Zimbabwe Collapse looms over Mugabe succession

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
July 23, 2016

Robert and Grace Mugabe. Photo by Dandjk Roberts via Wikipedia, Creative Commons
Robert and Grace Mugabe. Photo by Dandjk Roberts via Wikipedia, Creative Commons

The natural span of life is approaching its end for 92-year-old Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader since 1980, but the infighting over the succession is so intense that no one is running the shop, and there may be nothing much left to inherit when the time comes.

Mugabe has said he intends to run in the next election in 2018 – which will be more a theatrical display than an exercise in democracy – and that he plans to stay in office until he dies. That may come sooner than later. Despite following a rigorous health regime most of his life, Mugabe looks increasingly frail during his now-rare public appearances. He has stumbled and fallen on several occasions.

There was a highly significant public display of the fracturing within the Zimbabwean establishment when the veterans of the country’s 1970s war of liberation against the white minority regime of Ian Smith turned on Mugabe. The veterans have been, in essence, the militia for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party since 2000, when he began depending on violence to win elections. But on Friday the veterans’ organisation issued a statement saying Mugabe’s “leadership has presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin for which the effects are now felt throughout the land.” The veterans went on to say Zimbabwe has seen “the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the President and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle.”

There are three main candidates circling and manoeuvring to grab the crown. There’s Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, former Vice-President Joice Mujuru and Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

Meanwhile, what was the best organised and most productive country in Africa when Mugabe came to power 36 years ago is now on the brink of ruin. Zimbabwe has had no currency of its own since 2009, when hyperinflation forced the government to issue banknotes with $Zim100 trillion denominations. Instead, Zimbabweans use the South African Rand and the United States greenback.

Inflation is on the rise again. Eighty per cent of government revenues are spent on public service salaries and pensions. But with the destruction of the country’s agricultural, mining and industrial economy under Mugabe’s regime of intellectual and actual corruption, there is no money. Most public servants and pensioners haven’t been paid for months. The exception, of course, is the armed forces and police on whose support the survival of the regime depends.

In recent weeks there have been national strikes by teachers, doctors and nurses, and riots at the Beitbridge crossing point into South Africa against restrictions on imports, a move aimed at saving hard currency. There have even been demonstrations in South Africa by exiled Zimbabweans wanting to send succour home to their families. And earlier this month taxi drivers in the capital, Harare, struck and demonstrated over the proliferation of police road blocks, set up to extort bribes from the cabbies.

Mugabe’s government has blamed, as it always does, unnamed “foreign forces” for the debacle, and briefly arrested a prominent activist and religious leader of “This Flag” movement, Pastor Evan Mawarire.

The threat of growing civil unrest is making it increasing difficult for Mugabe’s ministers to cadge loans from international lenders. There are strong rumours that the government will issue what are known as “bond notes” instead of currency to meet its salary and pension obligations. This is only stoking anxiety as few people expect these bonds to be easily redeemable or worth their face value.

No one in government is attempting to address Zimbabwe’s fundamental economic and social problems, however. It is highly questionable how aware Mugabe is of the situation, or, if he is, whether he has the capacity to respond. Even in his most coherent times, Mugabe’s forte was kleptomania rather than administration on behalf of Zimbabwe’s 12 million people. (At least four million people have fled into neighbouring countries and elsewhere since started following increasingly demented policies in 2000.)

Among the three leading candidates for the succession the most colourful is undoubtedly Mugabe’s scandal-ridden wife Grace, known as “the First Shopper.” Her ambition is evident, but her political authority will probably die with her husband. That may be why she has put forward the macabre notion that Mugabe might continue ruling from beyond the grave. No doubt Grace sees herself as the intermediary for her husband’s post mortem administration.

She may be taking a lead from North Korea where the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung, was declared the country’s “Eternal President” after his death in 1994.

Grace was Mugabe’s secretary in the 1980s and 1990s when I was Africa correspondent for Southam News and my family and I lived just across the Botanical Gardens from the Presidential Palace in Harare. She became Mugabe’s mistress while his dying first wife, Sally, was still alive, and had two children by him; a son and daughter.

When the affair became known, it was put about that Sally had chosen Grace as her successor as First Lady. There is no way of knowing whether that is true or not, but my Zimbabwean friends with deep understanding of local family culture doubt it.

Matters were complicated by the fact that Grace was also married. But that was dealt with when her husband, Air Force pilot Stanley Goreraza, was packed off to Beijing as defence attaché in the Zimbabwean embassy.

Grace and Mugabe married in the “Wedding of the Century” in 1996, bizarrely, an event blessed by the Catholic Church, to which Mugabe claims allegiance when it suits his purposes. There were 20,000 guests – including untold members of Grace’s extended family who behaved as though they’d won the lottery, which they had – and the celebration was said to have cost enough to build 1,200 houses for 7,000 homeless people.

Grace’s taste for luxury has become a byword for what can still go wrong in African political leadership. Early in her tenure as First Lady, Grace ordered the building of a palace, inevitably known as Graceland, in the wealthy Harare suburb, Borrowdale. When questioned about the cost she said she’d paid for it with her savings from her salary as Mugabe’s secretary. She sold that pile to the then Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi – Zimbabwe has become a welcoming refuge for deposed dictators – and started building another palace at a cost of $US26 million.

Meanwhile, she took her pick of farms owned by white families and had them evicted.

Her booming property portfolio now includes real estate in Malaysia and Hong Kong, where she also owns a diamond cutting business.

That’s useful because Grace, according to United States diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, has a firm grip on large parts of Zimbabwe’s extensive diamond production, an asset that provides almost no benefit for local people.

Mugabe opened the door into politics for Grace in 2014 when he made her head of the ZANU-PF Women’s League. The old lags of ZANU-PF, many of whom fought against the white regime in the 1970s, find Grace’s royal airs distasteful in the extreme, but the aura of wealth that surrounds her is enough to attract support from less discerning acolytes.

Then there’s Joice Mujuru, the former Vice-President who fell out with Mugabe in 2014 when he accused her of plotting against him. She has formed her own Zimbabwe People First Party. Mujuru has a colourful record as a liberation war fighter in the 1970s, when she used the nom-de-guerre “Teurai Ropa,” (Spill Blood). In 1974 she is said to have shot down a Rhodesian army helicopter with a machinegun, though other veterans have cast doubt on this story.

In 1977 she married Solomon Mujuru, whose “chimurenga” (revolutionary struggle) name was Rex Nhongo, and who was the deputy commander-in-chief of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army. After independence in 1980 Solomon Mujuru became the head of the new Zimbabwe National Army, and in 1992 retired to go into business and politics. He became very powerful within ZANU-PF and was regarded as the only man in the leadership who could publicly challenge Mugabe’s judgement and get away with it.

This authority brought Solomon Mujuru into conflict with another liberation war hero and stalwart of Mugabe’s government in the 1980s and 1990s, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Rivalry between the two men came to a head in 2004 when Solomon backed moves by the ZANU-PF Women’s League to have his wife, Joice, appointed to the vacant Vice-President’s post. Mnangagwa, who was then Speaker of Parliament, thought he should get the job, which carries the inference of being Mugabe’s chosen successor. Mnangagwa was, and remains, bitter.

That is among the reasons why the death of Solomon Mujuru on the night of August 15, 2011, is still regarded as suspicious. The former general had a drink at a bar in Beatrice, 60 kilometres south of Harare, before continuing to his (confiscated former white-owned) Alamein Farm, a further 10 minutes down the road. He was alone at the house, but a guard and a maid heard gunshots later that night, and then saw a fire at the farmhouse. The coroner concluded Mujuru died of smoke inhalation, though few believe it.

Without the protection of her husband, Joice Mujuru was vulnerable, and three years later, 2014, Mugabe was convinced she was plotting against him. She was fired from the vice-presidency, and from ZANU-PF.

Joice Mujuru has launched her own Zimbabwe People First Party, and attracted some support. But like most Zimbabwean politicians of her vintage, her CV is peppered with allegations of corruption. The main charges against her focus on her involvement in the shipping of 3.5 tonnes of gold from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Switzerland.

The smart money in the Mugabe succession stakes is on Mujuru’s rival and current Vice-President, Mnangagwa. He is said to be Zimbabwe’s wealthiest man, and has a formidable record both within the ruling ZANU-PF party, and – most important – as a key member of the country’s security and military establishment.

Mnangagwa joined ZANLA and the war against the Ian Smith regime as a teenager in 1963. He was sent to China for military training, and later infiltrated what was then known as Rhodesia as the head of a brigade called the “Crocodile Group.” (His followers are now known as Team Lacoste for the crocodile emblem of the sportswear manufacturer.)

In January 1965 Mnangagwa was betrayed to Rhodesian police, arrested and, because he was under 21 years old, sentenced to only 10 years in prison. There, much like Nelson Mandela’s associates on Robbin Island, his political education was completed by fellow prisoners like Mugabe, Edgar Tekere, Enos Nkala, and Didymus Mutasa.

On his release, Mnangagwa was deported to neighbouring Zambia, a headquarters in exile for the political wing of the liberation movement, then known as the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). He studied law in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, and became a leading figure in the exiled ZANU establishment. Mnangagwa was part of the ZANU negotiating team at the Lancaster House talks in London in 1979 with Ian Smith’s government and he led Zimbabwe’s new civilian leaders back to their homeland in 1980.

From the start of the Mugabe years, Mnangagwa was deeply involved in the country’s security apparatus, and that experience and those links will probably give him victory in the succession battle now. Until 1988 Mnangagwa was the chairman of Joint High Command, which oversaw the integration of the liberation armies with the remnants of the Rhodesian Army. In this role he was also overseer of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) at the time when Mugabe was using all his forces to suppress the political power of the minority Ndelbele people in western Zimbabwe. This was achieved by killing Ndebele in large numbers, a crime against humanity for which several leading figures in Zimbabwe have yet to answer.

In the 1990s Mnangagwa held legal, economic and foreign affairs posts before becoming Mugabe’s chief elections strategist in the 2000s when violence and coercion were the chief campaign tactics. Mnangagwa’s direct contact with the security establishment resumed in 2009 when he was made Minister of Defence.

The key group here is the Joint Operation Command, made up of the heads of the army, air force, police, prison service and CIO. ZANU-PF’s rules governing the succession have never been made public, though as Vice-President Mnangagwa clearly has the inside edge. But when all is said and done, it will be the senior officers in the Joint Operation Command who decide, and, so far as can be judged at this point, Mnangagwa is their man.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com




Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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