HARARE (Reuters) - His wife is a beauty queen, his troops unseated Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, and his motorcade is fit for a president. General Constantino Chiwenga, head of the armed forces until earlier this month, is on a roll.
On Dec. 15 his 10-vehicle convoy, complete with soldiers toting AK-47 assault rifles, roared into a congress of the ruling ZANU-PF party. It was one of several displays of power by Zimbabwe’s generals since they helped oust Mugabe, the southern African nation’s ruler of 37 years, on Nov. 21.
Ostensibly Chiwenga, 61, is subordinate to the veteran politician who replaced Mugabe as president: Emmerson Mnangagwa, nicknamed the Crocodile. Mnangagwa, 75, was sworn in on Nov. 24 and promised to hold elections in 2018.
But since Mugabe was deposed and Mnangagwa installed, moves by senior military men have suggested the president is the junior partner in an army-dominated administration. Following a month of speculation about his role in Mnangagwa’s government, Chiwenga was named vice president on Dec. 23. He was also appointed defence minister on Dec. 29, so retaining control of the military.
That perception of Mnangagwa’s disempowerment is buttressed by reports seen by Reuters from inside Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). “The generals have tasted power and they are not willing to let it go,” reads one intelligence report, dated Nov. 29. “They want to enjoy the fruits of removing Mugabe from power.”
Another report, from Nov. 22, described the backroom negotiations to form a post-Mugabe government. “Chiwenga is the one going to have final say as power is in his hands. He is now the most feared man in government and party as well as the whole country,” it said.
The documents reviewed by Reuters are the latest instalments in a series of hundreds of intelligence reports the news agency has seen from inside the CIO dating back to 2009. Reuters has not been able to determine their intended audience, but the documents cover every aspect of Zimbabwean political life over the last eight years - Mugabe, the top echelons of his ZANU-PF party, the military, opposition parties and the white business community.
In the dying days of Mugabe’s regime, the CIO – the principal organ of Mugabe’s police state – split into two factions. One served the interests of Mnangagwa, the other those of his main political rival, Grace Mugabe, the president’s 52-year-old wife, according to several Zimbabwean intelligence sources.
Much of the content of the CIO reports has turned out to be correct, including an intelligence finding reported by Reuters in September that the army was backing then vice-president Mnangagwa to take over from Mugabe.
Army spokesman Overson Mugwisi did not respond to requests for comment on behalf of Chiwenga. However, a senior general appointed to Mnangagwa’s post-Mugabe cabinet, Air Force chief Perrance Shiri, said there was nothing wrong in having military men in government.
“Who says military people should never be politicians?” he told reporters at a lunch to celebrate the cabinet’s inauguration on Dec. 4. “I am a Zimbabwean. I’ve got every right to participate in the country’s politics.”
Mnangagwa did not reply to an interview request for this article and his spokesman, George Charamba, did not respond to a request for comment. Mnangagwa’s lawyer, Edwin Manikai, said the president wanted to “work with anybody who adds value to the economy,” in line with the new leader’s stated desire to halt Zimbabwe’s precipitous economic decline under Mugabe.
Mugabe’s removal started with soldiers entering Harare on Nov. 14 and announcing in the early hours of Nov. 15 that they had taken control. Military vehicles took to the streets and gunfire and explosions were heard in parts of the capital. “It is not a military takeover of government,” said General Sibusiso Moyo, reading a statement on TV.
The generals dubbed their project “Operation Restore Legacy.” They called the move a “democratic correction” against a 93-year-old leader whose decisions, they alleged, were being manipulated by an ambitious wife half his age. Reuters was unable to contact Grace Mugabe for comment.
Since his appointment, Mnangagwa has promised to rebuild relations with the West, to protect foreign investors and to hold elections.
“I intend, nay, am required, to serve our country as the president of all citizens, regardless of colour, creed, religion, tribe or political affiliation,” he said after being sworn in. The voice of the people was the “voice of God.”
But for many Zimbabweans, actions speak louder than words.
On Dec. 4, Mnangagwa appointed Shiri, the Air Force chief, to the post of minister of agriculture. Moyo, the general who had announced the military’s intervention, became foreign minister.
“Mnangagwa has got the reins but he cannot operate outside the generals that put him in office,” said Martin Rupiya, a Zimbabwean professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria and an expert on the Zimbabwe military.
On Dec. 6, Foreign Minister Moyo publicly overruled Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, a civilian lawyer, as he outlined the financial terms of a Chinese loan for Harare airport.
“You should tell the reporters not to include the terms,” Moyo told Chinamasa, wagging his finger at him and the reporters gathered at the finance ministry for the announcement.
Chinamasa said the incident was the result of a misunderstanding and did not reflect military muscle-flexing. Moyo did not respond to a request for comment.
Ever since a guerrilla war against colonial Britain and white-minority rule in the 1960s and 1970s, Zimbabweans have been used to the army and intelligence services playing a covert role in politics. But to many Zimbabweans, the appointment of military men to the cabinet was a shock.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change reminded the ruling party in a statement on Dec. 18 that “members of the security services are bound by the Constitution not to operate as political activists of any political party.”
Tendai Biti, finance minister in a 2009-2013 unity government, expressed concern at “the obvious militarization” of the Zimbabwean state. “You cannot make a direct transition from the barracks to public office. We believe citizens should have that right to choose their representatives,” he said.
International Crisis Group analyst Piers Pigou said the “deployment of serving senior military officers removes the last pretence of non-military bias in Zimbabwe’s politics. This is vintage wine in a camouflage decanter.”
If there were overt military rule, it could complicate Mnangagwa’s efforts to get Zimbabwe’s economy back on its feet, some Western diplomats say. Since the seizure by the Mugabe regime of thousands of white-owned commercial farms after 2000, Zimbabwe’s GDP has almost halved and the banking system has endured a meltdown that saw inflation top out at 500 billion percent in 2008. To kick-start growth, Mnangagwa will need to clear $1.8 billion of arrears with multilateral lenders such as the World Bank. He will also have to attract private investors.
“These things don’t happen overnight, and they have to really show they will implement what they say they will do. That is key,” said Christian Beddes, the Zimbabwe representative of the International Monetary Fund.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, told Reuters on Nov. 29 that Britain could extend a bridging loan to help Zimbabwe clear World Bank and African Development Bank arrears, but such support would depend on “democratic progress.”
U.S. Ambassador Harry Thomas avoided the term “coup” to describe Mugabe’s overthrow, referring to it as a “military intervention.” Thomas said Mnangagwa’s administration should be judged by its performance - most notably whether it manages to hold credible elections next year. He was speaking on Dec. 6, two days after the cabinet was sworn in.
China too is an interested party. It has significant investments and loans outstanding in Zimbabwe and long ties to Mugabe, Mnangagwa and Chiwenga.
In early November, after Mugabe had sacked Mnangagwa for plotting against him, Mnangagwa met Chiwenga in China, said two sources familiar with the general’s movements. Chiwenga also met Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan, and the pair even discussed tactics to be used in the coup, according to two sources familiar with the talks. Beijing did not respond to a request for comment. Its Foreign Ministry has previously described Chiwenga’s visit as a “normal military exchange mutually agreed upon by China and Zimbabwe.”
Speaking at a signing ceremony for the Harare airport loan in December, Chinese ambassador Huang Ping said China’s government would “continue to support the Zimbabwean government in their economic development.”
For Chiwenga, quitting as armed forces chief on Dec. 18 was the first time he had stepped out of uniform in more than four decades.
An ethnic Karanga like Mnangagwa, Chiwenga joined Mugabe’s Chinese-backed ZANLA guerrilla army in the early 1970s. He received his training in Mozambique, where he learnt Portuguese, as well as in Tanzania and China. As part of Mugabe’s close-protection unit in Mozambique, Chiwenga had regular exposure to Zimbabwe’s fiercely intellectual future leader, from whom the soldier acquired a respect for education and a keen nose for politics, according to a senior regional intelligence source who knows Chiwenga.
After independence in 1980, Chiwenga managed to thrive in the dangerous world of Zimbabwe’s security forces.
According to a 2014 domestic media report of his divorce settlement with his first wife, Jocelyn, he owned, among other things, properties in Harare’s exclusive Borrowdale Brooke neighbourhood, an apartment in Malaysia, a safari company, a fleet of luxury vehicles and a jewellery collection that included 40 gold watches, 45 sets of diamond earrings and a tiara. Chjiwenga has not commented on the report, which Reuters was unable to verify independently, and an army spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Asked about the report, Chiwenga’s ex-wife Jocelyn said, “You seem to have all the information already so what more do you want?”
Chiwenga’s name has been linked to several of the darkest chapters of Zimbabwe’s history. In 2003 he, Mnangagwa and Mugabe were among 77 Zimbabweans sanctioned by the United States for allegedly undermining “democratic processes” and causing “politically motivated violence” in elections the previous year. Mugabe’s administration denied committing human rights violations and rejected the sanctions as an example of international bias against his rule.
Chiwenga was also a senior figure in the western region of Matabeleland in 1983 during the so-called Gukurahundi massacres, in which the army’s North Korean-trained 5 Brigade cracked down on supporters of Mugabe’s liberation war era rival, Joshua Nkomo. An estimated 20,000 ethnic Ndebele, including women and children, were killed. Chiwenga was not directly involved, but as commander of 1 Brigade in the city of Bulawayo, he provided “logistical support” to the operation, according to the 2017 book Kingdom, Power, Glory by Australian researcher Stuart Doran that draws on recently declassified diplomatic and defence archives. Shiri, now minister of land and agriculture, was 5 Brigade’s commander at the time; Mnangagwa was minister of state security.
In a 2016 interview with Britain’s New Statesman magazine, Mnangagwa dismissed allegations he was a Gukurahundi “enforcer,” saying these were smears peddled by political opponents. An army spokesman did not respond to a request for comment by Chiwenga or Shiri about their role in Gukurahundi. As career military officers, they have rarely given interviews and are not known to have commented on the massacres.
Chiwenga was head of the army in 2008 when troops removed thousands of artisanal miners from the Chiadzwa diamond fields in the eastern district of Marange. Before the army moved in, Marange had been open to small-scale local operators. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 200 people were killed, and the army then went on to use forced child labour and torture in running the fields for its own benefit. An army spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
In Mnangagwa, most of whose career has also been spent in security or intelligence, Chiwenga has a formidable rival. But - at 14 years Mnangagwa’s junior – Chiwenga has time to play the long game for himself and his comrades in arms.
“The generals want Mnangagwa to run for one or two terms before handing over to Chiwenga,” the Nov. 29 intelligence report reads. “They want Chiwenga to be in power for two terms before handing over to the next general to be announced.”
Reporting by Ed Cropley; Additional reporting by Emelia Sithole and Alfonce Mbizwo in Harare and Joe Bavier in Abidjan; editing by Janet McBride, Sara Ledwith and Richard Woods