THE death of Vice-President Joseph Msika in Harare on WednesdayÂ after a long illness has re-opened President Robert Mugabeâ€™s explosive succession race guaranteeing a fresh power struggle within his deeply-divided Zanu PF.
Msikaâ€™s death, coupled with simmering factionalism within the party, leaves Mugabe potentially exposed in the raging battle over his position.
Leadership changes in Zanu PF will determine whether the party will renew itself to inject new blood and ideas to prevent almost inevitable defeat by the main MDC in future elections.
The departure of Msika could also revive the campaign by Mugabeâ€™s loyalists to declare him President-for-Life in the party. Already provincial executives have suggested that Mugabe is the â€œSupreme Leaderâ€ of Zanu PF.
Msika stopped Zanu PF from declaring Mugabe President-for-Life during the partyâ€™s 69th ordinary session of the central committee in early 2007.
He shot down the proposal that was contained in the 9th National Peopleâ€™s Conference report presented by party chairman John Nkomo to that meeting. Msikaâ€™s move came during a heated debate on the report of the partyâ€™s annual conference held at Goromonzi from December 13-16, 2006. Â
Confidential Zanu PF politburo and central committee documents seen by the Zimbabwe Independent show Msika torpedoed the campaign to ensure Mugabe remained leader until death.
The controversial central committee report had suggested that: â€œThe President (Mugabe) should be declared President-for-Life.â€ However, Msika responded: â€œWe should not think with emotions. The president must get his mandate from the people and we should be guided by the constitution which should apply to all incumbents in the future.â€
The issue had also been raised in the politburo in March 2007 by Zanu PF Womenâ€™s League chairperson Oppah Muchinguri. At the time there was a strong lobby for Mugabe to remain at the helm until his demise, an unwritten rule of the party.
Like his predecessors Joshua Nkomo and Simon Muzenda, Msika died in office an octogenarian, showing there is an established practice of having leaders for life in Zanu PF. Nkomo died aged 81, Muzenda 80 and now Msika 86. Mugabe is 85.
There are widespread fears that the battle for the soul of Zanu PF will eventually lead to the disintegration of the party along its regional and ethnic fault lines when Mugabe dies.
However, in the meantime the immediate fight in Zanu PF will be over the unresolved succession issue which is currently being managed by a committee of senior party officials to prevent it exploding into an uncontrollable crisis.
A briefing to the Independent by senior Zanu PF politburo officials this week indicate that jostling for Msikaâ€™s position started to escalate when it became clear his health was rapidly deteriorating ahead of the partyâ€™s congress in December. Â
Although Mugabe, who has been Zanu PF leader for 32 years, had largely been endorsed as â€œSupreme Leaderâ€ to extend his leadership by another five years, Msikaâ€™s death is likely to reopen fresh power struggles within the party.
Sources said Msikaâ€™s death would fuel battles between Zanu PF chair John Nkomo, politburo member Obert Mpofu and Bulawayo governor Cain Mathema to succeed him. Nkomo, a member of the Zanu PF presidium, is seen as the frontrunner as Mpofu and Mathema are relative lightweights.
The vacancy left by Msika is expected to be filled in by a former PF Zapu old guard in terms of the Zanu and Zapu 1987 Unity Accord.
Sources said John Nkomo, Mpofu and Mathema have been lobbying party stalwarts and ex-combatants to boost their succession bids. Mpofu and Mathema are however seen as long shots.
A senior Zanu PF official said while there is a tussle for Msikaâ€™s position, it was almost certain Nkomo would win. â€œThe race is on but Nkomo is likely to win it. If (Dumiso) Dabengwa was still with the party it would be a different issue altogether,â€ the official said. â€œThe real fight now might be over who becomes chairman.â€
Since the Unity Accord, Zanu and Zapu shared equally the top four positions.
Msika was the chairman of Zanu PF when Joshua Nkomo was vice-president. When Msika became vice-president in 1999 after a fierce battle with Thenjiwe Lesabe, then Zanu PF Womenâ€™s League head, party heavyweight Emmerson Mnangagwa clashed with John Nkomo over the chairmanship.
After a bitter struggle which prominently featured the late maverick Eddison Zvobgo, Mnangagwa lost to Nkomo. Ever since Mnangagwa has been trying hard to climb the greasy pole. His 2004 attempt to rise after the death of Muzenda in 2003 had disastrous consequences for himself and his faction. His campaign was thwarted by Mugabe and his faction crushed in the process.
Mnangagwaâ€™s rival Joice Mujuru dramatically ascended to the presidium from lower down in the pecking order. The battle was followed by serious purges in the party which has a history of infighting and killings.
Sources said Mnangagwa might nevertheless try again to seize the current opportunity to become chairman. However, given Zanu PFâ€™s resolution in 2007 that â€œthe Unity Accord is not negotiableâ€, Mnangagwa might have a serious problem coming in.
Sources said Didymus Mutasa, the partyâ€™s secretary for administration, might join the race. The sources said if Mpofu fails to beat Nkomo, he might settle for the chairmanship, pitting himself against Mnangagwa and Mutasa.
Msika, a veteran nationalist who helped to rope in Mugabe to join the anti-colonial struggle in the early 1960s, was a stabilising factor in Zanu PF which is torn by regional divisions and ethnic infighting.
Msika â€” who almost stormed out of the Zanu PF extraordinary congress in December 2007 in protest against war veterans leader Jabulani Sibandaâ€™s divisive activities â€” provided direction by blocking the spirited campaign by Mugabeâ€™s diehards to keep him in power for life.
Sibanda was also seen as helping to ensure Mugabe remained leader for life with his â€œMillion-Manâ€ march and other activities. As a result there was a heated debate in a politburo meeting on October 24 2007 about Sibandaâ€™s moves. Msika won the day again and Sibanda stopped in his tracks.
The debate was so heated that Angeline Masuku ended up saying there was â€œa conspiracy to remove Zapu leaders from their party positionsâ€. She also said there were â€œwithin the politburoâ€ individuals being used to divide people along tribal lines.Â
Lesabe weighed in, suggesting if the situation continued like that Zapu leaders must opt out of the Zanu PF leadership positions. Mugabe was riled by these remarks and warned Masuku and Lesabe not to create a volatile â€œZanu versus Zapuâ€ conflict.
BY DUMISANI MULEYA