Zimbabwe’s power struggle to succeed Mugabe comes to a head

Zimbabwe has seen rising factional tensions and accusations of plots in recent months, all of it over who ought to succeed Robert Mugabe.

President Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 34 years, and has led its ruling party for 39 years. He now stands as the fifth-longest serving African head of state. He maintains that he will be available to serve his country as long as he is still mentally competent and healthy. Officially, he intends to run for re-election in 2018, having already secured another term in July 2013. But as he turned 90 this year, the question of succession has inevitably become a leading issue.

The ruling party, ZANU-PF, has been battling with the question of who should succeed the president for many months now. A year ago, it looked as if Joice Mujuru, the vice president, was the most likely candidate. The party’s elective congress last week, and the events leading up to it, have put paid to such predictions, however, as the Mugabe family emerged the dominant force. How did this happen?

The fall of Joice Mujuru 

Joice Mujuru held the position of vice president for 10 years, in which time she amassed a considerable base of support in the country. According to Simukai Tinhu, a political analyst at Think Africa Press, her support base is composed of grassroots activists, young politicians, self-described ‘moderates’, and a chunk of the old guard. She was married to the late Solomon Mujuru, a highly regarded general, who backed her run for office in 2004, and later died in a mysterious fire in 2011.

As vice president, Joice Mujuru fared quite well in the party’s provincial elections in 2013 and won control of nine out of 10 provinces in the country. She has been described as a ‘moderate’ and as a leader of a pro-business centrist bloc within ZANU-PF. She since gained a great deal of influence in the Youth League and the Women’s League, winning electoral control of both bodies in the summer of 2014, amidst allegations of electoral fraud.

In August, Grace Mugabe was endorsed to lead the Women’s League, sparking speculation that she would succeed her husband. Since then, Grace Mugabe has accused Joice Mujuru of corrupt business practices and of plotting to overthrow and assassinate Robert Mugabe. The Herald newspaper echoed these accusations, while the vice president denied all of them in public statements. In late November, Ms. Mujuru was blocked from taking her seat as vice president at the party’s central committee.

The party congress culminated with Grace Mugabe being appointed to the leadership of the Women’s League. Several ministers, including Rugare Gumbo, a friend of the president for more than five decades, were fired. Then on Tuesday, Robert Mugabe abruptly fired Ms. Mujuru and appointed Emmerson Mnangagwa, a leading figure of the party’s old guard, to the vice presidency.

NOTE: Grace Mugabe is reviled by her critics as the “First Shopper”, “DisGrace” and “Gucci Grace” for her expensive shopping trips to Europe, while the Zimbabwean people have faced an economic downturn.

The return of the old guard 

Emmerson Mnangagwa barely had time to settle into his new role before facing an attempt on his life. A poisonous gas was sprayed into his office overnight in the early hours of Wednesday morning, hospitalising his personal assistant.

Mr. Mnangagwa is known as ‘Ngwena’, meaning the Crocodile, and holds longstanding ties to the country’s secret intelligence and military apparatus. According to Nhlalo Ndaba, a political commentator at the South African Times, the new vice president has a reputation as a strong man. After all, Mr. Mnangagwa was in charge of domestic security in the 1980s as the Fifth Brigade was deployed against rebels loyal to Joshua Nkomo. An estimated 20,000 civilians were killed, many of them belonging to the minority Ndebele tribe, in this period.

Emmerson Mnangagwa is reputed to be one of the richest men in the country, a longstanding ally of Robert Mugabe and a business rival of the Mujuru family. Mr. Mnangagwa locked horns with Solomon Mujuru in the mid 1990s over a bid to takeover the Zimasco company, a multi-billion dollar chrome mining operation based in the Midlands Province. In the end, this led to the Mujuru bid being blocked.

Back in January, Simukai Tinhu observed that the Mnangagwa faction “does not seem overly rattled by the results in the provincial elections”. This year the Mnangagwa faction was quick to support the use of secret ballots in the congress, possibly as part of efforts to ensure Joice Mujuru would not retain her position as vice president.

What lies ahead?

It is still unclear who will ascend to the presidency when Robert Mugabe dies, as he has still not explicitly named a successor; but it does appear as though the congress has whittled down the number of candidates. Grace Mugabe is positioned at the helm of the Women’s League, a powerful role, and Emmerson Mnangagwa stands as the vice president.

It seems plausible that the next administration may well be a combination of the Mugabe family’s clout and the hardliners. “We suspect that a deal has definitely been done because Grace was also promoting Mnangagwa as the appropriate person to take over from Joice Mujuru,” dissident blogger Vince Musewe told Deutsche Welle.

Any future leader of Zimbabwe faces serious challenges: unemployment is around 85%, and though it has fallen by 10 percentage points in the last five years, the rate of poverty is still around 80%. The country remains isolated on the world-stage, except for its ties with China. Inflation has been brought under control and the farms have increased their productivity. But there is still much to be done in a country that must inevitably face a political transition in the next few years.

This article was originally published at The World Weekly on December 11, 2014.

About Joshua White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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