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Newly sworn-in President Emmerson Mnangagwa gestures during the inauguration ceremony in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Nov. 24, 2017.

MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

After 37 years of Robert Mugabe's autocratic rule, Zimbabwe's new president Emmerson Mnangagwa has taken office with an inaugural speech in which he vowed to revive the battered economy, attract foreign investment and provide compensation to the thousands of farmers whose land was seized on Mr. Mugabe's orders over the past two decades.

Mr. Mnangagwa took the oath of office on Friday in front of a cheering crowd of 60,000 people at a sports stadium in Harare. He is replacing his long-time comrade in the ruling party, Mr. Mugabe, who resigned on Tuesday under heavy pressure after a military coup.

The stadium was filled with music, dancing and singing as Zimbabweans celebrated the first change of leadership since the country's liberation from white-minority rule in 1980.

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"This is a new dawn, a new era," state broadcaster ZBC told a national television audience.

While the rhetoric in his inaugural speech was conciliatory and moderate, Mr. Mnangagwa's long and shadowy career has raised deep concerns that he still might prefer repressive rule.

Mr. Mnangagwa, along with many other Zimbabwean ruling party members, is currently the subject of sanctions by the Canadian and U.S. governments for his role in undermining democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe.

He was one of Mr. Mugabe's closest aides for more than four decades, including periods of brutal crackdowns on dissent. Never a great populist or orator, and twice defeated in constituency elections, he has preferred to operate quietly from the back rooms. Even his exact birth date is uncertain.

He has denied that he played any role in the notorious Matabeleland massacres of 1982 and 1983, in which an estimated 20,000 civilians were killed in a military campaign to crush dissent in the region. Yet researchers in recent years have uncovered strong evidence of his role in supporting the atrocities in the Matabeleland region.

Mr. Mnangagwa was born in the mining town of Shabani in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. His family had to flee to Zambia because of his father's resistance to colonial rule. After receiving military training in China and Egypt, he rose to prominence as a guerrilla fighter in the early 1960s during the war of liberation from colonial and white-minority rule. His guerrilla unit was known as the Crocodile group – the original source of his nickname, the Crocodile. (His political supporters have embraced the nickname, portraying him as wily, patient and dangerous.)

In the early war years, Mr. Mnangagwa and his Crocodile unit sabotaged a locomotive and killed a police reservist. He was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he sometimes shared a cell with Mr. Mugabe. He was tortured by the colonial police and was kept in solitary confinement for three years.

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After his release, he became an assistant to Mr. Mugabe in exile in Mozambique. When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, he was appointed to the Mugabe cabinet, where he served as the president's enforcer for decades, helping build the regime's secret police, known as the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO).

Despite his denials, there is powerful evidence that Mr. Mnangagwa was one of the main architects of the brutal campaign against the Matabeleland dissidents. He was the minister of state security at the time of the massacres, and his CIO supported the military in the Matabeleland operation.

David Coltart, a senator from Zimbabwe's main opposition party, has documented Mr. Mnangagwa's role in Matabeleland. In an autobiography last year, Mr. Coltart cited a 1983 report in which the state security minister threatened to "burn down all villages infested with dissidents."

Mr. Mnangagwa denied Mr. Coltart's allegation. But a Zimbabwean journalist dug into the archives of a state-run newspaper, The Chronicle, and found reports confirming Mr. Mnangagwa's comments and several similar comments. In one report, for example, Mr. Mnangagwa is quoted as describing the dissidents as "cockroaches and bugs" who needed to be treated with pesticide – his euphemism for the army's notorious Fifth Brigade, trained by North Koreans.

"Taking both the circumstantial and specific evidence together, his intimate involvement in the killings is indisputable," said Stuart Doran, a historian who was extensively studied the Matabeleland massacres.

"Even if we were to confine ourselves to his contemporary public statements, those alone are enough to demonstrate his participation," said Mr. Doran, author of Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy, 1960-1987.

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In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, he also cited comments in 1983 in which Mr. Mnangagwa said the Fifth Brigade troops had arrived in Matabeleland "like fire" and had "cleansed" the dissidents and "wiped out their supporters."

Mary Ndlovu, the Canadian widow of a former Zimbabwean member of parliament in the Matabeleland region, says she has "no doubt" that Mr. Mnangagwa was the mastermind of the crackdown on that region in the early 1980s.

Her husband, Edward Ndlovu, was a member of ZAPU, a political party that was repeatedly targeted by Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Mnangagwa. In 1985, he was detained without trial for eight months, accused of plotting to overthrow the government. When he was finally released, a cabinet minister told him that Mr. Mnangagwa was responsible for his imprisonment, Ms. Ndlovu says.

She has met Mr. Mnangagwa several times. "Everything I know about him makes me want to stay as far away as possible," she told The Globe. "Friends who know him well fear him.… One gets the impression of a man who keeps his innermost thoughts to himself and prefers to play a quiet game."

Since the 1980s, Mr. Mnangagwa has held a series of senior cabinet posts and key positions in the ruling party. Corruption allegations have swirled around him and he is reported to be one of the wealthiest people in the ruling party. In addition to business interests in Zimbabwe, he became embroiled in the illicit trade of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after he led a Zimbabwean military intervention there.

An investigation by the United Nations in 2002 described Mr. Mnangagwa as a "key strategist" for an elite network of Congolese and Zimbabwean officials who controlled the trade of billions of dollars worth of diamonds and other Congolese mineral resources, using Zimbabwe as a diamond-trading centre. The UN investigation recommended that a travel ban and financial restrictions be imposed on him.

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At the end of the closely fought 2008 election, Mr. Mnangagwa is widely reported to have orchestrated a campaign of violence and intimidation that killed at least 200 people, forcing the opposition to pull out of the election.

In recent years, he is seen as an economic pragmatist who wants to bring back foreign investment. Yet he retains the old warlike rhetoric. On his first day back in Zimbabwe this week after the coup, his speech to the ruling party included an ominous line in the Shona language: "Death to the enemies."

Mr. Coltart, the senator, describes Mr. Mnangagwa as an enigma. "While he has been Mugabe's most trusted lieutenant, and thus responsible for terrible human rights abuses, he now opposes the death penalty, has protected white farmers in his home district, and understands what is needed to transform the economy better than anyone else in ZANU-PF," he told The Globe.

Mr. Mnangagwa's inaugural speech on Friday was filled with economic promises, but made no mention of democratic reforms – a worrisome omission in a country where elections have been rigged and opposition members have been terrorized.

He promised that the scheduled 2018 election will go ahead as planned. He said his government wants to "re-engage" with the international community, and he asked Western nations to reconsider their sanctions against Zimbabwe.

He paid tribute to Mr. Mugabe as his "mentor, comrade-in-arms and leader" and a "founding father" of the nation. He showed no interest, however, in seeking justice for the victims of historical atrocities. "Let bygones be bygones," he said.

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Many Zimbabweans are hoping that the new President will loosen the official repression and allow greater democracy. But there was a disturbing sign of fresh abuses on Friday when reports emerged that the military had assaulted and blindfolded Zimbabwe's finance minister, Ignatius Chombo, a leading member of a ruling-party faction that had feuded with Mr. Mnangagwa.

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