'Crocodile' or 'born-again Christian'?: Emmerson Mnangagwa's bloody journey as he slides to power

Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as 'Ngwena' or 'the Crocodile' thanks to his shrewd ruthlessness, once said that he had been taught to 'destroy and kill', though he later claimed to be a born-again Christian.

There is little evidence, of a public nature at least, when it comes to his faith, but plenty of suggestions that Mnangagwa has 'blood on his hands' in the unrest in Zimbabwe, where he is due to be president following the demise of his ally-turned-enemy Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa listens as President Robert Mugabe (not pictured) delivers his state of the nation address to the country's parliament in Harare, August 25, 2015.Reuters

The former vice president, 75, appears ready to have the last laugh in a game of snakes and ladders with Mugabe that saw him being fired before the military's dramatic but bloodless coup last week.

But following the army's dramatic seizure of power and reports that Mnangagwa has left South Africa where he has been since his dismissal, Mnangagwa is now preparing to return to Zimbabwe and assume a leadership role.

Born in the southwestern Zvishavana district of Zimbabwe on September 15, 1942, Mnangagwa completed his early education in the country he would later help govern before his family relocated to neighbouring Zambia.

His father was a political agitator for the repeal of colonial laws, and in 1966, the young Mnangagwa joined the struggle for independence from Britain, becoming one of the young combatants who helped direct the war after training in China and Egypt.

At one point, he was arrested and sentenced to death but this was changed to 10 years imprisonment because of his young age.

The rise of Mnangagwa began in earnest when the then trainee lawyer was hand-picked by Mugabe to be minister for national security in the early days after independence from Britain, in 1980.

After independence, he led a vicious crackdown on opposition supporters that claimed thousands of lives in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.

The 'crocodile' has since become part of the furniture of Zimbabwe's controversial governance, occupying a host of cabinet positions and scrabbling for further power.

In 2004, he was removed from the position of secretary for administration in the ruling Zanu-PF party after being accused of publicly seeking the office of vice president.

There followed a period in the wilderness, during which his then rival Joice Mujuru became vice president and the favourite to succeed Mugabe.

Military vehicles and personnel sealed off access to government buildings in Harare early on Wednesday.Reuters

Yet, with rich irony, she was ultimately deposed following a campaign orchestrated by Grace Mugabe, who Mnangagwa has been fiercely spinning against in recent days.

Mugabe airlifted Mnangagwa back into prominence during elections in 2008, making him chief election agent during the contests which were mired in violence and claims of vote-rigging.

Also in 2008, Mnangagwa took over as head of the controversial 'joint operations command', a committee of security chiefs which has been accused by rights groups of organising violent campaigns to crush dissent, before leading the ministry of defence, returning to the department where he made his dubious name.

Now, according to reports today, Emmerson Mnangagwa will touch down in Zimbabwe at 6pm this evening and be sworn in as president on Friday. Having instigated the leadership crisis by his departure weeks ago, his rise to the top will be the culmination of a career that has justly earned him his fearsome nickname.

And hopes that Mugabe's departure would herald a new dawn for the ordinary, suffering people of Zimbabwe will, it appears, be dashed.