Zimbabwe’s newly elected President, Emerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa of the Zanu-PF party, has seldom shrunk from the rough and tumble of realpolitik. Born in a family of farmers, the septuagenarian veteran had come ominously close to being executed for plotting to blow up a rail line during the nation’s liberation struggle from Britain. The sentence was commuted to a prolonged jail term because he was a minor at the time.

How did he replace Mugabe?

Last November, when Mr. Mnangagwa was dismissed as Vice-President of the southern African nation by the deposed dictator of 37 years, Robert Mugabe, history was merely repeating itself. He was elevated to that position in late 2014, in a sequel to the removal of Mr. Mugabe’s No. 2 at the time and a potential heir-apparent. In a strange irony, the victory against Joice Mujuru also meant a recompense for Mr. Mnangagwa’s failed bid for the vice-presidency a decade earlier. When the 2017 version of Harare’s palace intrigue began to unfold, it was also time for independent Zimbabwe’s history to be rewritten. Mr. Mnangagwa went briefly into exile, but returned as the popularly hailed, even if army-installed, President, dealing a decisive blow to the machinations of the former first lady.

Why is he controversial?

The long career of President Mnangagwa, a known hardliner and Mugabe loyalist, is inevitably intertwined with Harare’s descent into authoritarianism under his mentor. As the country’s intelligence chief in the 1980s, critics hold Mr. Mnangagwa accountable for the Gukurahundi massacre of thousands of civilians by Mr. Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade. His role in the appropriation of agricultural land from the white minorities has also come under sharp criticism. In more recent years, Mr. Mnangagwa has nurtured his presidential ambitions through the Team Lacoste faction — an allusion to the liberation army — within the Zanu-PF, against the rival Generation 40 group. On assuming charge last November, Mr. Mnangagwa assured a hopeful nation that his writ would be the people’s will, assuaging concerns that the new President might end up being a prisoner of the past. He invited international observers, expelled for years, to monitor the general election, which he promised would be free and fair. In a positive signal to investors, the government agreed to ease the requirement for overseas firms to give a 51% stake to local partners. Mr. Mnangagwa also stressed that all other sectors, except diamonds and platinum, were open for foreign investment. The new narrative was broadly corroborated by evidence of a transparent voter registration system, freedom of expression and absence of intimidation of the Opposition. The climate in the run-up to the July 29 vote fuelled expectations that the election would bestow popular legitimacy on the new President, handing him a mandate to implement political and economic reforms. But the post-poll scenario has been marred by violence and fatalities familiar from the Mugabe era. The Opposition Movement for Democratic Change and international monitors have alleged that the defence forces were behind the atrocities.

What’s the way forward?

Against this backdrop, the President’s urgent priority is to live up to the trust reposed in him by millions only months ago to liberate the nation from dictatorship and lift them out of poverty. For his part, Mr. Mnangagwa is keen to reopen the country to foreign investment, to re-engage with multilateral lenders and rejoin the British Commonwealth. Western capitals have been enthusiastic about building bridges with Harare, once a regional export hub and home to a vast educated population. But they have insisted on adherence to democratic standards and respect for human rights as preconditions for debt relief. Over these many years, Mr. Mnangagwa has burnished his credentials as a more pragmatic than ideological politician, unlike his strongman predecessor. Count on him to renew ties with the West, but without compromising the close economic bonds built with China. The latter, after all, comes with fewer strings attached.

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