Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in on Friday as president of Zimbabwe in front of thousands of cheering supporters at Harare’s national stadium, bringing the final curtain down on the 37-year rule of Robert Mugabe.
Taking his oath of office, the 75-year-old known as the Crocodile vowed to uphold the constitution of the former British colony and protect the rights of all Zimbabwe’s 16 million citizens. In a speech he said elections would go ahead next year and acknowledged there had been “errors” under Mugabe.
He has hailed the “voice of the people” during a dramatic ascent to power. But some wonder whether a man who loyally served Mugabe for decades can bring deep change to a ruling establishment accused of systematic abuses of human rights and disastrous economic policies.
In particular, they question his role in the so-called Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland in 1983, when an estimated 20,000 people were killed in a crackdown on Mugabe’s opponents by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.
Mnangagwa was in charge of internal security then, but has denied any part in the atrocities. Since his return to Zimbabwe this month after two weeks in hiding he has been preaching democracy, tolerance and respect for the rule of law.
“The people have spoken. The voice of the people is the voice of God,” he told thousands of supporters on Wednesday at the headquarters of his ruling ZANU-PF party.
Mugabe, 93, has been granted immunity from prosecution and assured that his safety will be protected in his home country as part of a deal that led to his resignation, sources close to the negotiations said.
And Mnangagwa urged citizens on Thursday not to undertake “vengeful retribution” – striking a tone of reconciliation that echoed those made by Mugabe almost four decades ago.
However, the army’s rough treatment of some Mugabe loyalists – former finance minister Ignatius Chombo was hospitalized on Friday because of beatings sustained in military custody, his lawyer said – has added to concerns about Mnangagwa’s true commitment to democracy.
“It was a very brutal and draconian way of dealing with opponents,” Chombo’s lawyer, Lovemore Madhuku, told Reuters.
Mugabe, the world’s oldest serving head of state, resigned on Tuesday as parliament started to impeach him, a week to the day after the army stepped in to seize power. Crowds celebrated in the streets of Harare.
His sudden fall was triggered by a battle to succeed him that pitted Mnangagwa against Mugabe’s much younger wife Grace.
Some of Mnangagwa’s supporters have called for unspecified action against the “G40” group that backed Mugabe and his wife, known as “Gucci Grace” for her reputed dedication to shopping, an affront to many in a country with an unemployment rate of 90 percent.
Mnangagwa was a faithful aide to Mugabe, who was widely accused of repression of dissent and election-rigging and under whose rule one of Africa’s once most prosperous economies was ravaged by hyperinflation and mass emigration.
Mnangagwa earned the nickname “Ngwena”, Shona for crocodile, an animal famed and feared in Zimbabwean lore for stealth and ruthlessness.
He backed Mugabe’s economic nationalism, especially a drive to force foreign firms to hand majority stakes to local blacks, suggesting he may not be the pro-market pragmatist many investors have been hoping for.
Zimbabwe’s neighbours appeared to offer Mnangagwa support on Friday. South African President Jacob Zuma congratulated the new president and the Southern African Development Community, an intergovernmental organization, said it was ready to work closely with his government.
Rebuilding a shattered economy and restoring investor confidence will be at the top of the agenda for the new president.
“I wanted to see for myself that Mugabe has really gone. He is the only president I’ve known,” said 33-year-old Lenin Tongoona on Friday.
”We have a new president who may try something a little different to improve the economy. I’m excited today but tomorrow is uncertain because we don’t know how he will turn out. He talks about creating jobs. How does he plan to do that?”