By John O Chakona
MOST people, especially in the media, have taken President Mugabe’s recent statement in Jakarta about the possibility of his retirement in 2008 as definitive. I want to argue that the
re is nothing definitive in that statement and Mugabe’s intentions about retiring have remained as non-committal as before.
First, it is important to note that in spite of widespread anticipation among the public and the media that Mugabe will step down at the expiry of his current term in 2008, he has never categorically said so. All he has said in the past is that he will see his current term of office through, and the closest he has come to say about not standing for re-election in 2008 is that he will consider retiring.
Mugabe’s position on the issue of retiring has been transient and he has so far not clearly indicated that he will not stand for re-election in 2008. Even in his Jakarta statement, it is important to note that Mugabe carefully crafted his words. He said that it was “his intention to retire”, suggesting that he still has not made a decision on whether he will run for president in 2008 or not. To quote him verbatim: “I have said it before that when my term ends, I will retire. I still have to do three years and we will look at that after the three years but it is my intention to retire.”
In other words, what Mugabe is saying is that he still has not made up his mind about retiring. If, by 2008, he still feels he has the energy to go on or the “people urge him to continue”, he can still stand for re-election.
On the important issue of succession, Mugabe also maintained that he will not choose his successor. As he has indicated before, people should be allowed to choose the leader who will succeed him. In principle, this is noble since it is not Mugabe’s right or that of any president to hand-pick a successor. But in our case, Mugabe has not offered the people of Zimbabwe any free opportunity to choose their own leaders. Within Zanu PF, he and his inner circle have always vetoed any decisions and developments which he is not comfortable with, including grassroots choices for representatives in parliament and the party’s central committee.
Mugabe has persistently blocked debate on his succession and those who have spoken openly about it have been castigated and kicked out of the party. The Zanu PF national congresses at which this matter should be deliberated have been manipulated to ensure that delegates simply rubber-stamp what Mugabe and his close associates decide.
In the December 2003 annual conference in Masvingo, when some of the delegates tried to raise the issue of succession, Mugabe ruled that his retirement was not open to debate, telling his supporters he would return to tell them so when he wanted to leave office. “Have I come to you yet, no,” said Mugabe then. He also argued that the issue of his retirement will only be discussed when the people would have raised it. Ironically, the same delegates to the conference were the very representatives of the “people” Mugabe likes to refer to every time he has to justify his unpopular decisions. The question which then begs to be answered is: what really constitute the “people” in Mugabe’s mind?
At the beginning of 2004, the issue of succession was briefly opened up for debate in the party, but when it started to emerge that the favourite candidates were not necessarily what Mugabe had in mind, he abruptly put a lid on the issue. Justifying his unilateral decision, he argued that the issue was causing power struggles which were dividing the party. “They are fighting and some are even going to consult with witchdoctors. Even educated people are seeking the consultation of N’angas (witchdoctors) expecting to be possible candidates,” said Mugabe in his interview with the Kenyan newspaper, the East African Standard. But is it not inevitable that in any open competition for any position there are bound to emerge competing groups?
Those who have publicly declared their interest in succeeding him have all been ruthlessly maligned, the latest casualty being Jonathan Moyo, who until recently was Mugabe’s spin-doctor but has been sent into political exile for supporting Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidential ambitions. All those who supported Mnangagwa in his attempt to position himself for the eventual takeover, among them the six provincial chairpersons of Zanu PF, have been dealt with ruthlessly.
The late Eddison Zvobgo was similarly sidelined from government and suffered political ostracism following his remarks on the succession.
At the moment, the issue of Mugabe’s retirement from active politics has been effectively sidelined in the internal discourse of Zanu PF. What has emerged, instead, is a new discourse aimed at ensuring Mugabe’s “life presidency”. This discourse is being promoted by senior Zanu PF party officials, significantly among them Vice President Joseph Msika and the recently promoted Dydmus Mutasa, who is now in charge of the crucial Ministry of State Security.
Speaking at the 2004 Zanu PF congress, Msika argued: “There are some people that are saying it is time for President Mugabe to go. To go where? He should rule even if it means he is walking with the aid of a walking stick. He is the father of this nation; he is entitled to rule us forever. People still want him to continue ruling, so who are we to ask him to go?”
The over 10 000 delegates to the Zanu PF congress reportedly responded to Msika’s statement by ululating and stamping their feet on the ground, implying that they approved of the idea of making Mugabe life president.
The issue of life presidency was supported by Reverend Obediah Msindo, a clergyman who heads Destiny of Africa Network, an obscure religious organisation with close links to Zanu PF, who stated in his opening prayer at the congress that President Mugabe should rule until kingdom come. “It’s my prayer that President Mugabe should live longer to deliver us to the promised land. President Mugabe and Zanu PF should remain a permanent ruling party for this country,” he said.
The “life presidency agenda” has also been echoed among the liberation war veterans and chiefs. The war veterans association has already said it wants Mugabe to “be there until he dies” and that it will push for that agenda in Zanu PF.
At their meeting with Mugabe at Great Zimbabwe towards the end of 2004, the 200 chiefs who turned up from all over the country reportedly endorsed his candidature for the presidency in 2008. Explaining their decision, Mugabe had this to say: “I know why the chiefs endorsed me. It is because they know the consequences the country will face in terms of good and firm leadership should I retire.”
That some important constituencies and leading members of Zanu PF, especially those who have benefited most from Mugabe’s political patronage, have been imploring him to continue as president for many more years to come is not debatable. What can be debated is unanimity within Zanu PF on the issue and the extent of Mugabe’s hand in promoting that agenda.
*John O Chakona is a PhD candidate in political studies at the University of Cape Town.