BSR: Politics of Authoritarian Rule in Zimbabwe


Where are we as a nation and what does the future hold? The situation is dire. A key exercise at this point is an examination of factors that are influencing the conduct of politics under the regime led by Emmerson Mnangagwa with the coup of November 2017 as a critical juncture.

In “The Politics of Authoritarian Rule”, political scientist Milan W Svolik provides an interesting and useful account of the factors that shape politics in authoritarian regimes. His work provides a useful set of tools to analyse the conduct of politics under the Mnangagwa regime. I will first set out the framework presented by Svolik before applying it to analyse the conduct of politics in present-day Zimbabwe.

Conflicts that shape authoritarian politics

According to Svolik, there are two principal conflicts that shape authoritarian politics.

The first is what he calls the problem of authoritarian control which is characterised by conflicts between the authoritarian ruler and the citizens or to put more broadly, between the ruling elite that holds power and the majority of citizens that are excluded from it.

The second, which he calls the problem of authoritarian power-sharing, is a conflict between members of the ruling elite, typically between the ruler and his allies. Svolik draws on a quotation from Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who stated that“… in oligarchies, there is the danger of the oligarchs falling out among themselves and also with the people” (The Politics, Book 5).

I shall get into more detail on these conflicts and how they shape authoritarian politics.

Critical features of authoritarian politics

Svolik also points to two critical features of authoritarian politics which define whether and how authoritarian rulers seek to resolve these two conflicts identified above.

First, there is typically in an authoritarian system the lack of an independent authority which is capable of enforcing agreements between the ruler and his allies.

Second, there is the ever-present phenomenon of violence as a mechanism of resolving conflicts both between the ruler and the citizens and between the ruler and his allies.

To these two, we should also add that formal political institutions which are normally useful in resolving political conflicts between the ruling elites and the people in a democracy are so captured that they become dysfunctional and ineffective. These political institutions include elections and the electoral authority, the legislature, the courts, the media, law enforcement agencies and regional bodies. To the extent that these formal political institutions have a purpose in an authoritarian regime, they generally serve to reinforce authoritarian rule by giving it a veneer of legitimacy.

The absence or ineffectiveness of these political institutions as neutral referees or arbiters of conflict help to explain why the conduct of politics and end of authoritarian rule is often characterised by repression and gruesome violence. This is because institutions such as elections which are the constitutional avenues for the conduct of politics are largely ineffective.

While conventional analysis often focuses on the problem of authoritarian control, that is, the conflict between the ruler and the citizens, Svolik believes the second problem of authoritarian power-sharing is even more critical. This conflict between the ruler and his allies shapes and limits the way in which the ruler governs.

In his analysis of dictatorships between 1946 and 2008, Svolik found that out of 316 of them, 205 (more than two thirds) were deposed through various forms of coups. Therefore, he says, “the overwhelming majority of dictators lose power to those inside the gates of the presidential palace rather than to the masses outside”. This means the dynamics of authoritarian power-sharing – between the ruler and his allies – deserve closer attention and critical scrutiny.

To understand these dynamics it is important to examine how an authoritarian ruler acquires power and secondly, how he maintains it. Oft-times the ruler takes power with the assistance of key allies because he cannot do it alone. These allies could be military generals, veteran political elites, senior bureaucrats or even foreign powers. The ruler also lacks the capacity to govern and maintain power on his own, and to resolve conflict with the citizens forces him to rely on these allies, especially the military.

However, these allies do not perform this role out of benevolence to the ruler. They do so out of self-interest and they expect a return for their investments. There is a quid pro quo, which means they expect something in return. As such, there are undertakings by the ruler or agreements with his allies which will be expected to bear fruit once he is in power. This is what produces expectations of power-sharing between the ruler and his allies.

There is no guarantee, however, that these agreements will hold. Authoritarian power-sharing might fail because of conflicts between the ruler and his allies once he is in power. This is because after taking power the ruler would want to acquire more of it, sidelining his allies and consolidating his position. There is no guarantee that the ruler will honour the agreements made with his allies before acquiring power. The allies might in turn wish to protect their share of power and they might even seek to limit the power of the ruler or in extreme cases, to replace him.

This conflict might be resolved if there was an independent authority to enforce prior agreements between the ruling elites. But since there is no such independent authority there is no easy way for the old allies to enforce agreements or to resolve their conflicts. The situation degenerates into an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion, with each side trying to outdo the other. The ruler becomes fearful of his old allies and seeks to protect himself while his old allies no longer trust him and seek to dethrone him. We often think the ruler is afraid of the people but in truth, he is also afraid of his old allies and this shapes his politics.

This is where the instruments of violence come in. The ruler may have to sideline or even eliminate his old allies. At the same time, the old allies might plot to remove and replace the ruler. This particular conflict has little to do with the citizens. It is all about power-sharing – sharing the spoils of victory. It’s like a gang of bank robbers who after a heist begin to squabble over the loot, sometimes with fatal consequences.

The key in all this is who between the ruling elites has control of the institutions of violence – the military, police and intelligence. Svolik describes this situation as “contested autocracy”, as opposed to “established autocracy” where the ruler has gained undisputed control after eliminating his old allies. As we shall see, Zimbabwe is still at the stage of contested autocracy. Mnangagwa has not yet firmly established himself among his allies, although he is trying to do so. This sub-plot is often missed as the focus is on contestation between ruling elites and the citizens.

Repression and Co-optation

Authoritarian regimes rely on two principal ways to deal with the problem of authoritarian control, argues Svolik. The first is repression and the other is co-optation. Repression involves the use of violence, which is expressed in draconian laws and the use of brute force by the apparatuses of the state such as the police and military.

However, as Svolik points out, reliance on repression is a “double-edged sword” for the ruler because “it sows the seeds of future military intervention”. A more common expression for a similar phenomenon is that “coups beget coups”. In other words, if you take power by coup, there is high a risk that you will also be deposed by a coup.

Svolik refers to this as the “moral hazard” of using repression to control disgruntled masses. “The very resources that enable a regime’s repressive agents to suppress its opposition also empower it to act against the regime itself,” he says. Therefore, the security forces who use violence to protect an authoritarian ruler also become a potential threat to the authoritarian ruler.

When a regime regularly resorts to repressive instruments to suppress its citizens, it signals that it lacks popular consent. Popular consent is critical because it is the basis for the legitimate government in a democracy. Violence on the other hand establishes and fortifies authority but it does not confer legitimacy.

Now that we have the framework provided by Svolik in his analysis of the politics of authoritarian rule, let us look at the situation in Zimbabwe from November 2017. We will see that much of Svolik’s observations have resonance in the conduct of politics in the Mnangagwa era. It helps us understand how politics has been conducted under the Mnangagwa regime. But more ominously it also signals how it might end and historical precedents tell us it is not pretty.

Politics of Power-sharing 

It cannot possibly be disputed that Mnangagwa would never have become President of Zimbabwe in November 2017 had it not been for the efforts of his allies in the military, the party, the judiciary, the government bureaucracies and regional allies. It is now common cause that Mugabe was effectively ousted through a military coup, led by the then head of the military, General Constantino Chiwenga. Before his return to assume the presidency, Mnangagwa fled the country, fearing for his life or liberty. He only returned courtesy of the coup.

While engineered by military elites, the coup needed a judge of the High Court to declare its lawfulness and to give it a veneer of legality. It also needed a Parliament for the same purposes hence the impeachment process which forced Mugabe to “resign”. Furthermore, it needed veteran politicians who had been loyal to Mugabe to ditch and betray him in his hour of need. It also required senior government bureaucrats who had hitherto worked hand in glove with Mugabe for many years to switch allegiance to Mnangagwa. These bureaucrats include Chief Secretary to the Cabinet, Misheck Sibanda, Presidential spokesperson George Charamba, Chief of Protocol Kajese and a host of others in the President’s Office. Unsurprisingly all of them retained their roles in the power-sharing arrangement under Mnangagwa. The price that Mnangagwa paid for these retentions was continuity at the expense of change.

After the coup, and after assuming power, Mnangagwa had to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with all these actors who had assisted him. He had to deal with the problem of power-sharing, ensuring a balancing act that satisfied his allies while helping him to contain them at the same time.

Of all these allies, the military was the most critical actor. Mnangagwa owes his presidency to Chiwenga and other military allies who took the ultimate risk which could have cost them their lives had the coup been foiled. They did not do this out of charity towards or love of Mnangagwa. While Chiwenga became a Vice President, in real terms, it was a power-sharing arrangement which could best be described as a de facto co-presidency. There would have been undertakings or agreements between Mnangagwa and these allies.

Unsurprisingly, key military generals exchanged their military fatigues for three-piece suits. Lieutenant General S B Moyo, who famously announced the coup on national television, became the Foreign Affairs Minister, Zimbabwe’s face to the world. Air Marshall Perrance Shiri became Minister of Agriculture. More than ever before the soldiers were sharing power with the civilians, a coalition of political and military elites. They were no longer men in the background as they were in the Mugabe era.

Mnangagwa’s government is, therefore, to be seen as a power-sharing arrangement between the ruler and his allies who brought him to power. This is important because its conduct of politics is shaped by the dynamics of this power-sharing arrangement. The power-sharing narrative helps explain why Mnangagwa had little choice but to accommodate old politicians in his first Cabinet after the coup when he might have chosen a different path of bringing in new blood or even working with the opposition.

Even when he excluded the old politicians from the government after the elections in 2018, he still deployed them to the party on the same terms and conditions as if they were members of the Cabinet. Despite several pleas to pursue well-known corrupt veteran politicians, Mnangagwa has not moved against them. How do you move against allies who helped you get into power; men who are part of the power-sharing arrangement? This failure to support his anti-corruption campaign is a direct result of power-sharing politics in an authoritarian set-up.

However, the dynamics of a power-sharing government mean power is perpetually contested between members of the ruling elite. Therefore, Mnangagwa has been preoccupied with containing his old allies, mindful of the fact that they pose a threat to his power. Svolik has a classic Machiavelli quote which is that if you come to power by “corrupting soldiers” you become a hostage of “him who granted them the State”. This is true.

Robert Mugabe made that mistake when in 2002 and more directly in 2008 the military Generals intervened in the elections on his behalf and effectively “owned” him. That too was a power-sharing arrangement, albeit more subtle. The generals were his benefactors and guarantors of power. It is not surprising that they took away “the State” in November 2017, giving it to Mnangagwa. This also means Mnangagwa faces the very same risk that Mugabe faced to his cost in November 2017.

Mnangagwa’s desire to control the ambitions of his allies has seen him make several changes to the make-up of the command structure in the military, removing potential threats through “rewards” of “promotions” and reassignments. This is the context in which redeployment of some generals to diplomatic roles and other civilian duties is to be seen. Mnangagwa is trying to resolve the problem of power-sharing but in doing so he is also creating potential threats to his power. If he is appearing paranoid and enhancing his security, it is because he knows this threat is real.

Authoritarian control

Simultaneously, Mnangagwa has had to deal with the problem of authoritarian control, that is, how to control unhappy masses. This has increasingly become more important because of the deteriorating economic and social conditions which have produced perfect conditions for mass uprisings. He has done so not through persuasion but by use of apparatuses of force and violence. Twice in six months, the military was deployed to suppress citizen demonstrations and in both cases with fatal consequences. Even Mugabe at the peak of his repressive rule never deployed the military to quell civilian demonstrations in this manner.

The regular use of violence to suppress citizens is indicative of a paucity of popular consent for his rule, despite being declared the winner in the 2018 elections. More recently, the regime banned demonstrations by the opposition and had the support of the courts, another sign of state in which otherwise impartial referees are captured. The absence of political institutions to arbitrate fairly between the ruler and the citizens is, as we have already seen from Svolik’s analysis, a feature of authoritarian rule. He has had to resort to repression and violence as a means of control.

However, resorting to the military to maintain power comes at a price for Mnangagwa – the “moral hazard” that Svolik refers to. The soldiers that he is relying on are also a threat to him. They demand compensation in various ways including greater stakes in the ever-diminishing national cake. Failure to provide such compensation places him at risk of rebellion. He is therefore taking a huge risk to his own power by relying on violence to control the citizens.

These contestations in the power-sharing arrangement means that Mnangagwa has to be wary of his allies who might try to wrestle power from him. It is hardly surprising that Mnangagwa’s security arrangements have become visibly enhanced to unprecedented levels since the bombing at White City Stadium in 2018, which he believes was aimed at eliminating him. Incredibly, details of the investigation of such a high profile incident have never been released. There have been no serious arrests or prosecutions. Mnangagwa is not scared of the opposition, no. It doesn’t have the capacity to harm him. He is protecting himself from the allies who helped him to take power. It is a sign of the problem of authoritarian power-sharing which Svolik identifies in his analysis.

On the other hand, Mnangagwa’s chief ally who helped him take power, Retired General Chiwenga has been totally out of action for the better part of the year, battling an undisclosed but severe illness. He has spent several months out of the country, in South Africa, India and now in China. The cause of his infirmity is not publicly known and the matter has long been a subject of speculation. Is it natural or human-induced? If the latter, it could well be another sign of the problem of authoritarian power-sharing.

Before his current predicament, Chiwenga had been stripped of his powers with the Ministry of Defence taken away from him after he had held the post in the aftermath of the coup, which was part of the power-sharing arrangement. Analysts saw taking away the defence ministry as part of Mnangagwa’s efforts to contain his old ally and deputy. The military reassignments, promotions and retirements have also been seen as Mnangagwa’s efforts to mould a command structure in the military that is loyal to him rather than to his deputy who used to head the military.

Furthermore, prior to the ZANU PF Conference in 2018, party youths began a campaign for Mnangagwa as the party’s 2023 candidate. This was seen as targeting Chiwenga who, it is said, has ambitions to succeed Mnangagwa. It has always been rumoured that there is a tacit agreement that Mnangagwa would only serve a single term before passing on the baton to Chiwenga. But it has become increasingly clear that he wants a second term. If true, the youths’ campaign suggests a signal of reneging on that agreement. Just recently one of Mnangagwa’s new recruits, Professor Mthuli Ncube was heard sloganeering to the effect that Mnangagwa is aiming for re-election in 2023. Do his old allies agree with this path? Unlikely.

So the question is: Has there been a breach of agreements between Mnangagwa and his allies? If so, the problem is that there is no independent authority to resolve such disputes between the old allies. There is no authority to enforce such agreements. This leaves violence and related ways as mechanisms for resolving disputes, a dire scenario.

It is important to note that this form of violence between the ruling elites is distinct from violence between the ruling elites and the citizens. Violence between the ruling elites is used to resolve the power-sharing problem while violence between ruling elites and the citizens is used to resolve the problem of authoritarian control. Conventional narratives often focus on the violence between ruling elites and citizens but violence between ruling elites is equally significant in shaping the politics of authoritarian rule. As Svolik points out, “In authoritarian politics, the option of violence is never off the table. Political conflicts may be, and indeed frequently are, resolved by brute force”. Likewise, the pursuit of business elites for alleged corruption has less to do with the desire to clean up than with attempts to control men who might use their financial clout against him. Did he not know that these man were incorrigibly corrupt?


While repression is a dominant feature of authoritarian rule as a means to control citizens, political scientists also recognise that authoritarian regimes use co-optation as a way of containing potential opponents. The ruler who has come to power through a coup knows he has also created opponents within. He might eliminate them through violence or the threat of it or he might co-opt them. Leading members of the ZANU PF faction which opposed Mnangagwa’s bid for the presidency had to flee the country in the aftermath of the coup fearing physical elimination and other forms of retribution. They remain in exile.

Old opponents and critics were co-opted into the regime. Some elites from business and academia such as Professor Mthuli Ncube were co-opted as Cabinet ministers. The Presidential Advisory Council (PAC) is one such institution of co-optation with business elites co-opted as advisers to the President. Boards of state institutions and parastatals such as the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission are also platforms of co-optation. The Political Actors Dialogue (Polad) is another zone of co-optation where a group of opposition parties, except the main opposition party, the MDC Alliance, are supposedly taking part in a dialogue with ZANU PF. Others are co-opted by offers of diplomatic posts or as judges or technical advisers.

All these co-opted elites are made to feel very important and in their naivety, firmly believe that they can make a difference. They have not read the manual of authoritarian rule to enable them to see that they are merely of ornamental value to the regime. They are oblivious to the fact of their co-optation and if questioned, in their naivety they are more likely to protest their independence and to declare love for their country. The regime has no interest in these niceties. Co-opted elites are few less opposition and serve to confer some respectability to the regime.

This, therefore, is where we are as a nation, with the politics of authoritarian rule playing out in classic fashion.

In a nutshell

Let us then pull the threads from this article so as to see the bigger picture:

First, the article proceeds on the notion that the conduct of politics in present-day Zimbabwe is distinctly authoritarian. The regime lacks popular consent, hence the resort to repression as a means to control the citizens.

The political institutions that would normally define a liberal democracy such the legislature, courts, media, electoral authority, law enforcement agencies and other state bodies are captured, compromised and ineffective. They serve largely to enhance rather than to constrain the power of the State and the ruling party. They are generally incapable of resolving the conflicts between the ruling elites and the citizens as they almost always favour the former. They might throw in a few sweeteners here and there, such the occasional judge granting a favourable judgement, but this is all part of the repertoire of authoritarian rule.

Second, Mnangagwa’s politics since he assumed power has been shaped by two principal problems:

  • The problem of authoritarian control, that is, how to contain unhappy and restive citizens who have withdrawn popular consent

  • The problem of authoritarian power-sharing necessitated by the way in which he assumed office and how he maintains power against unhappy citizens. He must deal with how to contain unhappy and restive allies who also want power

Third, the Mnangagwa regime has relied upon the following sources in trying to resolve these conflicts:

  • Repression – the use of violence but with the risk that it empowers agents of violence who might use it against him to their own advantage. Violence is also expressed in repressive laws.

  • Captured institutions – ensuring political referees are incapable of conducting their affairs in a fair and impartial manner

  • Co-optation of elites in business and opposition as a way of weakening the opposition and limiting potential points of resistance

  • Support from regional allies who turn a blind eye to his misdeeds

Why does this matter?

Understanding the conduct of politics in the Mnangagwa state is important because it can help us see where the future lies. Authoritarian regimes usually fall not through normal democratic processes such as elections because political institutions which are supposed to arbitrate between the ruler and citizens are captured and totally incapable of performing their mandate.

The weight of history suggests that authoritarian regimes often suffer violent and gruesome ends, sometimes through popular uprising which may be supported by the military where it decides not to use repression or more directly by the military itself emboldened by the violence which the ruler has routinely allowed them to use against his opponents. They end up using it against him.

This is, admittedly, a dire prognosis but unfortunately, it is supported by precedent in various parts of the world. Milton Obote was deposed by Idi Amin, a man he had trusted his general. Nicolae Ceausescu succumbed a brutal end as the military decided to back citizens. Samuel Doe was brutally executed by Prince Johnson. More recently, Sudanese dictator Omar al Bashir fell when the military decided to withdraw violence against citizens. In our own situation, Mugabe fell when his soldiers turned against him. These precedents are not to be ignored.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe is unlikely to make progress under Mnangagwa’s rule because he is too pre-occupied with resolving conflicts with the people and with his own allies leaving him without time for progressive development-oriented politics. He is constantly fighting fires, battling the citizens and his allies, both constituencies that threaten his power.

Two important bodies, the UN and the IMF have this week issued brutally honest and hard-hitting reports on Mnangagwa’s rule. The citizens have already signalled their unhappiness and he has resorted to repressive laws and brute force to thwart them. But how long can he contain his old allies in trying to resolve the problem of power-sharing? It is ominous but the country faces an uncertain and bleak future.