EMMERSON Mnangagwa, the second executive President of Zimbabwe, is a man of many faces.
One side of him depicts an intimidating and no-nonsense character, while at the same time he appears to be soft as wool, as he often claims. Last week, I was among the four journalists who interviewed Mnangagwa. This offered a rare opportunity for private media journalists to see what sort of a man Mnangagwa is.
Yet, after a two and a half hour meeting with him on Wednesday evening, we were nowhere near understanding the kind of man he is. Not that he is beyond description, not at all. Perhaps owing to his security background, there is an inescapable sense that the man has lived in the shadows for too long, hence the aura of enigma. With the economy imploding and the nation on edge, one would expect to see a man distressed by the pressures of high office.
But as soon as we were ushered into his spacious office at State House in Harare, he got up, unsmiling, and motioned us to the seats, as he relaxed on a luxurious leather seat with his back to a wall.
“You wanted to see me. I am here, let me hear what you want,” he broke the ice, as soon as the introductions were over.
With a sizeable number of people in the room waiting, it was clear there was not much time and we immediately got down to business.
“Do you think the people of Zimbabwe like you at the moment, given the worsening economic hardships?” asked the journalist.
His answer, somewhat arrogant, somewhat frank, was: “I don’t think people can be so happy with the austerity measures we are putting in place, but you don’t become president to please people; you become president to take the country where it ought to be, not where some people want it to go.”
The best moment of the interview, perhaps, was when he was asked if he felt under pressure from the international community over how his administration handled last month’s protests.
Reclining in his seat, his face, which had been grave, suddenly broke into a smile. He blamed the West, saying: “We have had a lot of questions coming from that part of the world, but we said that they are the ones that sponsor the protesters. We have to do what we have to do. We cannot wait unt
il they think we are nice boys.”
The natural follow-up question was whether he thought that the state was heavy-handed in quelling last month’s riots?
In response he said: “They say we are too heavy-handed on handling the rioters, but how else were we supposed to handle it? You can’t go with a Bible to people who are destroying a tollgate and politely say Mr and Mrs so and so, can you please stop what you are doing.”
Interestingly, only days earlier Mnangagwa had expressed deep remorse to families that lost their loved ones at the hands of the military and promised to deal with the marauding soldiers. The smile suddenly disappeared from his face as he explained: “The Western countries don’t care about whether or not you are democratic. It all has to do with their interests. They work with some of the worst dictatorships and monarchs in the world and yet pretend to be champions of democracy. If you read a book called Economic Hitman, you will realise how they operate. They either poison you or they invade the country.”
One of the journalists asked: “Are you not afraid that they may come for you as well?”
He threw up his hand in a dismissive gesture and exclaimed: “Don’t worry about me, I know the game.”
Asked if he was in touch with ordinary citizens so that he knows what is going on in the country, Mnangagwa became jocular. “Yes, I am. People always seek audience with me here and are never turned away. When we go to the farm (in Kwekwe) for a weekend, a lot of people gather around to have fun. So, yes, I am very much in touch.”
One thing you cannot fail to notice when you are in his company is his paranoia. It was clear that the man prioritises his security. For instance, the meeting had initially been scheduled for 10am at Munhumutapa Building, in the central business district.
After having been ushered into the modest office, suddenly he said: “The environment here is not very relaxed. I think we will not be very comfortable to say things as much as we want here and so I propose that you come to State House in the evening at 6pm so that we can be free to talk.”
At the start of the meeting at State House, the journalists asked if they could be allowed to record the interview, to which he strongly protested.
“If you are going to record, then it means I will have to carefully measure what I say. If you don’t record, I will be free to talk to you as much as you want,” he stated.
This encounter with Mnangagwa — who is nicknamed “The Crocodile” — provided a fascinating insight into a man, whose years in security hardened him and made him an expert in hiding emotions .
Many will recall the days when he faced a barrage of attacks from his then Zanu PF nemeses at party events, even to the extent of participating in chanting slogans that denigrated him as he displayed extraordinary resilience to soak up the blows of public humiliation.
When you interact with Mnangagwa at a very personal level, this meeting proved, you are tempted to discard all the theories you may have heard about him, that he is a shrewd political tactician, callous, ruthless and all the gory imagery. And yet, no matter how hard he tries, it seems near-impossible to be charmed by him and, in the end, you go away somewhat frazzled.