AN eerie air of anxiety enveloped the venue of Zanu PF’s annual conference in Chinhoyi last Friday and Saturday as party delegates were brazenly banned and had their mouths zipped from discussing anything to do with the burning succession issue as “guided democracy” which some are now advocating seemed to take centre-stage.
The party’s leadership steered delegates away from discussing the issue of President Robert Mugabe’s succession by whipping them into line on Friday morning before his arrival at the venue, hence the matter remained taboo in Zanu PF.
The annual conference came against the backdrop of chaotic provincial elections which widened factional fissures in the party. The elections, held to choose the provincial chairpersons, women and youth leagues heads, were characterised by allegations of disenfranchisement, voter register manipulation, vote-buying and ballot rigging.
As Zanu PF national commissar Webster Shamu spelt out what he referred to as rules of engagement for the two-day conference, there was deathly silence; one could hear a pin drop.
“I want to make it clear that the only leader we have here is President Robert Mugabe,” bellowed Shamu. “As long as the president is still alive, no one else can be hero-worshipped and we can only sing praises of other people when they are dead as we do at the National Heroes Acre.
“If you have songs you composed during the (provincial) elections praising those (provincial) leaders, then they have to be banished because we have one leader in President Robert Mugabe,” he said much to the shock of the delegates, particularly from the Midlands, Masvingo and Manicaland provinces who had earlier been singing: “Eh varume musaputse sungano … sungano yacho ndeya Mwari … (please, do not break the covenant because it is God’s will).
Delegates from those provinces interviewed by the Zimbabwe Independent said the plan was really to rally behind reported presidential aspirant Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has been locked in a long drawn-out battle with supposed bitter rival, Vice-President Joice Mujuru to succeed Mugabe.
The elected chairpersons head the provincial co-ordinating committees which play a major role in the nomination of members of the presidium in which a candidate requires at least six out of the 10 provinces to land any of the top four Zanu PF posts comprising the president, two deputies and national chairperson.
Many had hoped Mugabe would hint on his retirement plans ahead of the 2014 elective congress.
Although the party leadership muzzled formal discussion on the succession issue, true to the biblical aphorism that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”, there were flashes of factional divisions as delegates cheered their preferred presidential candidates each time they spoke.
The electrifying atmosphere of yesteryear conferences, which were characterised by searing rhetoric, singing and dancing, was noticeably absent from the conference held against the backdrop of worsening socio-economic indicators since Zanu PF bounced back to power after the July 31 general elections tainted by rigging allegations.
Even tough-talking and combative war veterans’ leader Jabulani Sibanda seemed subdued save for his passionate singing of Mugabe’s praises, now a staple at the annual conferences.
Sibanda glorified Mugabe (89) whom he claimed would be the party’s candidate in 2018, which would make him president until 99 should he win the election.
“We don’t want to hear about succession which is written in newspapers. We want wisdom from Cde President even if he is 100 years,” he said.
Political analyst Alexander Rusero said the conference was a ritual meant to reinforce Mugabe’s personality cult and hero-worship him, as Shamu confessed, to thwart increasing calls for leadership renewal threatening to tear the party apart.
“The conference was meant to set the tone by thwarting any calls for leadership renewal until 2018,” Rusero said.
“The commissariat also exercised guided democracy in that they whipped delegates into line and preached only that which Mugabe wants to hear although suppressing the issue could prove explosive and dangerous in the end.”
For the first time, foreign dignitaries did not give solidarity messages after national chairperson Simon Khaya Moyo blocked them, with some delegates suggesting that Zanu PF feared subtle criticism from its allies and comrades.
Last year, during a meeting of former liberation movements in Harare, Chama Cha MaPinduzi (CCM) secretary-general Wilson Chilemeji Mukama told the Independent that his party, which brought independence to Tanzania in 1962, has remained in power for 50 years because of its ability to adapt to shifting political and socio-economic circumstances, as well as leadership renewal.
Tanzania has had four presidents since independence in 1961 — Julius Nyerere, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, Benjani Mkapa and now Jakaya Kikwete. Zimbabwe has had only one leader for 33 years now.
Zanu PF received similar advice last year when it sent a team of provincial chairpersons to China. The chairpersons, who received ideological and mass mobilisation training from the Communist Party of China ahead of the July 31 polls, were told their party “must embrace change or die”.
Another analyst Godwin Phiri said: “Zanu PF blocked the succession debate because everyone wanted it to be discussed.
“However, it seems Mugabe wants to hang on and the issue will not be officially debated in formal structures and gatherings.”