Contest to succeed Zimbabwe’s Mugabe heats up

JONATHAN MANTHORPE
May 2, 2014.

It offers a glimpse into the dark recesses of Robert Mugabe’s soul that he has remained in power in Zimbabwe for over three decades by the masterful manipulation of his opponents’ weaknesses.

Some have been bought off. Others have had their gluttony for the trappings of power sated to the point of political surfeit and suicide. Those lusting to grab Mugabe’s political power have been tricked and trapped into exposing their own ambitions, and then removed.

When all else has failed, Mugabe’s opponents have died, usually in questionable circumstances.

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Robert Mugabe. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lock, United States Air Force, U.S. government photo (public domain)

But now Mugabe is 90 years old and time is running out, barring a Faustian deal to live forever – which many adherents of traditional culture in Zimbabwe would consider entirely plausible.

The contest to succeed Mugabe and to take over the reins of his ruling ZANU-PF party has been underway for some years, but it is now switching into high gear as the party approaches its national congress in December this year.

Mugabe has never named a successor and there are indications he enjoys the confusion he spreads by seeming to favour one candidate and then another. It is a measure of his ability to confuse that there is much chatter in Zimbabwe that he may resign at the December meeting, but there is an equally strong contingent that says Mugabe intends to die in office.

There are two main contenders. The favourite is said by many politicians and commentators in Zimbabwe to be Vice-President Joice Mujuru. She is a veteran of the war against the white regime of Ian Smith in what was then Rhodesia in the 1970s, and is the widow of Solomon Mujuru. General Mujuru led the ZANU-PF guerrillas during the war and, after majority rule and independence in 1980, was Commander of the Zimbabwe National Army until he retired in 1995.

Gen. Mujuru played a key role in helping Mugabe to the leadership of ZANU-PF in the closing months of the guerrilla war, when victory seemed certain. Mugabe was not a fighter, but Mujuru vouched for him with key military leaders, like Josiah Tongogara, who many expected to emerge as the political leader of the new Zimbabwe.

But Tongogara, like several of Mugabe’s rivals for power, met with an untimely death just weeks before Zimbabwe achieved independence. He is said to have died in a road accident in Mozambique, but that does not explain the bullet holes in his body some witnesses claim to have seen.

Mujuru’s death in August 2011 had some similarities. After retiring from the army, Mujuru remained a highly influential member of ZANU-PF, but from 2007 through 2008 was under house arrest, accused of attempting to mount a coup against Mugabe.

On the evening of August 15, 2011, Mujuru was at his farm when there was a fire, he was unable to get out and died. However, a maid and a guard at the farm testified they heard gunshots and there was evidence people were waiting for Mujuru when he arrived home after shopping for groceries.

His widow, Joice Mujuru, is adamant that her husband was killed, but she has not pointed at Mugabe. Instead, she has accused “hardliners,” which in the argot of ZANU-PF factionalism points to her main rival for the leadership, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa is another freedom fighter from the 1970s, who is often described at Mugabe’s “enforcer.”

Mnangagwa was Minister of State Security from 1980 to 1988, the time of Gukurahundi (The Rain That Cleanses) when the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade wiped out dozens of Ndebele villages in the country’s western Matabeleland, thought to harbour opponents to Mugabe.

Those killing fields and the threat of being called to account at the International Criminal Court continue to hang over many at the top of the Zimbabwe regime, including Mugabe himself, and are a powerful incentive to hang on to power.

Mnangagwa went on to head the Joint Operations Command as Minister of Defence. This committee is made up of the heads of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, the National Army, the Air Force, the Republic Police, the Prison Service, the Central Intelligence Organization and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. It is the hub of power.

Some efforts to discredit Mnangagwa were made in 2007 by trying to link his name to the thwarted military coup. That was likely a disinformation campaign, but there is evidence Mugabe is, nonetheless, suspicious of Mnangagwa’s ambitions, and the President has on some occasions made his disquiet known by firing Mnangagwa’s supporters.

Mnangagwa is now Minister of Justice, but he is not a man to concede defeat without using every weapon, political and otherwise, that comes to hand. Mujuru has a fight on her hands, and she knows it.

Confusion about Zimbabwe’s political future is not only in the halls of the ruling ZANU-PF. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai is in total disorder. Indeed, an MDC faction led by the ambitious former Minister of Finance Tendai Biti, this week tried to “suspend” Tsvangirai, and the outcome of this attempted coup is as yet uncertain.

The downfall of Tsvangirai, a brave and resolute man in his early years championing opposition to ZANU-PF, is a textbook case of Mugabe’s sure instinct for his opponents’ weaknesses.

Tsvangirai and the MDC came to the fore in the early 2000s when Mugabe went on a rampage against the few white farmers who remained after Zimbabwe’s transition from Rhodesia in 1980. In the name of redistributing white-owned land to impoverished black peasants, farms were grabbed by thugs attached to ZANU-PF. Often the farmers and their families were killed and their workers and their families – about 1.5 million people in all – were expelled from their homes. Many continue to live in shanty camps by Zimbabwe’s roadsides.

Meanwhile the economy went into a tailspin and about four million people, a quarter of the population of 12 million, fled into neighbouring countries, where many have remained.

Tsvangirai and the MDC stalwarts rode this cyclone with courage and tenacity. And even though Mugabe has always regarded dictating the outcome of elections to be one of his privileges of office, there was no escaping that Tsvangirai won the presidency in the 2008 election.

Mugabe and his machine unleashed a whirlwind of violence that persuaded neighbouring countries to put pressure on Tsvangirai to make a deal. A government of national unity was formed in which Tsvangirai was hustled into the speedily created post of Prime Minister.

Tsvangirai hoped he could disarm Mugabe, earn his confidence and transform Zimbabwe into a true multi-party system. But Mugabe withheld any meaningful responsibilities from the Prime Minister and swiftly discovered Tsvangirai’s weakness for the perks and trappings of position.

It was not long before Tsvangirai’s stature had shrunk to inconsequence both within the MDC and the country at large. When the elections rolled around in July last year, Mugabe had no need to fix the results, though he did out of habit. The unity pact was dissolved, and Tsvangirai cast on the political rubbish dump.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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