Low international turnout at Mnangagwa’s inauguration could signal Zimbabwe’s further isolation

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is congratulated by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa after he was inaugurated in Harare on 4 September 2023. (Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli / Getty Images)

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in on Monday for his second and last term in office, following disputed elections held on 23 August, amid a low turnout of invited African leaders and guests, suggesting his administration could be headed for international isolation.

Mnangagwa took his oath of office before the country’s Chief Justice, Luke Malaba, with only three sitting presidents from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) attending his subdued inauguration.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi and Mozambican leader Filipe Nyusi were among the dignitaries that attended. Many leaders in SADC and the African Union who were invited did not show up.

Although Mnangagwa sent 69 invitations to sitting presidents and former heads of state, the low-key event held at the giant National Sports Stadium in Harare was attended by only a few thousand of Mnangagwa’s local supporters, as well as former Mozambican president Joachim Chissano, former Zambian president Edgar Lungu, former deputies of Zimbabwe’s late strongman Robert Mugabe, Joice Mujuru and Phelekezela Mphoko, as well as former first lady Grace Mugabe and her family.

Mnangagwa was declared the winner of the disputed polls by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which announced that the 80-year-old leader had garnered 52.6% of the votes cast, while his closest rival, Nelson Chamisa of the main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party, got 44%. The remainder was split between smaller political parties.

‘Praiseworthy’ elections

During his inauguration address, Mnangagwa said the polls were free, fair and credible, shrugging off opposition claims that he rigged his way back into office.

“Our unparalleled conduct before, during and after the electoral process is praiseworthy and will be an everlasting standard and entrench constitutional democracy in our country. There are no losers, but a victory for the people of Zimbabwe against neo-colonial and hegemonic tendencies of our country’s detractors and those who believe that might is right,” said Mnangagwa.

Regional and international observers raised concerns over how the polls were conducted, with the SADC election observer mission, headed by former Zambian deputy president Nevers Mumba, concluding that the elections fell short of meeting the requirements of Zimbabwe’s constitution, the country’s electoral laws and regional standards.

After the no-show of several regional leaders, Chamisa, whose party is demanding fresh elections, vowed on X (formerly Twitter) that it was not the end of the road for him and his party.

“Thank you, Africa and the world, for standing with us Zimbabweans in dismissing fraud and stolen elections. Together, we will reverse this sham and have a legitimate government freely elected and enjoying the full will of all the people of Zimbabwe. It’s not over,” Chamisa wrote.

Democratic Party leader Urayayi Zembe, who threw his weight behind Chamisa in the 23 August polls, told Daily Maverick that Mnangagwa now risked further isolation from the international community.

“Since Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF government has been further isolated as undemocratic, locally and internationally, it follows that his current engagement and re-engagement policy has been torched into a huge raging flame,” said Zembe.

Signs of isolation

CCC spokesperson Promise Mkwananzi said his party, after abandoning the legal route – citing judicial capture by Mnangagwa – would continue on its diplomatic offensive in its quest to set aside Mnangagwa’s re-election, notwithstanding his inauguration.

“Only three presidents attended (the inauguration), signalling the increasing isolation of Mr Mnangagwa. We will continue to pile political and diplomatic pressure until our vote counts,” said Mkwananzi.

Even countries like Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Rwanda, which have cordial relations with Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu-PF party, sent junior diplomats.

Mnangagwa’s spokesperson, George Charamba, said the decision by other African leaders to not attend his boss’s inauguration was normal protocol and did not reflect any lack of confidence in the election outcome.

“It’s normal and it happens all over the world. Don’t see a story where there is no story,” said Charamba.

But political analyst and international relations lecturer at Africa University, Alexander Rusero, said the inauguration was “a testimony that the world has questions” over Zimbabwe’s elections.

“Zanu-PF has to up its game and ensure that it engages with the region. It’s not by coincidence that countries such as Angola didn’t come; it shows questions. Legitimacy is an issue of perception and this is how the world views Mnangagwa. The goodwill he enjoyed is no longer there,” said Rusero.

Ramaphosa criticised

Meanwhile, South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen criticised President Ramaphosa’s attendance at Mnangagwa’s inauguration, saying his presence in Harare demonstrated that the ruling ANC was removed from the plight of Zimbabweans suffering “under Zanu-PF’s long-standing autocratic dictatorship”.

Steenhuisen said: “By showing support for Zanu-PF, Ramaphosa is endorsing a stolen government and a stolen democracy that has caused hyperinflation, the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, the suffering of tens of millions of fellow Africans and the mass migration of much of Zimbabwe’s population, causing immense instability in the southern African region.”

ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula told Daily Maverick in Harare that Zimbabweans were qualified to deal with their own problems, although he pledged his party’s support of Zimbabwe’s liberation movement.

“We don’t interfere with internal processes of another country. What has happened here is an election which ourselves were invited to take part in, in terms of monitoring as the ANC, and now we have got a product of the outcome of election which has affirmed Zanu-PF… Zanu-PF is an ally of the African National Congress… and we are here today to respond to that,” said Mbalula.

Responding to why Ramaphosa’s ANC endorsed the outcome of the polls in the face of international condemnation, Mbalula said Zimbabwean problems were resolved by Zimbabweans themselves.

“If there are disputes and people have got disputes, Zimbabwe and its laws must be observed and Zimbabweans can talk among themselves about what has become the outcome of the elections.

“We respect the principle of sovereignty… we respect the fact that there are elections… we don’t subscribe to regime change. We believe in the will of the people and the people have spoken in Zimbabwe, and as you can see, thousands of people are here to celebrate the election of the president.

“Were these people forced to come here? No. They came because they celebrate the product of the outcome of the elections. Does Zanu-PF choose itself on the people? No.

“There was a contest, there is opposition. Is that opposition strong? It seems strong, but it did not emerge, according to the outcome of the results, and if there is any dispute with regard to that, we respect the sovereignty of a country and the fact that Zimbabweans through their own processes have the capacity to settle their own differences,” added Mbalula.

This comes after Ramaphosa was criticised by Zimbabwean activists and the opposition for his “premature” endorsement of Mnangagwa’s victory.

The run-up to the 23 August poll was characterised by violence and intimidation of opposition members in several parts of the country, resulting in Douglas Mwonzora, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change formation, boycotting the election and describing participation as “foolish bravery”.

Some analysts believe that Mnangagwa will now set out to consolidate his power and renege on his earlier suggestion of a unity government.

Top Harare lawyer Chris Mhike says there is still a possibility that the election could be re-run.

“Should ongoing diplomatic efforts by the opposition yield the desired results, mass resignations in Zimbabwe by office holders in local and national government and by legislators, coupled with the dissolution of parliament by the president… this could pave the way for fresh elections.

“The current crop of Zimbabwean politicians who wield power are unlikely to care about the opinion of the international community. Look at how they claimed victory through blatant electoral malpractices in the most recent harmonised election.

“They even went on to brutally attack anyone who criticised the controversial poll; SADC having to take the worst of the government-sponsored vitriol,” said Mhike. DM

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