HARARE, Zimbabwe — When the Zimbabwean military ousted longtime authoritarian President Robert Mugabe last month, the army justified its intervention by pledging to restore democracy and weed out the “criminals” who had surrounded Mr. Mugabe during his 37-year rule.
But with new President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a onetime Mugabe ally, rewarding military officials with a slate of Cabinet posts, many now fear a militarization of the government that could ring in an era of martial rule in this troubled African nation.
“Recently, the army has been embedded in the country’s body politic, raising fears of their involvement [in elections next year] — if they will even allow a free and fair election — and whether they will accept the results in case their preferred candidate loses,” said Zimbabwean political analyst Blessing Ivan Vava, based in Harare.
Mr. Mnangagwa, 75, was a senior member of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party when Mr. Mugabe suddenly dismissed him in early November with claims of disloyalty and deceit. Mr. Mnangagwa subsequently fled the country.
Analysts suspect the move was precipitated by fears of Mr. Mugabe’s second wife, Grace, 52, whose political ambitions to succeed her husband as the nation’s leader prompted a ruthless purge of her competitors within ZANU-PF, dividing the party into two factions competing for control.
“The army merely reversed a coup that had been carried out by Grace Mugabe,” said Takavafira Zhou, a political analyst and history lecturer at the Great Zimbabwe University in Masvingo. The military “is certainly better than the acidic and toxic Grace, who was spitting venom at political opponents every time she appeared in public.”
The new president seems to acknowledge the concerns of Zimbabweans about their shaky democracy, and he addressed those concerns directly in his State of the Nation address Wednesday in the capital.
Mr. Mnangagwa vowed that there would be “no sacred cows” in his drive to root out corruption, fix Zimbabwe’s decimated private economy and attempt to attract foreign investment.
“The government will do everything in its power to ensure that the 2018 elections are credible, free and fair,” the president said.
But the stunning and prominent role of the military in overthrowing Mr. Mugabe and the way the bloodless coup was conducted have raised questions about whether the troops will return to their barracks so readily. Skeptics note that Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, the most prominent military figure in the chaotic clash that led to Mr. Mugabe’s resignation, announced his retirement this week, paving the way for him to be appointed as vice president.
Gen. Chiwenga “is set to retire pending redeployment,” Misheck Sibanda, chief secretary to the president and Cabinet, said in a statement Monday.
By contrast, no members of Zimbabwe’s embattled opposition parties have been offered government posts to date.
In an attempt to restore order, the military stormed government compounds in early November and detained the Mugabes in their home. Shortly after Mr. Mugabe agreed to step down, Mr. Mnangagwa, formerly the nation’s first vice president, returned from exile to Zimbabwe and was sworn in as Mr. Mugabe’s successor.
In nearly four decades of authoritarian rule under Mr. Mugabe, one of the African continent’s most promising and productive nations was reduced to economic ruin. Mr. Mnangagwa now promises Zimbabweans that he will institute a raft of reforms to create employment, improve the country’s relations with the international community and end corruption within the rank and file of his administration.
Mr. Mnangagwa’s administration has demonstrated its commitment to that pledge by arresting a former finance minister suspected of purchasing an upscale house for himself and lining his pockets with state funds. The president also has tasked his ministers with drafting at least three targeted economic projects with a 100-day turnaround period to bolster the nation’s failing economy.
Nelson Muketiwa, 23 and unemployed, has high hopes for Mr. Mnangagwa’s administration now that Mr. Mugabe and his wife are out of power.
“We want the economy to flourish,” he said. “Jobs must be created by ensuring that all the productive sectors of the economy are functioning properly.”
More than 85 percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.
Although it may seem that Mr. Mnangagwa is spearheading the charge to restore economic and political stability in Zimbabwe, observers say his Cabinet choices indicate otherwise.
Mr. Mnangagwa has stacked his Cabinet with top military officials responsible for the coup, including Maj. Gen. Sibusiso Moyo, the army general who announced the bloodless military takeover. He is now serving as the nation’s foreign minister.
Mr. Mnangagwa’s political patronage has dashed hopes that he would reach out to opposition parties to form an inclusive transitional government to address the country’s many woes, said Obert Gutu, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe’s main opposition party led by former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
“Although Mugabe’s regime also had some retired military personnel in its upper echelons, the perception right now is that it is the military that is actually calling the shots because of the influential role that they played in Mnangagwa’s ascendance to the highest office in the country,” he said.
Maddock Chivasa, a spokesman for the National Constitutional Assembly, another opposition party in parliament, believes the composition of Mr. Mnangagwa’s Cabinet is evidence that long-lasting military rule is on the horizon in Zimbabwe.
Gen. Moyo “is supposed to be the face of Zimbabwe to the world by virtue of him being the foreign affairs minister,” said Mr. Chivasa. “What it means is that the world must see military control of the government in Zimbabwe.”
Demand for reforms
Opposition parties are pushing the government to embrace a number of electoral reforms, including the creation of new voter rolls, more balance in the state-controlled media outlets, and allowing an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans living outside the country to vote in next year’s elections.
“We would like to see genuine, credible electoral reforms that will lead to free and fair elections, and they must be underwritten and guaranteed by the international community,” Tendai Biti, leader of the opposition MDC Alliance, told the Reuters news agency before Mr. Mnangagwa’s speech Wednesday.
But the newly appointed former military officials, backed by politically powerful veterans groups, have been quick to defend their new roles.
“Who says military men should not participate in the politics of their country?” said Perence Shiri, a former military officer and now the nation’s minister of lands, agriculture and rural resettlement. “I am a Zimbabwean, and I have got every right to participate in politics.”
But historically, the military’s political participation has been anything but democratic. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Zimbabwe’s primary opposition party claimed that some military figures embarked on a violent campaign in the countryside to keep Mr. Mugabe in power, resulting in former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s withdrawal from the race after more than 400 of his supporters were killed.
With Mr. Mnangagwa now sworn in to serve out the remainder of Mr. Mugabe’s five-year term of office, Zimbabweans are gearing for the next round of general elections, slated to take place by September.
But for Mr. Zhou, the political analyst, the writing is already on the wall.
“The militarization of the government is a clear indicator that Mnangagwa is setting up a post-2018 government,” he said. “The only way to guarantee the survival of ZANU-PF would be through rigging.”