Zimbabwe’s president completed two rites of passages beloved of old-school African strongmen on Friday when he stripped dozens of streets of their colonial identities — and then renamed many of them after himself.
Thoroughfares in ten of Zimbabwe’s biggest cities and towns, including the capital Harare, will now bear the name Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa as his government embarks on a campaign to eradicate the last visible vestiges of the country’s British past.
What the project fails to capture in pithiness it will more than make up for in national pride.
The Cabinet Committee on Place Names said the renaming of more than 89 streets countrywide was both a reflection of the country’s values and “a social engagement tool that fosters understanding, peace and university in diversity.”
As a result, Hughes Street in Mazvingo will become Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa Street, while Etherton Road in Bindura becomes Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa Road. It is unclear if the committee is planning bigger name posts or smaller letters to accommodate the changes.
Famous names from the colonial past are also to be expunged.
Casualties include the swashbuckling pioneer Frederick Selous, Sir John Chancellor, the first governor of southern Rhodesia (and grandfather of the late Spectator editor Alexander Chancellor) and even Cecil Rhodes himself, after whom the country was named until independence in 1980.
They are to be replaced with local heroes of the president’s ruling Zanu-PF party. One Harare street will be named after John Nkomo, a former vice president who had been placed under US sanctions for “undermining democracy”.
Another is to be called “Solomon Mujuru Drive”, after a powerful party kingpin who collected as many as 16 farms confiscated during the purge of white farmers more than a decade ago.
Foreign heroes will not be forgotten either. Fife Avenue in Harare is to become Brezhnev Avenue after the former Soviet leader who presided over what Russians call the “Period of Stagnation” during the Sixties and Seventies.
The late Cuban leader Fidel Castro and China’s Chairman Mao are also to be honoured.
Not everyone is happy. Arthur Mutambara, a veteran opposition figure, accused the president of wanting to “immortalise himself”.
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“All the other name changes are to cover up this wicked ambition,” he told TimesLIVE, a South African news service.
Tendai Biti, vice president of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, was equally scathing, tweeting: “The public hospital system has collapsed. Citizens are dying like flies. The power blackouts are now permanent. Hyperinflation has spiralled out of control. But they sat and named roads after themselves.”
Economic tribulations aside, there is likely to be discontent over the new Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa Way in the second city of Bulawayo, capital of the Matabeleland, where some accuse the president of having a leading role in the massacres of 20,000 people in the Eighties. Mr Mnangagwa denies the charges.
Although the practice has fallen out of favour in much of Africa of late, it was fairly standard for African leaders, particularly those of a more authoritarian bent, to name streets after themselves.
Robert Mugabe, the late president ousted in the 2017 coup that brought Mr Mnangagwa to power, was particularly skilled in this regard. There was scarcely a sizeable town in the country that did not have a Mugabe Street.
Even if Mr Mnangagwa has only 10 roads to his name so far, he is increasingly proving himself a worthy successor: earlier this month he unveiled a statue of himself at Masvingo Airport in southern Zimbabwe.