was sworn in today as president of Zimbabwe, marking the end of Robert Mugabe’s 37-year reign over the country.
Tens of thousands of people on Friday streamed into the capital’s National Sports Stadium to witness Mnangagwa, a former vice president, take the oath of office.
Zimbabwe’s new president is not, at first glance, the obvious champion of the change his country hungers for.
Emmerson Mnangagwa is 75, and for decades he was righthand man to Robert Mugabe, accused of the same human rights abuses and similar corruption.
He is widely known as “the Crocodile”, a liberation war nickname that may have stuck because it suited his reputation for ruthless cunning.
Born in east Zimbabwe, where relatives remember an “active and confident” boy, he spent 10 years in jail during the struggle, gaining O-levels and A-levels and eventually a law degree, then returned to fighting in the bush.
After independence he was a stalwart of the Zanu-PF party, which he now leads, and was one of Mugabe’s closest aides, cycling through roles including spymaster and security chief, and administering the well-stocked party coffers before being made vice-president.
He fell out of favour, and was ousted along with supporters from his “lacoste” faction, when his own presidential ambitions crossed those of Mugabe’s wife, Grace – but the split was very recent.
“Mnangagwa isn’t exactly a fresh face. He’s been with Mugabe since 1976. He was the chief hatchet man for Mugabe on and off for 40 years. That’s a fact that hasn’t suddenly become irrelevant,” said the historian Stuart Doran.
Perhaps the most controversial episode from Mnangagwa’s past is his role in ethnic massacres in the 1980s, carried out under Mugabe’s watch as part of a vicious post-independence power struggle with other factions. Thousands of civilians were massacred by the Zimbabwean military, mostly ethnic Ndebeles in Matabeleland.
Mnangagwa was in charge of intelligence services at the time. He has blamed the uniformed military for the killings. But there has never been any real accounting for the deaths, which have left a deeply painful legacy.
“We need to confront the Matabeleland issue head on so we can heal, set up a peace and reconciliation committee, so we can move on,” said the activist Marshall Shonhai. “Our brothers and sisters in the south are hurting. For over 30 years it has just been swept under the carpet.”
Human rights groups also say Mnangagwa played a key role in violence directed at the growing political opposition in Zimbabwe. He is blamed for repression during the 2008 election campaignso intense that the opposition candidate eventually dropped out of the race, leaving the way clear for Mugabe to remain in power.
“It’s difficult to see how going forward he can be respectful of human rights, given his history,” said Dewa Mahvinga, southern Africa analyst for Human Rights Watch. “People may not see it now, or realise now, because of the relief of seeing the end of Mugabe’s political era, but Zimbabwe is in grave danger in terms of constitutional democracy.”
Mnangagwa also has long ties with China. He trained there as a guerilla in the 1960s, sent his son to study at a Chinese university, and visited Beijing shortly before the coup, leading to speculation that he had gone to seek the blessing of officials there.
It is a connection that may help him bring in the loans and foreign investment Zimbabwe so badly needs, but has also sparked worries that he could look to Beijing for a new political model for his country, seeking to mix economic freedom with tighter political control.
In recent years Mnangagwa has been seen as more business friendly and pragmatic than many other senior officials within Zanu-PF. This partially explains his appeal to some Zimbabweans today.
When he spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of supporters outside the ruling party headquarters on Wednesday evening, hours after arriving from South Africa to take power, Mnangagwa received his biggest applause when he spoke of “growing the economy” and providing jobs.
Behind him on the podium was his wife, Auxilia, a Zanu-PF member of parliament since 2008. The couple have one child.
“Never should the nation be held at ransom by one person ever again, whose desire is to die in office whatever the cost of the nation,” he told the cheerings crowd.
Mnangagwa has been a leading establishment figure for so long that everyone in the impoverished country of 16 million knows his record, and no one has forgotten the years he spent sharing a podium with Mugabe, pledging loyalty and championing his record.
Mnangagwa’s speech at Zanu-PF headquarters on Wednesday night ended with the thumping melody of a well-known song that was a standard at Mugabe’s rallies. “The hero is coming, the hero is arriving,” sang the crowd.
Support from much of the population is, for the moment, guaranteed, but many Zimbabweans also hope that the Crocodile will not forget what happened to his former boss when he turned a blind eye to the evident misery of millions of ordinary citizens.
“I don’t think he is going to repeat that,” said Silas, a 40-year-old television salesman hoping for a pick-up in the economy. “He knows that what happened to Mr Mugabe can happen to him.”
After almost 40 years of one-man rule, Mnangagwa faces many challenges as the country’s new president.
Whether he will succeed remains to be seen.