This is an extended version of an interview with Emmerson Mnangagwa that was published on March 3rd 2018 

“THE land resettlement was a huge success in terms of our people, 367,000 of our people, back in possession of the land,” says President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the expropriation of most of Zimbabwe’s white-owned farmland since 2000—a move that wrecked the economy and pushed millions into poverty. Was it fair that bigwigs of his ruling Zanu-PF party took several farms each? (Among those who found time to juggle politics and farming was Grace Mugabe, the former president’s wife, who sought to oust Mr Mnangagwa as heir apparent but instead precipitated his ascent to power in November.) “No, no, it is one farm, one person,” he says. “Are there 367,000 people in the cabinet?” he jokes. “I have 404 hectares—and I paid for the equipment myself.”

Mr Mnangagwa admits, however, that Zimbabwe “became almost a country without friends” under Robert Mugabe. Now “Zimbabwe is open for business,” says Mr Mnangagwa, intoning the official mantra. Speaking in his home in Borrowdale, the poshest suburb of Harare, the capital, he glowingly lists the opportunities for investment under his much heralded “new dispensation”. He promises to make it easier for investors to do business and to “remove archaic pieces of legislation.” He acknowledges that the indigenisation act, which declares that all businesses must be at least 51% owned by black Zimbabweans or the state, has “inhibited” business, hence it is being amended. The mining sector has “low-hanging fruit” for investors, he says, though the indigenisation act will still apply to it. “So many people are coming to look at gold and energy,” he says. “But we need more power,” he adds, noting the opportunities for developing solar, thermal and wind energy.

Stockily built, with watchful hooded eyes and a friendly gap-toothed smile, Mr Mnangagwa is viewed as a pragmatist. And he says much to reassure Western diplomats and investors. He wants to arrange compensation for those whose land was seized. “Let’s empower farmers and attract the private sector,” he says. He hopes that the promotion of 99-year leases will encourage both black farmers and the few remaining white ones to feel secure enough to invest in their property.

But his economic vision is hardly liberal. He extols a “command” model where agriculture is guided by government and is designed, say its critics, to favour the ruling party’s loyalists. He blames the economy’s collapse on Western sanctions, even though these were targeted essentially on leading figures such as himself. He testily rejects a suggestion that they were far lighter than those levelled against the white-supremacist regime of Ian Smith before Mr Mugabe took over in 1980, citing the American Congress’s Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, known as ZIDERA, that in effect blocks the country from tapping into institutions such as the World Bank. “You are plain ignorant,” he tells The Economist. He still cites Robert Mugabe as one of the two greatest influences on him, the other being his father.

He knows that the West will not support Zimbabwe until the coming elections have been deemed free and fair, and insists they will be. Foreign election observers are welcome, he says. “I’m very happy that the Doubting Thomases can come in,” he says, though he refuses to be drawn on how soon they will be able to come.

On the ticklish question of whether Zimbabwe’s diaspora of several million people (most of them presumed to be hostile to the ruling party) can vote, he says, “There is no law which forbids them to vote. We can allow them to come.” He even suggests they may be able to register online, though this may be in some future election. By contrast, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) wants the government immediately to follow the example of other countries in the region, such as South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana, which let their citizens vote in their embassies and consulates abroad. Mr Mnangagwa makes it fairly clear that Zimbabweans abroad will not be able to do so this time around.

Asked if the army commanders should now publicly state that they will accept the result, whoever wins, he says, “The army are not in politics.” There is no need for such declarations, he says. “All those statements [from the past] are dead.” Indeed, he hotly denies that the army presently has too much influence, noting that Colin Powell held high office in America without anyone complaining. “I’m a military person myself,” he adds.

In any event, he promises to hand over if he loses, and notes that he twice personally accepted defeat when beaten by an opposition candidate in contests to be a member of parliament. (He brushes aside the incident when his winning MDC opponent in his constituency, Blessing Chebundo, was set upon by Zanu-PF thugs who tried to set him on fire and then burned down his house, referring to “clashes between supporters”.) He denies that previous elections were unfair, especially in 2008, when NGOs reckoned that at least 270 activists of the MDC were killed. Asked why the electoral commission, in thrall to Robert Mugabe, took five weeks to announce the results of the first round of the presidential election, which it eventually deemed to have been won by the opposition’s Morgan Tsvangirai but without an outright majority, he says, “It was transparent. Every day the chair of the electoral commission stated where they were. From my point of view it was fair, very fair. Where is the evidence for violence? Not a single case was taken to the police. There was no evidence.” In any case, he adds, “2018 is not 2008. It will be non-violent.”

Will he apologise for the killing of some 20,000 members of the Ndebele ethnic group, most of them civilians, in the early 1980s when he was head of the security service? “I created the national peace and reconciliation commission—let’s wait for its results,” he says, referring to a body he reactivated after becoming president. He blithely denies that he once called dissidents “cockroaches who must be exterminated”. Asked whether a shelved report on the atrocities chaired by a judge, Simplicius Chihambakwe, would ever be published, as requested by the opposition, he says, “I don’t know what happened to that report.” Asked about ethnic divisions in the country, he says, “We want to put colonial instruments of division behind us. Let’s not live in the past,” he says. “The future must be harmonious.”