagwa, 75, of the ruling ZANU-PF party, defeat opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, 40, of the Movement for Democratic Change.
But things really went off the rails after the July 30 vote, when the results were delayed and protest demonstrations broke out. Mr. Mnangagwa, who had served as Mr. Mugabe’s security chief, should have shown restraint, but instead security forces cracked down on the protests, killing six people and wounding hundreds. Mr. Chamisa disputed the vote results, describing them as “fraudulent, illegal and illegitimate.” He claimed he had won 56 percent of the vote and took his challenge to the constitutional court, which rejected it Aug. 24 and affirmed the official results that Mr. Mnangagwa won by 50.8 percent to Mr. Chamisa’s 44.3 percent.
Mr. Chamisa put it best. According to NPR
, he lamented the day before Mr. Mnangagwa’s swearing-in: “There is freedom of expression, but there is no freedom after expression. There is freedom to vote, but there is no freedom after a vote. In the rural areas, people’s houses get burned, destroyed, on account of expressing themselves. It’s un-African, it is undemocratic, it is unacceptable. And this is the issue we must be able to resolve, because five years from now, 20 years from now, we will still have a vicious circle of disputed elections.”
These are the real stakes: whether Zimbabwe can cast off the burdensome legacy of Mr. Mugabe’s 37 years at the helm. Systemic change is extremely difficult. But without it, the country will remain mired in economic and political misery.