PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa’s recent decision to rename 10 streets in key cities in the country portrays him as a leader desperate to cleanse his tainted record, while immortalising his name in the annals of Zimbabwean history.
Mnangagwa, currently battling to douse the flames of an intractable economic crisis after rising to power through a millitary coup that toppled long-time ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017, also unveiled his towering statue at Masvingo Airport this month.
Last week, in the midst of severe headwinds buffeting Zimbabwe’s fragile economy, Mnangagwa’s administration announced that numerous roads and buildings — most of them dilapidated — would be renamed in honour of selected national heroes. The Cabinet decision immediately triggered a fierce uproar, with critics likening Mnangagwa to a political dwarf who was attempting to force his way into the pantheon of towering luminaries in Zimbabwe’s history.
They have further argued that the name-changing stunt was not a sincere quest by Mnangagwa to tackle the legacy of colonial conquest, which saw major monuments, roads and historical sites named after Western rulers during the days of minority settler rule. Already, opposition-run councils are mulling blocking cabinet’s name changes, arguing that the renaming of streets and buildings is a prerogative of local authorities and not central government.
Notably, criticism has also stemmed from the economic costs attendant to the changing of street names at a time Zimbabwe is in the grip of a debilitating economic crisis.
In Matabeleland, where Mnangagwa earned notoriety for playing a key role in the Gukurahundi genocide that left 20 000 civilians dead in the early years of Independence, the President also christened a major road after himself in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city. The move was described by some political activists as insensitive and ill advised.
Commentators say Mnangagwa played a peripheral role in the country’s protracted liberation struggle, as a long-time aide to Mugabe. They questioned whether he deserves the hour of having 10 roads named after him — ahead of more illustrious sons and daughters of Zimbabwe.
Critics have also pointed out that Mnangagwa, who promised to steer Zimbabwe out of economic ruin when he took over the reins of power in 2017, has dismally failed during his two years at the helm.
Former deputy prime minister in the inclusive government between the opposition and Zanu PF Arthur Mutambara was more scathing in his criticism, highlighting that Mnangagwa’s latest road-naming adventure was meant to redeem the leader’s besmirched name, cementing it in history as well as masking his failures as a leader who promised plenty but has delivered little.
“An incompetent Mnangagwa wants to immortalise himself. All the other name changes are to cover up this wicked ambition. Whether he falls or prevails, he wants immortality. Zimbabweans will be calling his name in eight cities every day, forever. That is the ‘big idea’ while the country degenerates into unprecedented political and economic mayhem,” Mutambara told South African media.
Ironically, Mugabe, in his 37-years in power also named various streets in the heart of major cities and towns across the country after himself, even as his ruinous policies reduced the economy to tatters.
Prior to his dramatic ouster, Mugabe was to later put the icing on the cake in the name-changing jamboree after he renamed Harare International Airport to Robert Mugabe International Airport. The airport, currently being expanded at a cost a of US$134 million, saw war veterans, for long Mugabe’s backers, threatening to erase the leader’s name from the country’s largest airport.
University of Botswana senior politics lecturer Kebapetse Lotshwao noted that Mnangagwa, who for the most decisive phases of Zimbabwe’s protracted liberation struggle was Mugabe’s security aide, lacked the political gravitas to be bestowed such an honour.
“Thus far, President Mnangagwa has not done anything to warrant the historical recognition that he wants to give himself. The economy is still in tatters; unemployment is high, just as inflation. There is an acute shortage of electricity and many basic services.
“Before immortalising himself (in history) President Mnangagwa must first address those challenges. It is only after that can he claim to be a visionary and developmental leader deserving the recognition that he wants to give himself now,” Lotshwao argued.
Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the University of London, cautioned that with Zimbabwe reeling from an acute economic crisis characterised by widespread company closures, spiking inflation, prolonged power outages and a shambolic health delivery system, it was prudent for Mnangagwa to fix the economy before rushing to carve a name for himself in the annals of history.
“My sense is that the President should have waited till he had delivered Zimbabwe from its financial crisis.“He should first have achieved something really substantial before allowing such accolades as roads named after him,” Chan highlighted.