Can a crocodile change its spots?

Published: January 16, 2018

Being in the right place at the right time to observe history in the making is not something that happens to us very often. So, when I happened to be in Zimbabwe, ostensibly to Chair a meeting of the Dambari Wildlife Trust, on the day that Robert Mugabe was deposed as President of the country, I thought I was witnessing history.
As it turns out, I was, but only in a very limited sense. What was touching to see was the overwhelming joy and relief of Zimbabweans that the old tyrant was finally gone, and their genuine belief that their lives were going to improve. Perhaps they are, but my concern over the incoming new President, the ‘Crocodile’, Emerson Mnangagwa, was that nothing, really, was going to change.
My scepticism arose while listening to the language and content of the speeches made by him and others around the time of the non-coup. It was all about the party, ZANU-PF, and the preservation of its power, not about the best interests of the country. There is nothing particularly shocking in this; our own politicians, with a few honourable exceptions, always put party loyalty ahead of the country’s interests, but it was still depressing to hear.
So, given that, for many years, the Crocodile was an intimate part of the Government that deliberately destroyed the country’s agricultural and industrial infrastructure, ostensibly on racial grounds, but actually for their own personal gain, is there any good news for conservation in Zimbabwe? Well, the short answer is, of course, that it is too early to tell.
Over the last fifteen years, poachers backed by Government officials looted the National Parks of most of their rhinos and elephants. The new President has since publically acknowledged that the Parks have a massive role to play in restoring the tourist economy so presumably that means that the poaching will stop and the country’s reputation for once having the best, and the best run, National Parks in Africa will be restored.
This, of course, means extra resourcing, and there’s the rub. The country doesn’t have any extra resources. The vast army and police force, which are neither necessary (except to keep ZANU-PF in power) nor affordable, take up much of the country’s available budget. It was a joke in Zimbabwe at the time that when the police were temporarily off the streets during the non-coup, and the army took over, the crime rate went down. Reducing the size of those forces to a point that the country can afford, without leaving large numbers of unemployed ex-soldiers with a sense of grievance and entitlement is probably not something that the new President can risk.
If the same old cabal that ruined the country has just rearranged the deck chairs, but is still in charge, then it is hard to be optimistic for the future. However, the cabal has stolen almost everything available to be stolen, so maybe the only answer is to encourage others to create more wealth before the theft can begin again. In which case a period of leaving the people of Zimbabwe to get on with their lives without Government interference might be the way forward. Some of the pronouncements from the new President seem to indicate an understanding of this truth, so maybe the Crocodile will change his spots after all?

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Simon Tonge, Executive Director, WWCT