WHO will succeed President Robert Mugabe?
This has been the most important question confronting the ruling Zanu PF and in Zimbabwe over the past few years, but has assumed urgency as even those who were unwilling to confront the 91-year-old’s departure, are now coming to terms with the reality that the curtains must soon come down on his rule.
Zimbabwe, which used to be most industrialised sub-Saharan African country outside South Africa before its decline, has attracted regional and global attention over the years not only because of Mugabe’s toxic rule, but also due to its huge resources.
It has vast tracts of fertile land, gold, chrome, platinum, diamonds and natural gas, and holds the world’s second largest platinum reserves between South Africa and Russia.
With Africa’s richest economy South Africa in the doldrums, and oil-rich Angola battered by the drop in crude prices, southern Africa needs another nation to step up and anchor the region.
With a literacy rate of nearly 90%, one of the highest in the world, even if not for itself, there are strategic imperatives for Zimbabwe to stand tall again, being the country in southern Africa that can meaningfully play that role.
It is a big ask, but not an impossible call.
The economic implosion, that saw inflation hit the billions and its currency battered into a worthless pile that had to be scrapped in favour of the South African rand, US dollar, and other international currencies, has taken a devastating toll on the country and its people.
However, the project to rebuild a future Zimbabwe has been imperiled by the manoeuvering over who will replace Mugabe that has paralysed the once monolithic Zanu PF.
Consider for a moment this outburst from Mugabe’s nephew, Patrick Zhuwao, a deputy head of department in Zanu PF’s decision-making politburo, who recently said talk of his uncle’s succession was “divisive, counter-revolutionary, regressive and contrary to Zimbabwe’s developmental and transformational aspirations”.
This may sound irrational in connection with a 91-year-old leader who has been in power for nearly four decades, but what it does is help stall transition planning further.
Transitions the world over are often messy affairs, but this one has the potential to spin out of control and plunge an already-shell shocked country further into chaos.
It seems quite likely that the Zanu PF power struggle could even turn bloody, as the stakes are high and the contenders will stop at nothing to secure the keys to State House.
The optimistic view in all this is that Mugabe, on his last lap, will finally think of his legacy, provide direction, divide the spoils smartly among rivals, and leave with the party in harmony.
But there has been no sign at all that Mugabe is preparing to step aside, or that he is keen to salvage his place in history by shepherding a smooth transition.
Not going anywhere
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 has been about Mugabe and it appears it will remain so till he bows out.
He has executed a complex – and admittedly very effective – strategy of divide and rule over the past three and a half decades. His Machiavellian approach began with the ploy in the early 1980s to pit Matabeleland against the whole nation to vanquish the former opposition Zapu and its leader Joshua Nkomo. Matabeleland was Nkomo’s home region.
When he was done there, he came for the trade unions and civil society before turning against the media. After that it was the turn of white commercial farmers to experience his wrath.
His systematic repression of the opposition parties and their supporters inflicted a fatal blow on democracy.
And, with all vanquished, he turned on his own party, rooting out those that dared challenge him. He remains the only one standing and appears to still have a fight in him.
The list of those Mugabe has dispatched is impressive. He has seen off Zimbabwe’s who’s who in politics including liberation struggle luminaries such as Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Edgar Tekere, Edison Zvobgo, Enos Nkala, Maurice Nyagumbo and Solomon Mujuru.
He has also survived main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s blitz in recent years.
In 2004 he allowed current Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa to believe he was on the ascendance only to dash his hopes at the eleventh hour by imposing his now-ousted deputy Joice Mujuru.
Mujuru and her supporters were sure that they were headed for State House only to be ruthlessly stopped in their tracks and crushed. She was ejected at the December 2014 Zanu PF congress and subsequently expelled from the party in April.
For now, then, Mnangagwa, who replaced his bitter rival Mujuru is the most likely successor from a constitutional and political perspective. He’s a long-serving Zanu PF leader and Mugabe ally and also in charge of the Ministry of Justice. But will fortune favour him?