Emmerson Mnangagwa, 80, who succeeded strongman Robert Mugabe in a coup, is earning a reputation as an even more authoritarian leader determined to cling to power.
Nicknamed "the crocodile" in Zimbabwe, the outgoing president is seeking a second term on Wednesday, in a dreaded tense ballot. His detractors accuse him of having implemented a repression of the opposition for months, in a context of hyperinflation and a stricken economy.
"He's a very repressive and authoritarian figure," sums up Brian Raftopoulos, a Zimbabwean political researcher.
Supporter of a hard line and heavyweight of the party in power (Zanu-PF) since independence, Mnangagwa becomes head of state at the end of a war of succession which opposes him to Grace Mugabe, the wife of the nonagenarian president dismissed in 2017.
The showdown between the rivals initially ended with the dismissal of Mnangagwa from the post of vice-president. Fearing for his life, he fled to Mozambique.
His son who accompanies him describes him after a nocturnal journey through the mountains, sitting at a bus stop, dusty suit and torn shoes, with only a briefcase filled with dollars.
But in a few weeks, the situation is reversed. The generals take power and boost Mnangagwa. The country is witnessing the triumphant return of the former dolphin supported by the ruling party.
- Power and poverty -
The following year, Mnangagwa won the presidential election with 50.8%. The opposition disputes the results, the army kills six demonstrators. Justice validates the nerd.
This election - already pitting Mnangagwa against his young rival Nelson Chamisa, now 45, like Wednesday - carried strong hopes for more freedoms and an economic recovery, which were quickly dissipated.
The mineral-rich country remains overwhelmed by major power cuts, shortages of gasoline, bread or medicine. Demonstrations against the high cost of living are violently repressed. The opposition accuses the new regime of surpassing Mugabe in brutality.
Laws have recently been passed that muzzle any dissenting opinion. Activists, elected officials and intellectuals are arrested, multiply the stays in prison.
President blames Western sanctions on Zimbabwe for preventing battered economy from recovering, which Washington and EU deny, saying they only target those implicated in corruption and abuse of rights .
Doubtless more repressive than his predecessor, Mr. Mnangagwa does not have the ideological vision of Mugabe, believes Mr. Raftopoulos. "It relies on militarization and securitization, not on a strong intellectual message."
Since independence in 1980, Mnangagwa had been a close friend of Mugabe. He chained key positions in the state system.
His mentor sets him aside for a while, suspicious of his ambition. But he chose him to lead his campaign in 2008. Mugabe lost the first round and Mnangagwa reportedly oversaw the wave of violence and intimidation that forced the opposition to withdraw from the second round.
Ex-Minister of Defense in particular, he retains close ties with the intelligence services he headed.
- Scarves and massacres -
In public, he invariably wears a striped scarf in the national colors and wants to build an image of an approachable politician.
While campaigning in 2018, he escaped an explosion that killed two people as he left the podium of a rally. The previous year, he had already survived tasting a so-called poisoned ice cream.
Laconic, the thick octogenarian with dyed hair calls himself a Christian and says he abstains from alcohol six months a year.
Born in 1942, Emmerson Dambudzo ("adversity" in the Shona language) Mnangagwa trained in guerrilla warfare, particularly in China before joining the fight for independence. Arrested by the British, hung upside down from a butcher's hook, he establishes his legend.
After blowing up a train, he was arrested in 1964 and sentenced to death, a sentence commuted to prison due to his young age.
After independence, he is accused of being the architect of the "Gukurahundi atrocities" in the 1980s, when soldiers massacred some 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele minority to quell the opposition in the west of the country.
He has started talks with traditional leaders to try to settle long-standing grievances over the massacres, which he calls a "bad patch" in the country's history.