WHILE on the books today it looks like Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa has the race to succeed the 91-year-old Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe sewn up, he would be foolish to begin counting his chickens.
For if Zimbabwe politics teaches anything, it is that old lesson that it’s never over until the fat lady sings, raising the question of which other contenders might emerge, and what their chances are.
To begin with 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 the December congress to appoint as one of his deputies.
Mugabe used his newfound sweeping powers that allow him to choose not only his assistants, but also party chairman and the decision-making politburo members, to effect the appointment.
These imperial powers were given to Mugabe at congress through constitutional amendments, courtesy of behind-the-scenes plotting by Mnangagwa and his allies. These allies grouped around First Lady Grace Mugabe, the president’s former secretary who moved from his typist pool to become his wife, united by their desire to stop then Vice President Joice Mujuru’s march to State House, and purportedly create “one centre of power” in the deeply divided party.
Besides Mphoko, there is an amorphous clique grouped around Grace, described as Generation40 (G40) 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 Mugabe’s nephew Patrick Zhuwao, a deputy head of department in Zanu PF’s decision-making politburo, among other “youthful” allies.
But Moyo had his wings clipped in a politically motivated cabinet reshuffle a few days ago, removed from the influential Information ministry and shunted to the backwater at Higher Education, though he could still cause trouble there.
Grace now seems to be running the show behind the scenes.
Only last week she publicly bragged that Mnangagwa and Mphoko report to her, as she sets the agenda and dictates the pace of events. If this suggests anything, it is that Grace might be positioning herself to succeed her husband.
Then there is also Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantine Chiwenga who should not be counted out. It is now accepted with Zanu PF, albeit grudgingly, that Chiwenga, who wields influence in Zimbabwe’s politics due to the military’s vast sway on national issues, has presidential ambitions. His biggest obstacle though is how to move from military fatigues into civilian tunics without staging a coup.
Chiwenga, like Mphoko, does not have an identifiable clique beyond his military base, and is thus swinging between the Mnangagwa faction and Grace’s clique.
However the military chief 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 his affections are not universally returned by the Mnangagwa camp, where there are whispers that they would fire Chiwenga once in office as they don’t hold him in high regard. The bromance between Chiwenga and Mnangagwa, therefore, might not survive the tests of realpolitik.
Still, even though Chiwenga has no political power base or formal grip on Zanu PF structures, his role would be crucial in deciding who will succeed Mugabe. The only thing that could stall his hand is that he does not enjoy the unanimous support of the military; insiders say the military, police and intelligence structures are all divided along the same factions currently paralysing Zanu PF.
But even with that, Chiwenga wields real power of incumbency in the military, and at the very least it makes him a powerbroker.
What binds these factions is something unusual for people that are seeking power – they want to succeed Mugabe without challenging him. They pledge allegiance to him and the party and appear to want to be anointed by him.
However, privately it is known that they think he has overstayed his welcome and can’t wait for him to go. In the meantime they will use his political cover to consolidate their positions.
Apart from merely wanting power, none of the factions have articulated policy positions different from Mugabe.
Mnangagwa’s faction comprises Zanu PF politburo heavyweights like Home Affairs Minister and Secretary for Administration, Ignatius Chombo and his deputy July Moyo – who is the leader’s “Chief-of-Staff”.
Other members of this powerful and confident-sounding faction include senior Zanu PF politburo members and ministers Kembo Mohadi, Oppah Muchinguri, Josiah Hungwe and Patrick Chinamasa.
There is also Zanu PF parliamentary chief whip Joram Gumbo and provincial party leaders like Larry Mavhima and Owen Ncube.
In all this, 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 Mphoko’s guns are trained on Mnangagwa; loudly rejecting the perception that he is a second fiddle vice-president, insisting he is at par with Mnangagwa.
Mphoko is known to be very close to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, a relationship cultivated during exile days in Mozambique.
Zuma was in fact his best man at his wedding in Maputo in 1977. Mphoko hails from the minority Ndebele ethnic group compared to Mnangagwa from the majority Shona, and this could either aid or hinder him.
It now appears Mphoko’s presidential ambitions have been bubbling under for a while, after all.
For instance in 2013 Mphoko, while he was still Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa, sought declassified files in Pretoria shedding light on Mnangagwa’s alleged role in the 1980s massacres of minority ethnic Ndebele civilians and Zapu supporters by Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to damage him.
No love from South Africa
While these files point a finger at Mugabe as the main architect of the Gukurahundi killings, as they came to be known, they also reveal how Mnangagwa cut dodgy deals with apartheid security service chiefs to crush Zapu, while isolating South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) during the struggle for freedom.
African diplomats in Harare see this as potentially damaging to Mnangagwa, not just at home but also in the region, especially South Africa.
Add to this the fact that, even though Mnangagwa is seen as the clear frontrunner, Grace’s allies are resisting his ascendancy, arguing that Mnangagwa has failed to rally the party behind Mugabe after he was named VP.
Instead, they charge that he has remained a regional and hidebound figure, always focusing on his Midlands political enclave and the past, not 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 are no longer regional or factional leaders, but national figures.
In a BBC HARDtalk interview recently, Jonathan Moyo strongly dismissed suggestion Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s heir apparent.
The emotion invested in this position tended to betray Moyo’s own personal views on the succession issue.
What is clear though 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 BBC interview.
It must be remembered that in 2004 Mujuru managed to block Mnangagwa’s ascendency with the help of her husband, retired army commander General Solomon Mujuru. But her husband subsequently died in a mysterious fire at his farmhouse in Beatrice in 2011 in what is widely believed to be murder linked to Mugabe’s succession.
It is thus difficult to dismiss speculation that whoever murdered Solomon Mujuru must have been behind his wife’s removal as VP. The death of her husband left her politically vulnerable, but might yet return to haunt the pretenders to Mugabe’s throne.
In this race, Mnangagwa faction’s strategy is to approach the current situation in Zanu PF as a transitional phase. So it has positioned its leader to stay ready to take over from Mugabe at any moment.
They are not alone in reading Zimbabwe that way. The country is seen by some observers as already in a transition because Mugabe’s regime has become so obviously dysfunctional even though no alternative has emerged yet.
That is why Mnangagwa’s close allies like Hungwe have started to speak of Mnangagwa as the “Son of Man”; suggesting he is a messiah. Mnangagwa’s rivals have however sharply criticised this not only because it insinuates he is a saviour like Jesus Christ – and one can’t be sure the masses won’t buy into it – but also because this kind of hagiography is exclusively reserved for Mugabe in Zanu PF.
But then, it should be remembered, this is how confident and self-assured the Mujuru camp sounded and acted before they were exiled from the party they had helped build and keep in power by hook or crook over three decades.
The irony, then, is that 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.
First Lady’s clique
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 faction wants a consolidation of Mugabe’s legacy instead, but for purely self-seeking reasons – a time-out helps them get a leg up. 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. 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%,” Zhuwao wrote in his column in a state-controlled weekly, which usually reflects the official line.
Mugabe always echoes similar sentiments, claiming succession talk is wrong and divisive.
This is what 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.
While Mphoko and other dark horses like Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi, a Mujuru ally who survived purging by a whisker, don’t have 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 to be acting president in Mugabe’s absence.
The new Zanu PF 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.
The successor 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 a chance even to candidates who are long shots.
In Grace’s camp, local government minister Kasukuwere also harbours presidential ambitions but, just like Grace, has no history, gravitas and capacity to succeed Mugabe in a cutthroat battle.
He is ambitious and known as “Zimbabwe’s Obama” in his circles. While he has presence, he lacks the charm, intellect and oratory skills of an Obama. He is seen as likely to use force in the place of persuasion to win hearts and minds.
Those who want to succeed Mugabe will also have to overcome the hurdle of defeating opposition leaders in national elections, which makes it harder, though opposition parties are currently in disarray.
For now, until Mugabe goes, he is around. The push for him to stand in 2018 must not be dismissed lightly.
Thus after the drawn-out manoeuvering as to who will succeed Mugabe it might come down to this; who will be sitting in the chair in front of Mugabe when his head drops on the table?
Will it be Grace? And if it is her, who will she share this terrible news with first?
That piece of news, how and with whom it is shared could prove a precious commodity in deciding who eventually sits on the throne.
We have seen similar incidents where the news of the death of a leader was controlled to try and influence who takes over, for example in Malawi after the death of Bingu wa Mutharika in 2012, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2001 where the body of Laurent Kabila was flown to Harare after his assassination and flown back while his son, Joseph Kabila consolidated his grip as successor.
Still, against all, there could be surprising turn of events. Though difficult, a smooth transition in Zimbabwe is still possible. This needs to happen while Mugabe is still alive to take advantage of the power of incumbency.
He could call a special congress to elect a successor, or at least play a key role in guiding consensus regarding the ground rules for an internal leadership campaign. This could partly salvage his standing. In fact this process if carried out well could become the template for succession within his party and put the democracy project back on track.
This is not far-fetched. Given the fairly clear party and national constitutional frameworks on transition, even though there some are grey areas, a Mugabe’s succession could pass without any major incident.
Zanu PF leaders might close ranks and work out compromises for collective self-preservation.
The economy is still deeply troubled. There are massive company closures and job losses. The Zimbabwe Stock Exchange market capitalisation plunged to $3.8 billion in the first half of 2015 after losing $1 billion in value.
A silver lining
But there is a silver lining in the cloud.
In a world where businesses have finally learnt to make money in authoritarian and troubled countries, of late foreign business delegations and investors – from the United States, Britain and other European Union states like France, China and Russia have been flocking to Zimbabwe to assess the situation and position themselves for a post-Mugabe era.
China and Russia have signed multi-billion dollar mining and infrastructure deals with Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa was freshly in China to firm up on that. Huge gas exploration in Lupane is underway.
Despite concerns over damaging policies like indigenisation which scare away investors, especially in areas mining where foreign companies have to cede a 51% stake to locals, fund managers see Zimbabwe as one of the most promising frontier markets which offer lucrative opportunities for the future.
With its abundance of resources and human capital, Zimbabwe could rise from the ashes more quickly than other countries that have fallen.
Only the political leadership remains the big unknown. Among the lineup of possible successors to Mugabe, none of them has shown fresh and visionary thinking about where the country should go. It might be that they have all avoided revealing their true talents as these could be career limiting while Mugabe is alive.
Whichever way it ends, for those who have despaired as they have watched Zimbabwe crumble under Mugabe, the comfort is to think that the country has hit rock bottom and that the only way it can go is up.
Most post-colonial African countries which have gone through similar experiences like Ghana, Kenya, Zambia and Malawi as well as worse in Mozambique have bottomed out, but eventually risen again. Zimbabwe can too if Mugabe, in a moment of Big Man remorse on his way out, and his successor, find it in them to put the country’s interests above their own.