A MILLION-DOLLAR feast awaited an old African king in Zimbabwe last weekend as President Robert Mugabe celebrated his 91st birthday, but beyond the elephantine pomp and fanfare lie tempestuous factional battles for the ancient lion’s throne.
A seasoned maverick, Mugabe has survived this long by eliminating his challengers and enemies through use of the coercive arms of the party and state, but his 40-year rule of Zanu PF has bred far more infighting than stability.
Born out of a breakaway faction from the mother party, Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) in 1963, Zanu PF has always been afflicted by factional politics.
Mugabe’s own rise to position of party leader was partly the product of an earlier split and throughout his reign, factional battles based on ethnic division, clan rivalry, political enmity and electoral contest have played themselves out in different ways.
Often Mugabe has benefited from these divisions, enabling him to consolidate power and legitimise his one-man rule. As can be seen from the current rumblings, Mugabe is a more powerful leader, but the party’s undemocratic political environment is a toxic breeding ground for greater friction.
The dismissal of former vice-president Joice Mujuru and 17 cabinet ministers accused of factionalism and plotting Mugabe’s assassination have eliminated the Mujuru faction from the race to succeed the ageing leader and re-affirmed Mugabe as the centre of power in the party.
Amendments to the party’s constitution — widely deemed illegal — in the run-up to the Zanu PF congress held in December 2014, made Mugabe sole authority on appointments to the politburo, the party’s decision-making body. Loyalists praised this as an effective measure in blocking plotters and stamping out factionalism, but the crusade to drive out Mujuru has only multiplied fights among Zanu PF comrades.
Didymus Mutasa, one of the oldest remaining members of the liberation era, was recently expelled from the party and sacked as Minister of State in the President’s Office. Maligned as the chief instigator of Mugabe’s alleged assassination attempt, Mutasa and his allies, including former Zanu PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo, are bent on challenging Mugabe.
Some observers foresee a minor splinter group forming around Mutasa who remains an MP until formally recalled by the party. However, Mugabe will be wary of precipitating by-elections in which Mutasa and his allies would surely stand, for fear of allowing the expelled individuals a political platform to air grievances on the national stage.
Other than the disgruntled Mutasa and those around him, an emerging group of Young Turks has also been making a noise over the appointment of Mugabe’s heir apparent and faction leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as Vice-President after Mujuru’s exit. Known as “the Gang of Four” (G4) in wider circles, it is made up of the remaining members of Generation 40, a group of six 40-something ministers who supported First Lady Grace Mugabe’s rise to national secretary of the Women’s League last year.
Expecting greater reward for their help, the quartet are reportedly unhappy over Mnangagwa’s elevation. G4 member, Patrick Zhuwao, who is Mugabe’s nephew, has asserted that Mnangagwa’s vice-presidency does not necessarily mean Mugabe’s succession is a done deal.
A distrusted, crafty politician, Mnangagwa may not be a universally approved choice, but Mugabe appears determined to become a life president and is therefore unlikely to hand over power — the individual who is his deputy at the time of his eventual passing is most likely to take over as an interim figure.
The issue of Mugabe’s succession has been a burning question within Zanu PF for close to two decades, but the 91-year-old has been reluctant to name a successor. His secretiveness has been the cause of many fierce factional battles increasingly fought in the public glare, but it is becoming apparent that this could well be a strategy to advance his own agenda at the expense of the party.
The entry of Grace into party politics, instrumental in Mujuru’s ouster, can arguably be seen as the stirring of a self-centred political project designed to maintain the Mugabe legacy. Grace led a vicious and successful campaign demanding Mujuru step down.
Responding to the call, war veterans and party youths demonstrated and engaged in physical confrontations with pro-Mujuru supporters who held smaller counter-protests around the country.
In return for corralling the masses to action, Mugabe has rewarded his wife with greater power. As secretary for the Women’s League she was recently appointed to the presidium, Zanu PF’s highest decision-making body outside congresses. While a procedural appointment in terms of the party’s 2004 resolution on gender parity, her seat at the top table has raised eyebrows.
As “Gucci Grace” — as she is known for her expensive taste — gains more power, her role as a potential contender, kingmaker or spoiler in her husband’s succession, becomes much more interesting.
For almost half his life, Mugabe has presided over a divided movement, but at 91 there is an increasingly mortal limit to his rule.
Should the factional scrambles over his succession continue to escalate, they may one day threaten not only his own interests, but Zimbabwe’s stability too.
Perhaps, as Mugabe looks forward to celebrating his 35th year in power, the best gift he could give a nation uncertain of its future is ensuring that Zanu PF’s hive of elite conflict is contained within the political realm and does not infect the country’s wider population.
Marima is a freelance journalist and researcher. Follow her on Twitter: @i_amten.