Is the Crocodile a fresh start for Zimbabwe, or a new Robert Mugabe?

Friday, 24 November 2017, 05:57:39 PM. Mnangagwa has pledged to create a new democracy, but doubts remain about a man who propped up Mugabe’s regime for over 30 years.

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It’s a historic day in Zimbabwe.

The country is about to get its first new leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in almost four decades after a whirlwind 10 days in which Zimbabwe’s military temporarily took power and Robert Mugabe finally resigned after enormous public and international pressure.

But while many in Zimbabwe are excited at the prospect of the first new president in a generation, there are fears as to whether the new man in charge— known as the Crocodile to his supporters —will represent real change or just more of the same with a different face.

Mnangagwa, who is in his 70s, has promised a new era of freedom in his country. “Today we are witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy,” said Mnangagwa in his first speech upon returning to Zimbabwe on Wednesday.

Mnangagwa—who served as Mugabe’s deputy from 2014 until he was fired earlier in November—has pledged to bring jobs to Zimbabwe, where high unemployment has ravaged the economy, and restore the country’s standing in the international community.

He is due to be sworn in on Friday at around 11:30 a.m. local time at the 60,000-seat National Sports Stadium in Harare in what is expected to be a packed event. Mnangagwa will then address the public at around 12:00 p.m. local time.

It’s not clear how long Mnangagwa will hold office for: Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold elections in summer 2018, in which Mugabe was slated to run as the ruling ZANU-PF party’s candidate. ZANU-PF has said that Mnangagwa will serve as interim president until the elections are held by September 2018.

Read more: How Robert Mugabe fell from a national hero to an economic tyrant in Zimbabwe

But while Mnangagwa has portrayed himself as the symbol of a new Zimbabwe, he has long used brutal tactics to prop up Mugabe’s authoritarian regime.

Both Mnangagwa and the 93-year-old Mugabe participated in Zimbabwe’s liberation war, which resulted in independence in 1980. Since that time, Mnangagwa was a fixture in Mugabe’s government and held a range of top military and political positions.

1121_Mnangagwa Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe looks on as his then-deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa reads a card during Mugabe's 93rd birthday celebrations in Harare, Zimbabwe, on February 21. Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

These included being the minister for state security in the 1980s, when Mugabe ordered a series of ethnic massacres against the Ndebele people in Matabeleland. The massacres, known as Gukurahundi, were carried out by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of Zimbabwe’s military and resulted in some 20,000 deaths.

Mnangagwa has always denied any involvement in the massacres, which Mugabe has previously described as a “moment of madness.” But the president-to-be is coming under pressure to formally address his role in Gukurahundi from lobby groups, while others have cast doubt on whether Mnangagwa has really reformed from Mugabe’s underling to an arbiter of democracy.

Besides attempting to legitimize his rule, Mnangagwa’s greatest challenge will be to stop the rot in Zimbabwe’s failing economy.

Zimbabwe became an economic basket case under Mugabe’s rule. Since Mugabe’s controversial land reforms in 2000—which saw white farmers violently dispossessed of their land —Zimbabwe’s economy has been crippled by economic sanctions, while those who took possession of the farms often did not know how to run them, leading to a crash in productivity.

Zimbabwe bond notes protest People burn worthless note bearers' checks during a protest against the introduction of new bond notes and youth unemployment, Harare, Zimbabwe, August, 3, 2016. Zimbabwe's economy is on the rocks, with unemployment high and foreign exchange reserves low. WILFRED KAJESE/AFP/Getty

Mnangagwa reportedly has a good reputation among the country’s business sector and may be expected to repeal indigenization laws—controversial rules introduced by Mugabe that require all companies to be 51 percent-owned by indigenous, or black, Zimbabweans.

He will also face the challenge of attracting the millions of Zimbabweans living abroad in the diaspora. “All patriotic Zimbabweans [should] come together, work together,” said Mnangagwa in his Wednesday speech.

There have been some worrying signs, however, that Mnangagwa may be willing to use the same tactics used by his predecessor to silence opposition. Reports have emerged of the Zimbabwe military targeting ZANU-PF members who were loyal to Grace Mugabe—the former president’s wife seen as Mnangagwa’s main rival to succeed Mugabe.

During its takeover, the military pledged to arrest “criminals” around Mugabe. But rights groups have said that detainees must be dealt with by the appropriate authorities. “Failing to disclose the whereabouts of those detained is an enforced disappearance that places detainees at greater risk of abuse,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

For many in Zimbabwe, any change is a good after 37 years of Mugabe. But for others, doubts remain about the Crocodile: “There is a very real possibility that this could be just a consolidation of more of the same with a different face,” Doug Coltart, a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe, told Newsweek last week following the military takeover.

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