Africa Watch

Zimbabwe succession battle taking shape

Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s president in waiting?

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe (90) might not be showing any intentions of stepping down, but an heir apparent is emerging.

During, and immediately after, the December congress of the ruling ZANU-PF party, Minister of Justice and newly appointed Vice-President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, emerged as the heir apparent.

The congress reaffirmed Mugabe’s total control over ZANU-PF and granted him even more power, refuting any suggestions that his influence is on the wane.

The congress rubber-stamped a Mugabe-suggested constitutional amendment allowing him to hand-pick the members of the party’s all-powerful politburo. It endorsed him as party chief, and thus presidential candidate in 2018.

Mugabe enters 2015 politically stronger than he has been in a long-time.

The congress also signalled the end of the succession campaign of Joice Mujuru to become Zimbabwe’s second, and its first woman, president.

Mujuru’s downfall

Appointed vice-president in 2004, liberation struggle veteran Joice Mujuru has been engaged in a gruelling battle with Mnangagwa, to succeed President Mugabe.

Mujuru was considered the favourite until recently when her fortunes changed dramatically.

In an unexpected turn of events, a scathing and well-planned public onslaught commenced a few months ago to discredit her as vice-president to terminate her presidential aspirations.

Grace Mugabe, the wife of President Mugabe, played a prominent role in this campaign, leading to speculation that it was launched with the approval of President Mugabe.

Mujuru was accused, among other things, of complicity in an assassination plot against the president, conniving with the opposition and “external forces”, corruption, abuse of office and extortion.

There are also suggestions that Mujuru’s orchestrated downfall is the first step in a bigger plot to remove all other serious presidential contenders to allow Grace Mugabe to succeed her husband and to establish a Mugabe dynasty.

It is further alleged that the demolition of Mujuru’s presidential ambitions is fuelled by a fear that she, once president, would clamp down on Grace Mugabe’s vast wealth and business interests.
Analysts are of the opinion that Mujuru’s downfall was to be expected, claiming she became politically vulnerable in 2011 when her former husband, Solomon Mujuru, burned to death in his farmhouse under suspicious circumstances. It is widely perceived as a political assassination.

Solomon Mujuru was a popular and influential liberation struggle hero, head of the army and a powerful ZANU-PF politician with enough stature and conviction to stand up and challenge President Mugabe.

In 2008 he refused to endorse Mugabe as ZANU-PF’s presidential candidate and subsequently became a strong critic of Mugabe’s policies.

Mugabe is known for his abhorrence of anyone who dares to criticise him and Joice Mujuru’s political fate was sealed with her former husband’s death, allowing her political enemies to choose the timing of her demise.

One of Mugabe’s first acts after the congress was to sack his vice-president of ten years and replaced her with her arch-rival, Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa’s rise

The congress became a victory celebration for Mnangagwa nicknamed "Ngwena” – the Crocodile – because of his covertness and political cunning.

Pres. Mugabe’s announced replacement of Mujuru with Mnangagwa as vice-president, confirmed him as the heir apparent and Mugabe’s most likely successor.

Given Mugabe’s preference for intrigue and guile most commentators agree that it is still unclear and too soon to say for certain that Mnangagwa has Mugabe’s unambiguous blessing.

One of the more fascinating explanations for Mnangagwa’s apparent anointment ascribes it to a calculated Mugabe gamble that Mnangagwa is the best option to protect the interests of the Mugabe family beyond Mugabe’s death.

Mnangagwa’s relationship with Mugabe goes back to the 1960s when they met in prison. Mnangagwa was sentenced to death in 1965 after blowing up a train and killing a white farmer. But being under age at the time, the sentence was reduced to life of which he served 10 years.

The Mnangagwa/Mugabe relationship at times experienced some setbacks, especially when Mnangagwa in 2004 openly canvassed for the position of vice-president.

He nevertheless proved his loyalty on numerous occasions by outdoing Mugabe himself in his capacity for violent repression, like in the 1980s crackdown on opposition forces in Matabeleland in which an estimated 30 000 people died at the hands of Zimbabwe’s North Korean-trained 5th Brigade.

Mnangagwa is also credited with masterminding ZANU-PF’s political campaigns around the 2008 and 2013 elections, including violence that left hundreds dead, but reversed Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s election defeat at the hands of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Mnangagwa has been eyeing the vice-presidency for a long time, but his ambition was thwarted in 2004 when Solomon Mujuru managed to leapfrog his wife Joice to the position, under the pretext of promoting women to positions of power.

Mnangagwa’s power base

Mnangagwa, a longstanding ZANU-PF heavyweight and hardliner, served in a number of cabinet posts including state security, justice, rural housing, defence and speaker of parliament.

As former minister of state security and defence he is well connected to the country’s security establishment and on good terms with most of the senior officers, also considered to be ZANU-PF hardliners.

Most importantly, Mnangagwa is chairman of the Joint Operations Command (JOC), which coordinates state security affairs and at times accused of running a parallel government and seen by many as the real power behind the scenes running the country.

The relationship with the security establishment will stand Mnangagwa in good stead in any potential future standoff with Grace Mugabe. Although they have combined forces to neutralise Joice Mujuru, a rivalry is certain to ensue should Grace start to openly challenge Mnangagwa for occupancy of State House.

Despite her recent elevation to chair the influential ZANU-PF Woman’s League and as a member of the Politburo, Grace Mugabe remains a political novice with not much more than the Mugabe name to rely on. She will struggle to convince key powerbrokers in the security sector that the mantle of leadership should be passed to her.

Succession speculations

Zimbabwe’s media is rife with conflicting speculations that Mnangagwa will succeed Mugabe later this year.

For Mugabe 2015 represents the pinnacle of his long political career. He will add the chairmanship of the African Union (AU) to his current chairmanship of the SADC, presenting him a perfect opportunity to depart the political arena in style.

Some observers speculate he might give an indication of his plans during his annual birthday message, televised live in February when he turns 91.

The general consensus remains that it is most unlikely he will be pushed or forced to vacate the presidency. He still commands almost complete control over Zimbabwe’s political scene and all indications are that he has no intention to hand over power soon and will be watchful as to how Mnangagwa conducts himself.

Mnangagwa is also by no means a unanimous and popular candidate.

A ZANU-PF splinter group known as the "Gang of Four" or G4, comprising ministers Oppah Muchinguri, Jonathan Moyo, Saviour Kasukuwere and Mugabe's nephew Patrick Zhuwao, is reportedly campaigning against a Mnangagwa presidency –because he is “a power-hungry individual who is not fit to take over from Mugabe”.

Then there was an alleged assassination attempt of Mnangagwa a day before he became vice-president when a harmful substance, suspected to be cyanide, was sprayed in his Harare ZANU- PF headquarters office in the hope he would inhale it on entering.

Joice Mujuru still enjoys wide popular support and might still try to make a comeback. Perhaps presently not a significant threat to his aspirations, any action by her camp will require attention and could frustrate Mnangagwa’s efforts to consolidate his position as president-in-waiting.

His greatest asset is his access to the intelligence structures and the physical backing of the armed forces. He can proceed to consolidate his position almost unchallenged.

With the stage set for a new era in Zimbabwean politics the question on everyone lips is whether Zimbabwe will improve under a new management. The common view seems to be summed up by James Hamill: “To hope that ZANU-PF can become a vehicle for change under figures so deeply compromised as Mnangagwa, Grace Mugabe or Mujuru is folly, and only the party’s collapse can rescue Zimbabwe from its current condition as a virtual mafia state.”

This is bad news for the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe and its neighbours.

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by Garth Cilliers

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