Who will succeed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe? This has been the most important question within Zanu-PF and in Zimbabwe over the past few years.
This question is so pivotal that policy formulation and implementation have been at a standstill. Political manoeuvring over who will replace Mugabe has paralysed the once impregnable Zanu-PF, and the resulting economic implosion is taking a devastating toll on the people and infrastructure.
Consider the outpouring from Mugabe’s nephew, Patrick Zhuwao, who said talk of succession was “divisive, counter-revolutionary, regressive and contrary to Zimbabwe’s developmental and transformational aspirations”.
Although this may sound irrational in relation to a 91-year-old leader who has been in power for nearly four decades, when it comes to Mugabe nothing ever makes ordinary sense.
Zanu-PF’s poorly managed succession process has raised concern about the nature of the transition from the only leader Zimbabweans have known since independence to whoever will be his successor. Transitions the world over are often messy affairs, but this one really has the potential to get out of control. It seems quite likely that there may even be some bloodletting as the Zanu-PF machinery spins out of control. The stakes are high and the contenders will stop at nothing to get the keys to State House.
That is unless Mugabe decides to provide direction and inject a sense of order before nature takes its course. But it doesn’t appear that he will do this. There has been no sign at all that he is preparing to step aside or that he is keen to protect whatever legacy he has by aiding or guiding a smooth transition. The clear message from him and those around him has always been that he is not going anywhere.
Politics in Zimbabwe over the past 35 years have been about Mugabe and it appears it will remain so until the end of his life.
Turmoil could be avoided if Mugabe took a keen interest in who succeeds him and shepherds the process. He could use his immense influence in the party to assure stable leadership in Zimbabwe after his tenure. For instance, he could call a special congress for the election of his successor. Instead of hand-picking a successor, he could encourage internal party democracy, robust debate and campaigning.
This could be a significant legacy to bequeath to the party, and the country. Implemented well, it could become the template for succession in Zanu-PF and set the national democracy project back on track.
Divide and rule strategy
Mugabe has executed a complex strategy of divide and rule over the past 35 years. His brutal Machiavellian strategy began with his ploy to pit Matabeleland against the whole nation. Then he went for the trade unions, before turning against the media. After that, it was the turn of white commercial farmers to experience Mugabe’s wrath. His violent assault on the opposition leadership and its supporters inflicted a fatal blow on democracy.
But he was not done, and turned on his own party, rooting out those who dare to challenge him. He remains the only one standing and appears still to have a fight in him.
Zimbabwe will be standing when he is done, but the questions are, in what state, and who will be the unfortunate one to take over.
Mugabe has seen off Zimbabwe’s who’s who in politics, from Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Edgar Tekere, Edison Zvobgo, Enos Nkala, Maurice Nyagumbo to Solomon Mujuru. In 2004, he made Emmerson Mnangagwa believe he was his anointed successor, only to dash his hopes and opt for Joice Mujuru. In 2014, Mujuru and her supporters were sure that they were headed for State House, only to be ruthlessly shunted aside.
Right now, Mnangagwa appears to be the most likely successor to Mugabe, but as history has shown, nothing is guaranteed in Zanu-PF. Mugabe calls the tune and might have the final say, even by not saying anything at all.
From a constitutional and political perspective, Mnangagwa who replaced his bitter rival, Mujuru, who was ousted at the December 2014 Zanu-PF congress and subsequently expelled from Zanu-PF this April, is the most likely successor.
Given the state of unbearable uncertainty, apart from Mnangagwa, who are the other contenders and what are their chances?
There is Mnangagwa’s co-vice-president, Phelekezela Mphoko, a former liberation struggle stalwart and long-serving diplomat, whom Mugabe plucked from obscurity just before congress to appoint as one of his deputies. Mugabe used his new-found sweeping powers that allow him to choose not only his assistants but also the party chairperson and the decision-making politburo members to effect the appointment.
Constitutional amendments, courtesy of behind-the-scenes plotting by Mnangagwa and his allies, at the congress gave him these imperial powers. Those responsible are grouped around first lady Grace Mugabe and are united by their desire to stop Mujuru’s march to State House and purportedly to create one centre of power in the deeply divided party.
Derek Matyszak, a legal analyst who has written extensively on the Zanu-PF succession debate, described the process through which Mugabe retained the party leadership and appointed senior officials as flawed, unconstitutional and illegal.
Besides Mphoko, there is an amorphous clique associated with Grace, described as Generation40 (G40) and representing the so-called Young Turks in the party. This group comprises ambitious mavericks like Higher Education Minister Jonathan Moyo, Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere and Zhuwao.
Until recently, when Grace was slowed down by poor health, she appeared to be the leader of the group. Since then the temperamental and silver-tongued Moyo has emerged as the leader. There is little doubt that the spindoctor in Moyo will turn the disadvantage of being from a minority ethnic group into a strong positive. Prepare yourself to hear Moyo send the loud and uncomfortable message that there has never been a Ndebele president of Zanu-PF.
Then there is the Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander, General Constantine Chiwenga, who should not be counted out. It is now accepted, albeit grudgingly, within Zanu-PF that Chiwenga, who wields great influence in Zimbabwe’s politics because of the military’s strong hold on national issues, has presidential ambitions. But his biggest obstacle is how to move from military fatigues to civvies without staging a coup.
Chiwenga, like Mphoko, does not have an identifiable clique other than his military base, and is thus swinging between the Mnangagwa faction and the Grace clique.
Chiwenga is known to be close to Mnangagwa and would reportedly not mind him taking over if he gets guarantees that he will have a future under his rule. But there are whispers from the Mnangagwa camp that they would fire Chiwenga once in office as they don’t regard him highly. The bromance between Chiwenga and Mnangagwa might not survive the tests of realpolitik.
Although Chiwenga has no political power base and formal grip on Zanu-PF structures, his role would be crucial in deciding who will succeed Mugabe. The truth though is that Chiwenga does not enjoy the full support of the military. In fact, the military, police and intelligence are all divided along the same lines currently paralysing Zanu-PF politics.
But Chiwenga enjoys the very real power of incumbency in the military and, at the very least, this could make him a power broker.
What binds these factions is that none of them seems to want Mugabe to go. They want to succeed him without challenging him. They pledge allegiance to him and the party and appear to want to be anointed by him.
Privately it is known that they loathe the man and can’t wait for him to go or for something to happen to him. But they are using his political cover to consolidate the position of their factions within the party. Apart from wanting power, none of the factions has articulated an ideological position different from Mugabe.
Mnangagwa’s faction comprises Zanu-PF politburo heavyweights, such as the secretary for administration, Ignatius Chombo, and his deputy, July Moyo, who is the leader’s “chief of staff”. Other members of this powerful and apparently confident faction include Kembo Mohadi, Oppah Muchinguri, Josiah Hungwe, Patrick Chinamasa, Joram Gumbo, Larry Mavhima and Owen Ncube.
Mphoko’s presidential ambitions
Mphoko does not have a congealed faction, so he floats between the rival groups, although he sometimes sounds and looks like a one-man band intent on self-destructing. Of late, it has become increasingly clear that his guns are trained on Mnangagwa.
Mphoko is known to be very close to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, a relationship cultivated during exile days in Mozambique. Mphoko hails from the minority Ndebele ethnic group, and this could either aid or hinder him.
It appears that his presidential ambitions have been bubbling for a while. For instance, in 2013, Mphoko, while he was still Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa, sought declassified files in Pretoria that shed light on Mnangagwa’s role in the 1980s massacres of minority ethnic Ndebele civilians and Zapu supporters by Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.
Although these files point a finger at Mugabe as the main architect of the Gukurahundi killings, they also reveal how Mnangagwa cut deals with apartheid security service chiefs to crush Zapu while isolating the ANC during the struggle for freedom. African diplomats in Harare believe this will damage Mnangagwa not just at home but also in the region, particularly in South Africa.
What this means is that, although Mnangagwa is seen as the clear frontrunner, Grace’s allies are resisting his path to power. They argue that Mnangagwa, after he was named vice-president, failed to rally the party behind Mugabe to ensure unity and cohesion. They also charge that he has remained a regional and hidebound figure, always focusing on his Midlands political enclave and the past, and not on national issues and the future.
Mugabe himself seemed to agree with this in January this year when he said Mnangagwa and Mphoko must remember they were no longer regional or factional leaders but national figures.
In a BBC Hardtalk television interview recently, Moyo strongly dismissed suggestions that Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s heir apparent. The emotion displayed tended to betray Moyo’s own personal views on the succession issue. What is clear is that, after joining forces to oust Mujuru, Mnangagwa’s faction and Grace’s clique are now at each other throats, as shown by Moyo’s hostility during the interview.
It must be remembered that, in 2004, Mujuru managed to block Mnangagwa’s ascendency with the help of her husband, the retired army commander General Solomon Mujuru. Her husband subsequently died in a mysterious fire at his farmhouse in Beatrice in 2011 in what is widely believed to be a succession-linked murder. It is thus difficult to dismiss speculation that whoever murdered him must have been behind Joice being dethroned. The death of her husband left her politically vulnerable.
The Mnangagwa faction’s strategy is to approach the current situation in Zanu-PF and the country as a transitional phase. So it has to increase its political manoeuvring and position its leader to be ready to take over from Mugabe at any time.
Zim already in transition
Zimbabwe is seen by some observers as already in a transition because Mugabe’s regime has become so obviously dysfunctional – that is why Mnangagwa’s close allies such as Hungwe have started to speak of Mnangagwa as the “Son of Man”, suggesting he is a messiah.
But Mnangagwa’s rivals have sharply criticised this view, not only because it insinuates he is a saviour like Jesus Christ but also because this kind of hagiography is exclusively reserved for Mugabe in Zanu-PF.
This is just how confident and self-assured the Mujuru camp sounded and acted before they were exiled from the party they helped to build and keep in power over three decades. Mnangagwa’s approach to the succession question is more or less similar to that of Mujuru before her expulsion, although he appears to be more circumspect and shrewd.
Grace’s clique by contrast believes it is premature to talk about transition from Mugabe’s rule when he is only less than two years into his new five-year tenure. The group wants a consolidation of Mugabe’s legacy instead, but purely for selfish reasons. Besides Moyo, this group’s position has also been best articulated by Zhuwao.
“Zimbabwe’s Constitution gives President Mugabe two terms of five years each,” Zhuwao wrote in his column in a state-controlled weekly that usually reflects the official line. “This means he can only be succeeded after 2023. Any discussion of succession before that [is by sellouts]. The people of Zimbabwe elected RG Mugabe president of Zimbabwe with an overwhelming majority of 62%.”
A few weeks ago, Mugabe voiced similar sentiments, arguing that talk of succession was inappropriate and divisive.
This is at the heart of the current vicious clashes between Mnangagwa’s faction and Grace’s clique: a push for transition versus a demand for consolidation. Although Chiwenga is close to Mnangagwa, his loyalty is with Mugabe and his default position could be with Grace’s camp.
Although Mphoko and other dark horses such as Sydney Sekeramayi, a Mujuru ally who survived purging by a whisker, don’t have the leverage to chart their own independent paths to power, they are seen as possible compromise candidates. Some even say Mujuru might bounce back if there is stalemate in the party.
Mphoko has a chance from a constitutional point of view as he now alternates with Mnangagwa as acting president in Mugabe’s absence. The new Constitution says, if Mugabe resigns, is incapacitated or dies, the last acting president takes over for 90 days, after which his party has to elect a successor for the remainder of the term. So, if Mugabe were to quit for whatever reasons when Mphoko is acting president, he would continue to act for three months while he tries to reorganise Zanu-PF to elect him as successor.
The amended Zanu-PF constitution says whoever takes over from Mugabe will have to be nominated by two provinces and win a national primary election in which party members, at least 866 000, will vote by secret ballot.
In that case, anything can happen, which gives even candidates other than the obvious contenders a chance. In the past, a Zanu-PF leader needed to be nominated by six out of 10 provinces, which left the process open to manipulation, as happened in 2004 when Mnangagwa was blocked, although he had more provinces than Mujuru.
Kasukuwere, just like Grace, has no history, gravitas or capacity to succeed Mugabe in a cut-throat battle, but he is ambitious and is known as “Zimbabwe’s Obama” in his own circles.
Although he has presence, he lacks the charm, intellect and oratory of United States President Barack Obama. He is likely to resort to force rather than powers of persuasion and winning hearts and minds. It is believed that in recent weeks he has been moving closer to the Mnangagwa camp and distancing himself from Moyo.
The opposition is unlikely to be a factor in deciding who runs a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe because of the disarray and divisions within it. The opposition has failed to take advantage of a squabbling and divided Zanu-PF because of poor leadership and their own fights for political power. In fact, the parlous state of the opposition has played a strong role in the heated succession battle in Zanu-PF.
With a weak opposition, Zanu-PF knows it can afford a divisive and long drawn-out succession battle.
There is no indication that Mugabe is contemplating standing down, and the push for him to stand in 2018 must not be dismissed lightly. There are many around him who want him to die while in office, and Mugabe seems prepared to cling to power until that event.
Thus, after the long drawn-out manoeuvring about who will succeed him, it might come down to this: Who will be with Mugabe when he dies in office? Will it be Grace? And, if it’s her, who will she share this news with? That news, how and with whom it is shared could prove a precious commodity in deciding who becomes Zimbabwe’s next president.
We have seen similar incidents where the news of the death of a leader was controlled to try to influence who takes over. Recent events occurred in Malawi after the death of Bingu wa Mutharika; in the Côte d’Ivoire when a terminally ill Félix Houphouët-Boigny was flown home from France in 1993 to die; and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when the body of Laurent Kabila was flown to Harare after his assassination and flown back when the son’s succession seemed assured.
The line-up of possible successors to Mugabe reveals that none of them has fresh and visionary thinking about where the country should go. It might be that they have all avoided making such pronouncements as these could be career-limiting while Mugabe is alive.
Be that as it may, the Zanu-PF succession battle is highly unlikely to heal most of what is afflicting Zimbabwe. The battle to succeed Mugabe is not about visionaries ready to take Zimbabwe out of its current quagmire but about power and its benefits. The chances that instability will follow Mugabe’s departure are very high given that long-standing dictators tend to leave a sudden power vacuum.
For those who have despaired as they have watched Zimbabwe crumble under Mugabe, it would be comforting to think that Zimbabwe has hit rock bottom politically and economically and that after Mugabe the only way is up. But there are no guarantees in life and, judging by the line-up of possible successors to Mugabe, there is no reason to be confident.
Suffice it to say, it would be a tragedy if things were to continue to deteriorate under Mugabe’s Zanu-PF successor and Zimbabweans began to think that things were better under Mugabe.
This article was originally published in The Mail & Guardian