Mr Mugabe, 93, resigned amid a military takeover and mass demonstrations – all sparked by his sacking of Mr Mnangagwa as his vice-president.
Popularly known as “Garwe”, or crocodile in Shona, after his days as a member of the 1960s Crocodile Gang that waged anti-colonial resistance acts against the white minority regime of the time, Mnangagwa is set to become Zimbabwe’s second leader and third president since independence in 1980.
Mnangagwa – also known as “Ngwena” (a totemic name for a crocodile) or “E.D.”, after his initials – has long been seen as the man most likely to replace his mentor and Zimbabwe’s longtime leader, Robert Mugabe.
But things took a different turn as factional battles within the ruling ZANU-PF party over Mugabe’s succession pitted him, a vice president, against the president’s wife, Grace.
On November 6, the internal power struggle led to the dismissal of Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa for safety.
But in a sudden move, the military seized power on November 15 and placed 93-year-old Mugabe under house arrest at his Blue Roof Residence in Harare.
As pressure grew, Mugabe finally resigned on Tuesday, putting an end to his reign of 37 years.
|Mnangagwa supporters gathered at Manyame airbase on Wednesday to welcome him back from South Africa
Mnangagwa’s political shrewdness and ability to survive seemingly dire situations have seen him grow into his nickname.
Tales of his dramatic escape from Zimbabwe shortly after his firing as vice president could make for an action movie script, and have earned him wide popularity and sympathy among many Zimbabweans.
Many believe he represents change and could turn the country’s fortunes around.
During his vice presidency, Mnangagwa introduced the Command Agriculture scheme, an African Development Bank-backed programme designed to help communities become more self-sufficient.
Launched two years ago, the initiative is still in its infancy. But some analysts believe it has the potential to return Zimbabwe to its status as the breadbasket of the region.
As a prominent ZANU-PF official, Mnangagwa backed the seizures of white-owned commercial farms at the turn of the millennium.
However, in his home province of the Midlands he reportedly “secretly” protected some white farmers from being driven from their lands.
According to leaked intelligence reports reviewed by Reuters news agency, re-engaging white farmers could be one of the potential priorities in a post-Mugabe era.
“Mnangagwa realises he needs the white farmers on the land when he gets into power … he will use the white farmers to resuscitate the agricultural industry, which he reckons is the backbone of the economy,” reads part of the report.
Who is Emmerson Mnangagwa?
- Known as “the crocodile” because of his political shrewdness – his Zanu-PF faction is “Lacoste”
- Received military training in China and Egypt
- Tortured by Rhodesian forces after his “crocodile gang” staged attacks
- Helped direct Zimbabwe’s war of independence in the 1960s and 1970s
- Became the country’s spymaster during the 1980s civil conflict, in which thousands of civilians were killed, but has denied any role in the massacres, blaming the army
- Accused of masterminding attacks on opposition supporters after 2008 election
- Says he will deliver jobs, and seen as open to economic reforms
The exact year of Mr Mnangagwa’s birth is not known – but he is thought to be 75, so nearly 20 years younger than his predecessor.
Born in the central region of Zvishavane, he is a Karanga – the largest clan of Zimbabwe’s majority Shona community.
Some Karangas feel it is their turn for power, following 37 years of domination by Mr Mugabe’s Zezuru clan, though he himself has been accused of profiting during his time in power.
According to a United Nations report in 2001, Mr Mnangagwa was seen as “the architect of the commercial activities of Zanu-PF”.
This largely related to the operations of the Zimbabwean army and businessmen in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Zimbabwean troops intervened in the DR Congo conflict on the side of the government and, like those of other countries, were accused of using the conflict to loot some of its rich natural resources such as diamonds, gold and other minerals.
Blood on his hands
Despite his money-raising role, Mr Mnangagwa, a lawyer who grew up in Zambia, was not always well-loved by the rank and file of his own party.
A Zanu-PF official posed an interesting question when asked about Mr Mnangagwa’s prospects: “You think Mugabe is bad, but have you thought that whoever comes after him could be even worse?”
The opposition candidate who defeated Mr Mnangagwa in the 2000 parliamentary campaign in Kwekwe Central, Blessing Chebundo, might agree.
During a bitter campaign, Mr Chebundo escaped death by a whisker when the Zanu-PF youths who had abducted him and doused him with petrol were unable to light a match.
Mr Mnangagwa’s fearsome reputation was made during the civil war which broke out in the 1980s between Mr Mugabe’s Zanu party and the Zapu party of Joshua Nkomo.
As national security minister, he was in charge of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), which worked hand in glove with the army to suppress Zapu.
Thousands of innocent civilians – mainly ethnic Ndebeles, seen as Zapu supporters – were killed in a campaign known as Gukurahundi, before the two parties merged to form Zanu-PF.
Among countless other atrocities carried out by North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the army, villagers were forced at gunpoint to dance on the freshly dug graves of their relatives and chant pro-Mugabe slogans.
Mr Mnangagwa has denied any role in the massacres, but the wounds are still painful and many party officials, not to mention voters, in Matabeleland will find a Mnangagwa presidency unpalatable.
He does enjoy the support of many of the war veterans who led the campaign of violence against the white farmers and the opposition from 2000.
They remember him as one of the men who, following his military training in China and Egypt, directed the fight for independence in the 1960s and 1970s.
He also attended the Beijing School of Ideology, run by the Chinese Communist Party.
Mr Mnangagwa’s official profile says he was the victim of state violence after being arrested by the white-minority government in the former Rhodesia in 1965, when the “crocodile gang” he led helped blow up a train near Fort Victoria (now Masvingo).
“He was tortured, severely resulting in him losing his sense of hearing in one ear,” the profile says.
“Part of the torture techniques involved being hanged with his feet on the ceiling and the head down. The severity of the torture made him unconscious for days.”
As he said was under 21 at the time, he was not executed but instead sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“He has scars from that period. He was young and brave,” a close friend of Mr Mnangagwa once said, asking not to be named.
“Perhaps that explains why he is indifferent. Horrible things happened to him when he was young.”
His ruthlessness, which it could be argued he learnt from his Rhodesian torturers, is said to have been seen again in 2008 when he reportedly masterminded Zanu-PF’s response to Mr Mugabe losing the first round of the president election to long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai.
The military and state security organisations unleashed a campaign of violence against opposition supporters, leaving hundreds dead and forcing thousands from their homes.
Mr Tsvangirai then pulled out of the second round and Mr Mugabe was re-elected.
Mr Mnangagwa has not commented on allegations he was involved in planning the violence, but an insider in the party’s security department later confirmed that he was the political link between the army, intelligence and Zanu-PF.
Ice cream plot
And he was seen as Mr Mugabe’s right-hand man – that is until the former first lady Grace Mugabe became politically ambitious and tried to edge him out.
Their rivalry took a bizarre turn earlier this year when he fell ill in August at a political rally led by former President Mugabe and had to be airlifted to South Africa.
His supporters suggested that a rival group within Zanu-PF had poisoned him and appeared to blame ice cream from Mrs Mugabe’s dairy firm.
In his first words to cheering supporters after Mr Mugabe’s resignation, he spoke about this plot and the more recent plan to “eliminate” him.
His performance – while not matching Mr Mugabe’s eloquence – was well received.
“Today we are witnessing the beginning of a new and unfolding democracy,” he said, calling for jobs and economic growth.
Nick Mangwana, Zanu-PF representative in the UK, accepts that the Zimbabwe’s new leader is “not the most eloquent”.
“He’s not pally-pally but more of a do-er, more of a technocrat.”
His youngest son, a Harare DJ known as St Emmo, blames this reticence for his fearsome reputation.
“He was a good father, very very strict. He doesn’t say much and I think that’s what frightens people – like: ‘What is he thinking?'”
British journalist Martin Fletcher, who interviewed Mr Mnangagwa in 2016, does not see a political opening in the country any time soon.
But, he says, there is still hope for the economy, whose collapse has been widely blamed on Mr Mugabe. Zimbabweans are on average 15% poorer now than they were in the 1980s.
“He understands the need to rebuild the economy if only so that he can pay his security forces – and his survival depends on their loyalty.”