Understanding Mugabe and Mnangagwa’s relationship

With unrelenting infighting in Zanu PF, and lately, the deepening economic crisis, many thought that Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa would make good of his newly acquired strategic position as vice president, and bring to an end the nonagenarian’s political career.


But, to the anger, particularly of those party elites who have been doing the bidding for his ascendancy, the vice president, reluctant to take Mugabe head-on, continues to play a distinctly subservient role. What they don’t understand is that his position is no different from those of previous vice presidents; he is just a rebottled Simon Muzenda, or Joseph Msika, specifically appointed to aid Mugabe’s eternal rulership. If he had any capacity to challenge the president, surely, he wouldn’t be his deputy.


To be sure this is not to say that Mnangagwa is not ambitious. Every politician does have ambitions.

But, it is to say that it is rather the complex nature of his political relationship with Mugabe which explains why the vice president is unlikely to make that long awaited pre-emptive strike. Instead, Mnangagwa is likely to wait until the nonagenarian has succumbed to biology or has decided to resign.

In the meanwhile, he will continue selling a dummy to his allies in the party — whom he doesn’t need more than he needs Mugabe — that playing consummate servant to the president is part of his realpolitik strategy, and that it’s only a matter of time before he attacks.
Nothing is more illustrative of the centrality of Mugabe to Mnangagwa’s sense of identity as a politician than the Midlands Godfather being prepared to go to any lengths inorder to preserve this political relationship. His obsession with keeping his relations with the president on good terms is even done at the expense of his close allies that Mnangagwa thinks are deemed rebellious by the president. The legend is that for fear of antagonising the president further, when Jonathan Moyo was defenestrated from the party, he didn’t even receive a phone call from Mnangagwa.

Indeed, this should be a warning to Chris Mutsvangwa that nothing comes in between Mnangagwa’s obedience to the president. if booted out of the party, Mutsvangwa should not expect the vice president to visit his residency and comfort him.

But, judging by the letter recently written by government ministers Makhosini Hlongwane, Tapiwa Matangaidze and Annastacia Ndhlovu — to the Secretariat of the Commissariat, following unrelenting attacks by G40, and with virtually no protection from “The Crocodile”, some of his allies seem to have realised this, and are ready to jump ship. This leaves only July Moyo, a marginalised politician as the only ally of consequence in Mnangagwa’s camp.

How did it all start?

When and how the two men might have met remains a subject of speculation. However, the president might have dropped a hint when he said that when he was working as a teacher in Mapanzure, a remote rural village in Zvishavane, he was introduced to Mnangagwa’s uncle.

It seems, towards the end of the liberation war, the vice president, who at that time was studying in Zambia, was incorporated, at Mugabe’s instigation or approval, into Zanu PF structures as Mugabe’s special assistant. This move was seen as a thank you to the Mnangagwa family who had acted as young Mugabe’s guardians when he was teaching in remote Zvishavane. An image that emerged after independence, which can be dated back to the 1970s, and another one that appears to have been taken on Independence Day, have been used to claim that this special relationship is indeed old, and strong too.

Mnangagwa himself has been mum about how they met. He is a man who says very little, a carefully crafted quality that is in sync with the image of a strongman that he has built for himself.

Mugabe’s enforcer

Though we might not be sure about how this relationship might have started, there is no doubt that Mugabe must have initiated contact between the two of them.

As a practical politician, Mugabe acknowledges his limitations; he is not a doer, but a strategist or thinker. What he needed was someone who literally, could get his hands dirty. To psychoanalysts Mnangagwa has something that Mugabe desperately lacks, and that drew him to the president.

What precisely made Mugabe pick him amongst many potentials is not clear. But, what we know is the legend — which has been questioned that as a teenager, the vice president was already blowing up strategic sites during the Second Chimurenga war. Since then he has not held back. For example, the ruthlessness with which he executed the campaign in the second round of the 2008 presidential elections, and Gukurahundi, amongst several deployments, seems to have cemented his place in the King’s court. Whereas, Mnangagwa needs Mugabe as part of his identity as a politician, to the president, “The Crocodile” is a vital cog in Mugabe’s ruthless political machine.

However, in as much as ruthless efficiency in the completion of difficult tasks has its rewards, failure can invite disastrous consequences. We have to remind ourselves that, though the decline of former Zanu politburo member Eddison Zvogbo’s political fortunes can be linked to his rebelliousness, what actually triggered his fallout with the president was his failure to give Mugabe a constitution that gave the executive branch of the state limitless power. Mnangagwa is very much conscious of this.

Irrational loyalty
There is no doubt that the president is a man who is capable of inspiring and cultivating intense loyalty. It is one of his unlimited political talents. But surely, that is not enough to explain Mnangagwa’s total and mostly blind loyalty to the president, even in the face of embarrassing moments as in the case with the First Lady telling the nation that the vice president is her junior who takes notes from her on how to run the government, or his allies slowly deserting him.

This is because, in return for doing dirty work for the president, and for his loyalty, Mugabe has ensured that Mnangagwa is rewarded handsomely, and the prize has been proximity to power. It is no wonder that Mnangagwa has held a ministerial position since independence.

Most of these positions have been critical; for example, defence, security, home affairs and justice, amongst many. The unwritten promise of the ultimate prize, the presidency, explains the vice president’s outrageous loyalty.
In other words, rather than sheer political talents as some might want us to believe, the vice president is very much aware that he owes his political career to Mugabe.

Even if he wanted to abandon, and then challenge Mugabe, he is so lonely on Zimbabwe’s political stage, and does not have the political tools to do it. Zimbabwe’s history is littered with those who have attempted to challenge the president and have found themselves in political wilderness; Joyce Mujuru, Didymus Mutasa, Rugare Gumbo, Edgar Tekere and Simba Makoni.

The vice president knows that he is no exception. His rise was engineered by Mugabe, so can his fall if the president so chooses. So, for all the talk of a powerful Mnangagwa, the “Crocodile” is only powerful to the extent that the president wants him to be.

Mugabe’s most potent tool against his student is his mind; so complex, but most importantly so inscrutable. No-one knows what the president is thinking, and what he is going to do next and how. This sends a chill even amongst the most hardened politicians such as Mnangagwa.

Indeed, this explains in large part why the vice president is totally subjugated to Mugabe. Man is wolf to man, the vice president seems to be aware of this old saying. The two of them might be happy together; share an old joke here and there.
But it’s like sporting with a lion. You have to be on the watch all the time, and any move that could be misjudged can have disastrous consequences.

In other words, those who think that at some point, Mnangagwa will wake up one day and release himself from the obedience of the president by launching his own ambitions, will be disappointed.

Indeed, what better opportunity can present itself than when one has the strategic vice presidency position, and there is pervasive discontent within the party as a result of Mugabe’s insistence on continued leadership, and then the president leaves a cashless economy that has the potential to collapse at any time?

The only place that he wants to be as long as Mugabe still wants to be president, is by his side.

Romance unravelling
But all things do come to an end. Mnangagwa and Mugabe have had a partnership that has worked since the 1980s. As long as they had nothing coming in between their political relationship, they kept on rising.

But, that was until recently when the president decided to crash land his wife’s political carer onto their boat. The dilemma is that the boat has got only room for two people, and one of them is going to have to make friends with the deep and cold waters of Zimbabwe’s political terrain. It is not going to be the president. Neither is it going to be his wife.

Indeed, the duo seem to have initiated an attack on Mnangagwa. With implicit approval, the president’s wife has been at the fore front of bloodletting against the vice president. Not shy of controversy, this has included efforts aimed at undermining and embarrassing Mnangagwa. More potent has been Grace Mugabe’s attempts to silence the vice president by expelling his most vocal ally, the Minister of War Veterans, Chris Mutsvangwa.

President Mugabe has opted for coded attacks on his long-time political partner. What seems to have riled the president is Mnangagwa’s appeasing attitude towards the Europe and the US.

Early this year, Mnangagwa told the press that Zimbabwe “cannot do without the West”, prompting Mugabe to subtly warm Mnangagwa when he told delegates at Zanu PF’s December conference that the ruling party was divided on the West’s imposed sanctions – a polite way of saying that I am not happy if this is meant as a direct challenge. In addition, Mugabe’s anger at the security sector’s involvement in politics is exclusively directed at the army general, Constantine Chiwenga, who allegedly, in return for the vice presidency, has been attempting to aid the ascendancy of Mnangagwa.

But the truth of the matter is that Mnangagwa’s political career is at the mercy of Mugabe.

He wouldn’t be vice president if Mugabe thought that he could be challenged by him.

Mnangagwa understands that the longevity of their relationship besides loyalty and being Mugabe’s fixer, also depends on a functioning state with resources.

However, his attempts to fix the economy by stirring the nation towards the “Devil West” and criticising the indigenisation policy might be misjudged as a direct challenge. An anti-West stance and indigenisation policy are at the centre of Mugabe’s political showmanship and rhetoric.

The consequences of a backlash from the president would be far worse than those suffered by Maurice Nyagumbo, Zvobgo, Tekere or Mujuru. After all, they say, friends make the worst enemies.

Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political analyst based in London.


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