ZANU PF leaders in the Midlands province last weekend bestowed on President Robert Mugabe the new but rather dubious accolade of â€œsupreme leaderâ€.
The Midlands leadership led by Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa did not expatiate on the new title for the president other than to say they were happy with Mugabeâ€™s leadership and there was therefore no need to look for an alternative leader at the partyâ€™s congress at the end of the year.
We are expecting other provinces to follow suit. There will soon be a flurry of sycophantic statements as leaders fall over each other to endorse Mugabe as life-president of the party. The new accolade in reality means nothing more than extending Mugabeâ€™s tenure, notwithstanding the consequences of such a move to the political fortunes of the party and the countryâ€™s recovery.
More importantly though it betrays the desperate situation the party now finds itself in, in the quest to deal with the issue of succession. The party is stuck with Mugabe. This does not however mean that the succession issue is dead. It is very much alive as the need by the leadership to sensor the clear and present danger of not attending to the challenge of leadership renewal mounts. The current stratagem of defying Mugabe is only postponing a problem that will continue to haunt the party. In fact it is making the problem more and more complex.
The fact that Mnangagwa is leading the garrison to protect Mugabeâ€™s throne does not preclude the fact the wily politician is in his own right also interested in taking over the reins of power. Mnangagwaâ€™s opponents will be forced to endorse Mugabe for their own safety. They know the backlash of failing to do so as exemplified by the Tsholotsho saga five years ago. But that does not stop them from mobilising against Mnangagwa when the time comes to replace Mugabe. By remaining in office, Mugabe stands as the buffer ensuring an uneasy peace in the party. But his tenure as supreme leader does not have an everlasting guarantee seal. He will be replaced one day and that is the day the party must prepare for.
The major defect in the succession project in Zanu PF is that Mugabe has skilfully managed to situate any debate to succeed him as a ploy to unseat him from office. His allies have adopted the same discredited ruse in their quest to have a safe passage to the top when the time comes.
Mnangagwaâ€™s beatification of Mugabe is therefore a ploy to weaken opponents in the party. Mugabe is the weapon of choice in that endeavour. His supreme leadership therefore has little to do with improving the countryâ€™s battered economy or the ability of the government to deliver. It has its roots in the archaic policy of a â€œstrong handâ€ which often features prominently in the conduct of dictators.
This policy is largely motivated by the thinking that to perform vital reforms which require both political will and political support, the strong hand of a supreme leader is required. It may actually be true that necessary reforms are best carried out by dictatorial regimes. For instance, in the first years of Hitlerâ€™s rule, Germany increased its economic and military power greatly, and in Saddam Husseinâ€™s first years in power, Iraq became one of the most developed countries in the Middle East, with good education and social security systems. Zanu PF will always argue that the party requires Mugabeâ€™s strong hand to carry out land reform and to form a bulwark against the West.
But this is not sustainable. The end result is poor governance that will eventually lead to the degeneration of systems whose strength is in a strong man. The systemâ€™s downfall is to a large extent a result of the strongman surrounding himself with incompetent associates that causes poor performance of governance in the long run. The resulting mismanagement will sooner or later have an adverse effect on the policies carried out and consequently on economic performance and social welfare.Â This is where the Zanu PF administration is at the moment. There is an overwhelming presence of mediocrities around Mugabe and this has effectively created a caste of people who are vitally interested in sustaining the regime, for any change will drive them away from power.
At the end of it all though, Zanu PFâ€™s failure to discuss its succession and attempts by hawks in the party to ring-fence Mugabeâ€™s throne can only weaken the party further. Without leadership renewal whatever the party does is doomed, as Thabo Mbeki clearly understood. It has remained a Potemkin edifice with Mugabe as its fragile buttress.Â
A leader who wants a controlled succession would overvalue his presence in power as compared to the more necessary concerns of society as a whole. From our viewpoint, these considerations may outweigh the potential benefits from stability that may accompany any succession.