PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa’s extensive public relations campaign to position himself as a reformer and leader of a new dispensation in Zimbabwe has crumbled like a deck of cards. This is after the disputed outcome of last week’s elections, disruption of an opposition press conference by police, brutal killings of at least six people after soldiers opened gunfire on unarmed civilians and the crackdown on opposition members.
Catapulted into power on the back of a military coup in November last year, Mnangagwa quickly went all out to sell the message that his administration was the architect of a new dispensation and that the country was open for business, a departure from his predecessor Robert Mugabe’s toxic policies and gross economic mismanagement which left the country isolated. During his trips to Sadc countries such as Zambia, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, Mnangagwa amplified this message. He also took his open for business gospel further afield, including to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January this year and China.
Mnangagwa dispatched Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo who went to London as re-engagement efforts intensified. To revamp his image and reputation as a reformer and new leading light, Mnangagwa also gave interviews to influential overseas media houses such as the Financial Times, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), New York Times and the Wall Street Journal where he expounded on the narrative of a new dispensation and the country being open for business which gained him favourable reviews. It paid dividends. This was demonstrated by his cozy relationship with the United Kingdom, Russia and China.
As a sign of the vastly improved relationship between Zimbabwe and the UK, the British government advanced a US$100 million loan through the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), the UK’s development finance institution and Standard Chartered Bank to Zimbabwean private companies to re-equip and increase capacity utilisation. The financial package, the first direct commercial loan by the UK to Zimbabwe in more than 20 years was seen as a massive vote of confidence in Mnangagwa who used this development as part of his campaign message in the lead up to the elections last year. It looked like the beginning of the injection of the much-needed funding to breathe life into the country’s comatose economy.
Mnangagwa then bolstered his image further when he invited the international community to observe the elections, including those who had previously been banned from doing so by the Mugabe regime. He also preached peace and tolerance during election campaigns.
However, the PR campaign that had given Mnangagwa a new look and traction which collapsed spectacularly last week.
The contested outcome of the polls by the Nelson Chamisa-led MDC Alliance was the first spanner in the works of Mnangagwa’s well-choreographed publicity campaign. The 50,8% vote he garnered was contentious and has been rejected outright by the opposition.
The dispute over the polls was worsened by the cold-blooded killing of civilians in broad daylight by soldiers who had been called in to quell a violent demonstration over alleged electoral theft on Wednesday last week. The images of soldiers opening fire on civilians with one of them in a kneeling position have gone viral worldwide turning the tide against Mnangagwa.
The crackdown that has followed mainly in high density areas by soldiers mainly targeting opposition leaders from MDC Alliance has aggravated matters for the septuagenarian leader.
To add insult to injury, police then tried to bar Chamisa from holding a press conference two days later in full view of foreign journalists and a world audience before acting information minister Simon Khaya Moyo was forced to intervene. The promise by Mnangagwa to investigate the army shootings implies that he was not the one who deployed the soldiers. It remains unclear who deployed the army. It also gives the impression that he is not in control as pointed out by political analyst Ibbo Mandaza.
“Zimbabweans who celebrated the coup were short-sighted in my view,” Mandaza said. “The police had handled them very well and had got the protestors to tire. There was no confrontation whatsoever between civilians and the army. In fact, the civilians were running away from the army. This was cold-blooded murder. I think that maybe Mnangagwa is not in charge.”
The global outrage and condemnation has been swift from international media and governments alike, and has wrecked Mnangagwa’s painstaking efforts to rebrand and distinguish himself from ideologues of the Mugabe era when violence and electoral theft were commonplace.
Foreign journalist from the influential Financial Times Joseph Cotterill, who was in the country to cover the elections, revealed that he had been at the receiving end of the chaos.
“On Wednesday (last week) I had a soldier raise his AK at me and threaten(ed) to shoot, on Friday a riot policeman move(d) to shove me with his shield,” Cotterill wrote on microblogging site Twitter. He added that one would have to be “crazy” to come and invest in Zimbabwe.
“Security forces killed at least six opposition protesters, raided opposition headquarters and broke up a press conference at Harare Hotel Friday,” the Wall Street Journal wrote in its damning indictment. “Political intimidation and killings were a hallmark of the Mugabe era, and Mr Mnangagwa, a former defence minister and spymaster learned his trade well. The elections process and result show there is no reason for the US or Europe to ease the diplomatic and financial pressure.”
In a joint local statement on the post elections human rights situation in Zimbabwe, the European Union delegation, the heads of mission of EU member states present in Harare and the heads of mission of Canada, Switzerland and the United States condemned the violence.
“The heads of mission of the EU, Canada, Switzerland and the United States of America note with grave concern the eruption of violence and occurrence of serious human rights violations following the peaceful election of 30 July 2018 ,” they said in a statement.
“These tragic events stand in sharp contrast to the high hopes and expectations for a peaceful, inclusive, transparent and credible election in Zimbabwe.”
That the statement was made after Sibusiso Moyo had denied the crackdown shows that his explanation has found few takers.
The Australian government also joined the chorus of condemnation.
It remains to be seen whether Mnangagwa, who is perceived to be the proverbial cat with nine lives, can recover from the wreckage of a shipwrecked PR campaign at the tail end of his bid for legitimacy.