The swearing in of Zimbabwe's new President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa is being hailed as opening a new era for the country that had been ruled by Robert Mugabe from independence in 1980 until his dramatic downfall this week. But Mnangagwa had long been Mugabe's right-hand man, and in his inaugural speech paid tribute to him as a "mentor" and Zimbabwe's "founding father." Mnangagwa is known by the nickname "Ngwena" (Crocodile)—apparently a reference to his days as a commando in the Crocodile Group, an elite Chinese-trained guerilla unit that carried out acts of sabotage in the struggle against colonial and white supremacist rule in the 1960s. (BBC News, CNN, VOA) But some are pointing to Mnangagwa's reputation for ruthlessness even after the country's liberation from white rule, and are demanding accountability over his role in ethnic massacres in the 1980s.
When Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980, Mnangagwa was appointed minister of security. He directed the merger of the old Rhodesian army with Mugabe's guerrilla forces and the forces of rival independence leader Joshua Nkomo. But in 1983, the integration process with Nkomo's followers broke down into violence, deteriorating into a campaign of persecution against his Ndebele (Kalanga) people by a government dominated by the majority Shona ethnicity. In a counter-insurgency campaign known as the Gukurahundi (Shona for "storm" or "purge"), government forces carried out massacres that claimed up to 20,000 Ndebele lives in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces. Mnangagwa was widely blamed for planning the deadly campaign, spearheaded by the army's North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. Although Mnangagwa today denies his role, his comments at the time implied that the Ndebele "bandits" were vermin, saying that "DDT" had to be applied against them. (Bulawayo24, News Day, Zimbabwe, Mail & Guardian, South Africa)