In Zimbabwe, former president Robert Mugabe has died, but the institutional legacies that helped shape his long and repressive regime live on. In 2019, the economic crisis under President Emmerson Mnangagwa — created by a mix of drought and bad monetary policies — has led to mass unrest and new signs of repression.
A wave of protests that began after a massive increase in fuel prices in January continued throughout the year. The government response has grown increasingly violent, with reports that security forces were beating and detaining protesters. In August, the crackdown escalated with the arrest of members of the Rural Teachers Union who were campaigning for wage increases.
The stakes are high for Mnangagwa, who promised voters he would reboot Zimbabwe’s economy. Here’s the problem: The continuing repression under Mnangagwa has prevented the post-Mugabe regime from accessing foreign credit, or ending U.S., United Kingdom and European Union trade sanctions for human rights violations.
Mnangagwa, like Mugabe, relies on special powers
Mnangagwa won the 2018 elections amid accusations of inequitable treatment of opposition parties — and concerns about retribution against voters. Many analysts believe popular support for the regime depends on its ability to restart economic growth, which is contingent on the international community, including the United States, lifting sanctions that prevent economic recovery. Given the high stakes, why is Mnangagwa turning to violent repression to maintain power?
In my recently published book, I examine late-colonial India, revolutionary Mexico and white-minority ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to find popular rebellions result in governments by elites, who use existing and new laws and institutions to re-marginalize the population. Unpopular Zimbabwean leaders such as Mugabe and now Mnangagwa have retained power by extending laws and reintroducing security institutions from the era of white minority rule, when Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia.
Mnangagwa’s special powers first became apparent with the hasty reintroduction of the Zimbabwean dollar to replace the basket of currencies in use for a decade, a move he made without consulting the parliament. He relied on the Mugabe-era Presidential Powers Act of 1986, which empowers the president to create regulations and take actions as they may deem appropriate during periods of national emergencies, consequently implying the suspension of scrutiny by the legislature and judiciary. The president’s discretionary power in turn comes from Rhodesia’s Emergency Powers Regulations of 1966. In August, the Mnangagwa regime thwarted a legal challenge by the opposition to have this law declared unconstitutional.
Mnangagwa also introduced the Maintenance of Peace and Order Bill to parliament, which passed the bill in August. The regime claims the new law limits the government’s ability to repress opposition, but commentators tend to view this measure as nuanced extension of the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) of 2002.
The Mugabe regime introduced POSA to crush the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, headed by Morgan Tsvangirai. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum views POSA as a continuation of the Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA) of 1960, a colonial-era law that let the government restrict political activities such as public meetings, arrest agitators and those insulting the government and law enforcement authorities without warrants, ban publications deemed seditious, and restrict access of people to designated areas.
The security regime also has deep roots
There are parallel legacies within Zimbabwe’s security forces. As Mugabe’s vice president, Mnangagwa headed the Joint Operations Command (JOC), from 2014 to 2017. The JOC, in turn, controls the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, which is an iteration of a Rhodesia-era institution incorporating all defense, police and intelligence agencies.
In colonial Rhodesia, the JOC coordinated the repression of black African insurgents. The Mugabe regime reestablished the JOC in 1997-1998 with a different mission: to develop and implement tactics in 2000, 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2013 to manufacture electoral majorities for the ruling ZANU-PF party. These tactics included intimidating voters, producing pro-regime votes, managing intelligence on Election Day and controlling official reporting of results. During this period, senior officers also gained control of lucrative businesses in Zimbabwe’s mining sector, a practice Mnangagwa allowed to continue.
Zimbabwe’s army also continued its role as a political power broker. When Mugabe was ousted in a 2017 coup, Gen. Constantino Chiwenga refused to take power himself and guaranteed Mugabe’s safety. This move followed a precedent Gen. Peter Walls of the Rhodesian security forces established in 1979-1980. Walls sidelined civilian leaders including Ian Smith and Abel Muzorewa by dealing directly with the British government during the transition to majority rule. Walls also allegedly suppressed a white officer-led coup against the new black majority rule regime.
The Central Intelligence Organization, another legacy institution from Rhodesia, coordinates domestic and foreign intelligence. Mnangagwa has ties to the organization — he headed its operations as minister of state for national security during the Gukurahundi massacres of the Ndebele ethnic minority in the 1980s. And the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the successor to the paramilitary British South Africa Police, also remains intact. Reportedly, this force beat and detained protesters in August.
What do these legacies mean for Zimbabwe’s transition to democracy?
At the time, both the United Kingdom and United States viewed the British-mediated 1979 Lancaster House Agreement as a peaceful transition to majority rule, which assured Zimbabwe a prosperous economy and made it a Western ally. But critics argued the agreement left intact white minority ownership of the most fertile and irrigated agricultural lands in Zimbabwe. The contradiction between majority rule and continued economic deprivation increasingly threatened the post-colonial regime, and it resolved this problem through repression.
Forty years later, it’s these continuities in extrajudicial powers of the president and security institutions that explain why Zimbabwe’s post-colonial leaders have the opportunity and legal protection to violently repress political opposition — whether under Mugabe or Mnangagwa.
Vasabjit Banerjee (@vasabjit_b) is an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University and author of Undoing the Revolution: Comparing Elite Subversion of Peasant Rebellions (Temple University Press, spring 2019).