Robert Mugabe is now the fifth-longest reigning leader in Africa. He came to power in 1980 as part of the Lancaster House agreement, in which the British government negotiated a peace settlement leading to the disbanding of the white-minority government and the end of racial segregation in the country. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and indigenous languages and cultures were recognised. As in South Africa following the defeat of apartheid, the party of national liberation had no trouble maintaining its electoral position.
Negative headlines about Mr. Mugabe in recent times belie the high regard in which he was once held in the UK. He received a knighthood and until sanctions imposed travel restrictions, the Mugabe family would often visit London. Mr. Mugabe has gone from being a much-lauded mediator and statesman to a highly controversial politician widely accused of electoral fraud and human rights violations. The Mugabe government lost British support over its compulsory resettlement programme which has transferred the majority of agricultural land from white to black farmers.
The deep disarray of the Zimbabwean economy would have cost most governments an election, but Mr. Mugabe held on through electoral fraud and voter intimidation. Now Mr. Mugabe is 90, ZANU-PF inevitably faces the dilemma of succession. The problem is that the Mugabe government will not allow such a contentious issue to be debated given its interest in maintaining control until the end. Consequently, there have been signs of disunity around the president in recent months as tensions develop between potential successors.“Mugabe’s sphere of influence is slowly whittling down and going forward; he is far better off openly allowing a discussion on his succession than claiming there is no vacancy at State House when everyone else thinks there will be one soon.” – Rashweat Mukundu, political analyst
There appear to be four main contenders: First Lady Grace Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Vice President Joice Mujuru and Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Grace Mugabe – The First Lady
In August 2014, there was speculation that the void may be filled by Robert Mugabe, Jr., but the focus quickly shifted back to Grace Mugabe, who has been approved to take a seat in the ZANU-PF Politburo and now has the support of traditional leaders in Zimbabwe. Ms. Mugabe is four decades younger than her husband and much older than the Mugabe children. She is reviled by some as the “First Shopper”, “DisGrace” and “Gucci Grace” for her expensive shopping trips to Europe at a time when the Zimbabwean people have faced unprecedented economic turmoil.
According to David Smith of the Observer, the possibility of Ms. Mugabe rising to power has “thrown a grenade into the bitter succession battle within ZANU-PF, which Mugabe has divided and ruled for decades”. The ascent of Ms. Mugabe may well derail the ambitions of squabbling party politicians and perhaps offer symbolic change without substantive alteration. Mr. Smith speculates that Mr. Mugabe’s support for his wife demonstrates just how reassured he feels of his own position, even as party officials become increasingly disobedient.
Others remain doubtful. Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) politician Nelson Chamisa said: “If I look at the chances of her becoming president, I would find it easier to impregnate a man or change Europe to Africa, or Africa to Europe”. Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, however, hailed Ms. Mugabe as “the queen of the land”.
Morgan Tsvangirai – The Opposition
Morgan Tsvangirai is known to the world as the dissident who stood up to the establishment in the 2008 elections and lost due to a rigged system. As a result, the MDC faced the vengeance of ZANU-PF supporters. “Unable to cope with the onslaught, the MDC made a deal with the devil himself,” writes Guardian analyst Simon Allison. Mr. Tsvangirai was left “relegated to the hastily-created and largely ceremonial role of Prime Minister, in which he spent five years trying to make nice with Mugabe”. He was often excluded from cabinet meetings.
By the 2013 elections, Mr. Tsvangirai “seemed to have lost the fire in his belly. Power had tamed him”. The MDC was heavily defeated by ZANU-PF in the elections and, despite the widespread allegations of voter fraud and intimidation that have become the norm in Zimbabwe, there was no outrage on the scale of 2008.
The prospects of Mr. Tsvangirai assuming the presidency are now small for the reason that the opposition is no longer concentrated around his leadership. In fact, it appears that the opposition is fracturing over Mr. Tsvangirai’s position. In March, David Gore wrote for New Zimbabwe: “The MDC-T has had its fair share of challenges that have culminated in the suspension of internal rebels such party deputy treasurer Elton Mangoma believed to be working in cahoots with the party’s Secretary General Tendai Biti for the ouster of Tsvangirai”.
Secretary General Biti would go onto abandon the party and take more than 130 politicians with him in April. In his time in office, Mr. Tsvangirai has lost the credibility he had built as a trade unionist, dissident and opposition leader. The fire may lie with new opposition parties and politicians.
Joice Mujuru – The Moderate
The faction led by Vice President Joice Mujuru of the ZANU-PF is sometimes described as “moderate” and consists of a pro-business bloc seen as pushing ZANU-PF towards the centre and looking to improve relations with the international community. The Mujuru faction has become increasingly disobedient of the central authority in the country and even provoked a rant from Robert Mugabe at senior party officials.
The cause of the President’s fury was the outcome of the elections of the Youth League and Women’s League this summer. Mujuru’s loyalists came out on top amid allegations of vote buying, ballot rigging, and intimidation. This was after Ms. Mujuru had fared quite well in the party’s provincial elections in late 2013. Figures loyal to Ms. Mujuru won control of nine out of 10 provinces in Zimbabwe. Once again, the vote was marred by allegations of manipulation and outright fraud.
Simukai Tinhu of Think Africa Press says that the victory in all but one of Zimbabwe’s provinces has “injected much optimism within her camp”. Provincial chairpersons and their executives play a central part in electing the party’s national chairperson, two vice presidents, and future presidential nominees. Mr. Tinhu notes: “Mujuru’s electoral victory in all but one of Zimbabwe’s provinces has understandably marked her out as the clear frontrunner for many observers”.
According to Mr. Tinhu, the Mujuru camp is composed of grassroots activists, young politicians, self-described “moderates”, and a portion of the old guard around Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi. The challenge is to keep all of these autonomous and unpredictable groups on side until December 2014 in the face of inevitable opposition from Ms. Mujuru’s main rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Emmerson Mnangagwa – The Old Guard
The hard-line old guard have gathered around Emmerson Mnangagwa and consists of an elite group believed to have dominated Zimbabwe since the 1980s. Many assume this faction would seek greater continuity than the Mujuru faction for this reason. Mr. Tinhu observes that “Mnangagwa’s faction does not seem overly rattled by the results in the provincial elections makes more sense”. Mr. Mnangagwa has announced that the ZANU-PF presidium will be determined by a secret ballot, in what has been received as a means to isolate Vice President Mujuru in December.
Legal expert Alex Magaisa told the Zimbabwean Daily News that the Mnangagwa faction is pushing for the secret ballot because it believes that it stands a better chance.
At the same time, Mr. Mnangagwa has refined a position in the party hierarchy and establishment which holds much stronger sway with the intelligence services and the military than Joice Mujuru. Continuity is the attractive option for the establishment, especially for the officials looking to maintain their positions of power and relative advantages in Zimbabwean society.
This article was originally published at The World Weekly on September 14, 2014.