Zimbabweans hold a picture of President Emmerson Mnangagwa as they await his arrival at the Manyame Air Force base in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Wednesday. Picture: Aaron Ufumeli / EPA

The euphoria that has accompanied Robert Mugabe’s resignation as president of Zimbabwe has been unparalleled, and the nation is high on optimism and hope for a fresh start. 

The new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is being called a pragmatist and an economic reformer, and he is saying all the right things about inclusivity in terms of the country’s future governance.

He has called for a “new era” of no toleration for corruption, incompetence or social decadence, and he will probably bend over backwards to win over international creditors in order to secure loans and aid. The business community loves him.

But can the 75-year-old former Mugabe loyalist be trusted to take Zimbabwe in the right direction?

While the present is imbued with great expectations, it is also infected by the past. And that past is far from savoury. Mnangagwa cannot run away from the fact that he played a senior role in the oppressive machinery of Mugabe’s rule.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that Mnangagwa was the Minister for State Security from independence in 1980 to 1988. He presided over the feared Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) which during the mid-1980s was allegedly involved in the brutal torture and oppression of thousands of Ndebele in Matabeleland according to the report “Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980-1988,” compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and the Legal Resources Foundation.

The report is a chilling read about a brutal period in which the Ndebele people were treated as dissidents who needed to be dealt with. According to the report, the CIO worked closely with the 5th Brigade in Matabeleland South, and had a reputation for being more lethal in methods of torture than even the 5th Brigade. The 5th Brigade was an elite unit trained by the North Koreans to deal with dissidents, and did not fall within the army chain of command, but was answerable to Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s office.

Speeches of the notorious 5th Brigade commanders at rallies in 1984 stated the government’s desire to starve all Ndebele to death. A food embargo of Matabeleland South was imposed in 1984 at a time when there was starvation due to a three-year drought. The government had prevented all movement of food into the area, private food supplies were destroyed and no people were allowed out to buy food. The 5th Brigade punished villagers who shared food with starving neighbours, and destroyed bags of maize when they found them.

The report documents how in February 1984 the 5th Brigade launched a systematic campaign of mass beatings and detentions in Matabeleland South over several months, and the CIO was allegedly the main perpetrator of torture. The report speaks of the CIO having conducted most of the interrogations at the infamous Bhalangwe and Sun Yet Sen camps, where people were given electric shocks to their backs, ears and mouths, endured water torture, their genitals were mutilated, they were raped and some had their bodies literally stretched to breaking point.

The report documents the statements of witnesses who claim to have been tortured by the 5th Brigade and then the CIO, and passed back and forth between the two.

The report states that in 1984 all ex-Zipra and Zanu officials were detained, and men, women and children were randomly selected, detained and tortured.

It has been estimated that during this period thousands of people were massacred, most of them civilians. It was a time when villages were razed, people burnt and families buried alive.

In an interview with the British New Statesman at the beginning of the year, Mnangagwa absolved himself of any culpability in the Gukurahundi massacres of the mid-1980s, denying any involvement. In the past he has blamed the army and the notorious 5th Brigade elite unit for the killings. But even if the army carried out the mass killings, it would seem that the CIO bears immense culpability for the torture and repression of the period, and it would be hard to imagine that the head of the CIO was oblivious to what his agents were carrying out at the time.

There was never any accountability for the gross human rights abuses of that dark period, which enabled a culture of impunity to prevail within the army and the CIO.

Further human rights abuses were committed against members of the political opposition in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 2004 a UN report accused Mnangagwa of organising the plunder of diamonds and other precious resources during Zimbabwe’s military intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2005 the government deployed the police and army to bulldoze the homes of impoverished people in urban areas to “remove filth” in what was known as Operation Murambatsvina. It was the hotbed of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters who were targeted.

Mnangagwa was always at Mugabe’s side - throughout Operation Murambatsvina, the farm invasions, Zanu-PF’s alleged rigging of elections and the state terror unleashed to reverse Zanu-PFs electoral defeat in 2008. He was Mugabe’s loyal supporter. The two were so close that when Mnangagwa lost his seat in the 2000 and 2005 elections, Mugabe appointed him to an unelected seat in parliament.

It is said that Mnangagwa headed Mugabe’s presidential campaign in 2008 and played a critical role in Mugabe retaining power by brokering the power sharing pact with the MDC. It has been argued that as minister of defence from 2009 to 2013, Mnangagwa ensured that the security establishment decimated the political opposition and civil society. Mugabe then appointed Mnangagwa as vice-president in 2014.

Under Mnangagwa’s leadership, will Zimbabweans see the political space closing once again, the political opposition under attack and the media tightly controlled by the state?

It seems his monumental rise has been a masterful stroke for the political fortunes of Zanu-PF.

Only time will tell how much of a democrat Mnangagwa portends to be, but his track record leaves much to be desired.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.