WHO will succeed President Robert Mugabe?
Dumisani Muleya/Trevor Ncube
This has been the most important question confronting the ruling Zanu PF and Zimbabwe over the past few years, but has assumed urgency as even those who were unwilling to confront the 91-year-old’s departure are now coming to terms with the reality that the curtains will soon come down on his rule.
Zimbabwe, which used to be the most industrialised sub-Saharan African country outside South Africa before its dramatic decline, has attracted regional and global attention over the years not only because of Mugabe’s toxic rule, but also due to its huge resources.
The country has vast tracts of fertile land, gold, chrome, platinum, diamonds and natural gas, and holds the world’s second largest platinum reserves between South Africa and Russia.
With Africa’s richest economy, South Africa, drifting into the doldrums, and oil-rich Angola battered by the drop in crude prices, Southern Africa needs another nation to step up and anchor the region. Having a literacy rate of nearly 90%, one of the highest in the world, even if not for itself, there are strategic imperatives for Zimbabwe to stand tall again, being the only other country that can meaningfully play that role.
It is a big ask, but not an impossible call. The economic implosion, that saw hyperinflation hit the billions and its currency battered into a worthless pile that had to be scrapped in favour of the South African rand, US dollar and other international currencies, has taken a devastating toll on the country and its people.
However, the project to rebuild a future Zimbabwe has been imperiled by the manoeuvring over who will replace Mugabe that has paralysed the once monolithic Zanu PF.
Consider for a moment this outburst from Mugabe’s nephew, Patrick Zhuwao, a deputy head of department in Zanu PF’s decision-making politburo, who recently said talk of his uncle’s succession was “divisive, counter-revolutionary, regressive and contrary to Zimbabwe’s developmental and transformational aspirations”.
This may sound irrational in connection with a nonagenarian who has been in power for nearly four decades, but what it does is that it only stalls transition planning further.
Transitions the world over are often messy affairs, but this one has the potential to spin out of control and plunge an already unstable country further into chaos.
It seems quite likely that the Zanu PF power struggle could even turn bloody, as the stakes are high and the contenders will stop at nothing to secure keys to State House.
The optimistic view is that Mugabe, on his last lap, will finally think of his legacy, provide direction, divide the spoils and leave with the party in harmony.
But there has been no sign at all that Mugabe is preparing to step aside or that he is keen to salvage his place in history by guiding a smooth transition.
The clear message from him and those around him has always been that he is going nowhere. Politics in Zimbabwe over the past 35 years has been about Mugabe and it appears it will remain so till he bows out.
He has executed a complex — and very effective — strategy of divide and rule over the past three and a half decades. His Machiavellian approach began with the ploy in the early 1980s to pit Matabeleland against the whole nation to vanquish the former opposition Zapu and its leader Joshua Nkomo. Matabeleland was Nkomo’s home region and power base.
When he was done there, he came for the trade unions and civil society before turning against the media. After that it was the turn of white commercial farmers to experience his wrath.
His systematic repression of opposition parties and their supporters inflicted a fatal blow to democracy.
And, with all vanquished, he turned on his own party, rooting out those that dared challenge him. He remains the only one standing and appears to still have a fight in him.
The list of those Mugabe has dispatched is impressive. He has seen off Zimbabwe’s who’s who in politics including liberation struggle luminaries such as Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Edgar Tekere, Edison Zvobgo, Enos Nkala, Maurice Nyagumbo and Solomon Mujuru — who are all late.
He has also survived main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s blitz in recent years.
In 2004, he allowed current Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa to believe he was on the ascendance only to dash his hopes at the eleventh hour by imposing his now-ousted deputy Joice Mujuru.
Mujuru and her supporters were sure that they were headed for State House, only to be ruthlessly stopped in their tracks and crushed. She was ejected at the December 2014 Zanu PF congress and subsequently expelled from the party in April.
Mnangagwa, who replaced his bitter rival Mujuru, is the most likely successor from a constitutional and political perspective. He is a long-serving Zanu PF leader and close Mugabe ally also in charge of the Ministry of Justice.
Whither Zimbabwe after Mugabe? The pretenders to the throne line-up — it could all go badly, or surprise with a happy ending
Zimbabwe can rise again if Mugabe, in a moment of remorse on his way out, finds it in him to put the country’s interests above his.
While on the books today it looks like Mnangagwa has the race to succeed Mugabe sewn up, he would be foolish to begin counting his chickens before they are hatched.
For if Zimbabwe politics teaches anything, it is that old lesson that it is never over until the fat lady sings, raising the question of which other contenders might emerge, and what their chances are.
For starters there is Mnangagwa’s co-Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko, a former liberation struggle stalwart and long-serving diplomat whom Mugabe plucked from obscurity just before the congress to appoint as one of his deputies.
Mugabe used his newfound sweeping powers that allow him to choose not only his assistants, but also party chairman and the decision-making politburo members, to effect the appointment.
These imperial powers were given to Mugabe at congress through constitutional amendments, courtesy of behind-the-scenes plotting by Mnangagwa and his allies. These allies grouped around First Lady Grace Mugabe, the president’s former secretary who was moved from his typing pool to become his wife, united by their desire to stop Mujuru’s march to State House and purportedly create “one centre of power” in the deeply divided party.
Besides Mphoko, there is an amorphous clique grouped around Grace, described as Generation 40 (G40) representing the so-called Young Turks in the party.
This group comprises ambitious mavericks like Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo, Local Government minister Saviour Kasukuwere and Mugabe’s nephew Zhuwao, among other “youthful” allies.
But Moyo had his wings clipped in a politically motivated cabinet reshuffle this week, removed from the influential Information ministry and shunted to the backwater at Higher Education, though he could still cause trouble there.
Grace now seems to be running the show behind the scenes.
Only last week she publicly bragged that Mnangagwa and Mphoko report to her, as she sets the agenda and dictates the pace of events. If this suggests anything, it is that Grace might be positioning herself to succeed her husband.
Then there is also Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantine Chiwenga who should not be counted out. It is now accepted within Zanu PF, albeit grudgingly, that Chiwenga, who wields influence in Zimbabwe’s politics due to the military’s vast sway on national issues, has presidential ambitions. His biggest obstacle though is how to move from military tunic into civilian attire without staging a coup.
Chiwenga, like Mphoko, does not have an identifiable clique beyond his military base, and is thus swinging between the Mnangagwa faction and Grace’s clique.
However, the military chief is known to be close to Mnangagwa and would reportedly not mind him taking over if he gets guarantees that he will have a future under his rule.
But Chiwenga’s affections are not universally returned by the Mnangagwa camp, where there are whispers that they would fire him once in office as they don’t hold him in high regard. The bromance between Chiwenga and Mnangagwa, therefore, might not survive the tests of realpolitik.
Still, even though Chiwenga has no political power base or formal grip on Zanu PF structures, his role would be crucial in deciding who will succeed Mugabe. The only thing that could stall his hand is that he does not enjoy the full support of the military; insiders say the military, police and intelligence structures are all divided along the same factions currently paralysing Zanu PF.
But even then, Chiwenga enjoys real power of incumbency in the military and at the very least it makes him a power broker.
What binds these factions is something unusual for power that seeks power — they want to succeed Mugabe without challenging him. They pledge allegiance to him and the party and appear to want to be anointed by him. However, privately it is known that they think he has overstayed his welcome and they can’t wait for him to go. In the meantime they will use his political cover to consolidate their positions.
Apart from merely craving power, none of the factions have articulated policy positions different from Mugabe.
Mnangagwa’s faction comprises Zanu PF politburo heavyweights like new Home Affairs minister and secretary for administration, Ignatius Chombo and his deputy July Moyo — who is the leader’s “chief-of-staff”.
Other members of this powerful and confident-sounding faction include senior Zanu PF politburo members and ministers Kembo Mohadi, Oppah Muchinguri, Josiah Hungwe and Patrick Chinamasa.
There is also Zanu PF parliamentary chief whip Joram Gumbo and provincial party leaders like Larry Mavhima and Owen Ncube.
On the other hand, Mphoko does not have a congealed faction; so he floats between the rival groups although he sometimes sounds and looks like a one-man band intent on self-destructing.
Of late it has become increasingly clear that Mphoko’s guns are trained on Mnangagwa; loudly rejecting the perception that he is a second fiddle vice-president, insisting he is at par with him.
Mphoko is known to be very close to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, a relationship cultivated during exile days in Mozambique. Zuma was in fact his best man at his wedding in Maputo in 1977. Mphoko hails from the minority Ndebele ethnic group compared to Mnangagwa from the majority Shona tribe, and this could either aid or hinder him.
It now appears Mphoko’s presidential ambitions have been bubbling under for a while. For instance, in 2013 Mphoko, while he was still Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa, sought declassified files in Pretoria shedding light on Mnangagwa’s alleged role in the 1980s massacres of minority ethnic Ndebele civilians and Zapu supporters by Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to damage him.
While these files point a finger at Mugabe as the main architect of the Gukurahundi killings, as they came to be known, they also reveal how Mnangagwa cut dodgy deals with apartheid security service chiefs to crush Zapu, while isolating South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) during the struggle for freedom.
African diplomats in Harare see this as potentially damaging to Mnangagwa, not just at home, but also in the region, especially in South Africa.
Add to this the fact that, even though Mnangagwa is seen as the clear frontrunner, Grace’s allies are resisting his ascendancy, arguing that he has failed to rally the party behind Mugabe after he was named VP.
Instead, they charge that he has remained a regional and hidebound figure, always focusing on his Midlands political enclave and the past, not national issues and the future.
Mugabe himself seemed to agree with this in January this year when he said Mnangagwa and Mphoko must remember they are no longer regional or factional leaders, but national figures.
In a BBC HARDtalk interview recently, Moyo strongly dismissed suggestions Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s heir apparent.
The emotion invested in this position tended to betray Moyo’s own personal views on the succession issue.
What is clear though is that after joining forces to oust Mujuru, Mnangagwa’s faction and Grace’s clique are now at each other throats as shown by Moyo’s hostility during the BBC interview.
It must be remembered that in 2004, Mujuru managed to block Mnangagwa’s ascendency with the help of her husband, the late retired army commander General Mujuru. But her husband subsequently died in a mysterious fire at his farmhouse in Beatrice 60km south of Harare in 2011 in what is widely believed to be murder linked to Mugabe’s succession.
It is thus difficult to dismiss speculation that whoever murdered General Mujuru must have been behind Joice Mujuru’s removal. The death of her husband left her politically vulnerable, and might yet return to haunt current pretenders to Mugabe’s throne.
In this race, Mnangagwa faction’s strategy is to approach the current situation in Zanu PF as a transitional phase. So it has positioned its leader to stay ready to take over from Mugabe at any moment.
They are not alone in reading Zimbabwe that way. The country is seen by some observers as already in a transition because Mugabe’s regime has become so obviously dysfunctional, even though no alternative has emerged yet.
That is why Mnangagwa’s close allies like Hungwe have started to speak of Mnangagwa as the “Son of Man”, suggesting he is a messiah. Mnangagwa’s rivals have however sharply criticised this not only because it insinuates he is a saviour like Jesus Christ — and one can’t be sure the masses won’t buy into it — but also because this kind of hagiography is exclusively reserved for Mugabe in Zanu PF.
But then this is how confident and self-assured the Mujuru camp sounded and acted before they were exiled from the party they had helped build and keep in power by hook or crook over three decades.
The irony, then, is that Mnangagwa’s approach to the succession question is more or less similar to that of Mujuru before her expulsion, although he appears to be more circumspect and shrewd.
Grace’s clique, by contrast, believes it is premature to talk about transition from Mugabe’s rule when he is only less than two years into his new five-year tenure. The faction wants a consolidation of Mugabe’s legacy instead, but for purely self-seeking reasons — a time-out helps them get a leg up. Besides Moyo, this group’s position has also been best articulated by Zhuwao.
“Zimbabwe’s constitution gives President Mugabe two terms of five years each. This means he can only be succeeded after 2023. Any discussion of succession before that is by sell-outs. The people of Zimbabwe elected RG Mugabe President of Zimbabwe with an overwhelming majority of 62%,” Zhuwao wrote recently in his column in a state-controlled weekly, which usually reflects the official line.
Mugabe always echoes similar sentiments, claiming succession talk is wrong and divisive.
This is what is at the heart of the current vicious clashes between Mnangagwa’s faction and Grace’s clique: a push for transition versus a demand for consolidation.
While Mphoko and other dark horses like Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi, a Mujuru ally who survived purging by a whisker, don’t have leverage to chart their own independent paths to power, they are seen as possible compromise candidates. Some even say Mujuru might bounce back if there is stalemate in the party.
Mphoko has a chance from a constitutional point of view as he now alternates with Mnangagwa to be acting president in Mugabe’s absence.
The new Zanu PF constitution says if Mugabe resigns, is incapacitated or dies, the last acting president takes over for 90 days after which his party has to elect a successor for the remainder of the term.
The successor will have to be nominated by two provinces and win a national primary election in which party members — at least 866 000 — will vote by secret ballot. In that case, anything can happen, which gives a chance even to candidates who are long shots.
In Grace’s camp, Kasukuwere also harbours presidential ambitions but, just like Grace, has no history, gravitas and capacity to succeed Mugabe in a cut-throat battle.
He is ambitious and known as “Zimbabwe’s Obama” in his circles. While he has presence, he lacks the charm, intellect and oratory skills of an Obama. He is seen as likely to use force in the place of persuasion to win hearts and minds.
Those who want to succeed Mugabe will also have to overcome the hurdle of defeating opposition leaders in national elections, which makes it harder, though opposition parties are currently in disarray.
For now, until Mugabe goes, he is around. The push for him to stand in 2018 must not be dismissed lightly.
Thus, after the drawn-out manoeuvring as to who will succeed Mugabe, it might come down to this: who will be sitting on the chair in front of Mugabe when his head drops on the table?
Will it be Grace? And if it is her, who will she share this terrible news with first?
That piece of news, how and with whom it is shared could prove a precious commodity in deciding who eventually sits on the throne.
We have seen similar incidents where the news of the death of a leader was controlled to try and influence who takes over, for example, in Malawi after the death of Bingu wa Mutharika in 2012, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2001 where the body of Laurent Kabila was flown to Harare after his assassination and flown back while his son, Joseph Kabila, consolidated his grip as successor.
Still, against all odds, there could be a surprising turn of events. Though difficult, a smooth transition in Zimbabwe is still possible. This needs to happen while Mugabe is still alive to take advantage of the power of incumbency.
He could call an extraordinary congress to elect a successor, or at least play a key role in guiding consensus regarding the ground rules for an internal leadership campaign. This could partly salvage his legacy. In fact, this process, if carried out well, could become the template for succession within his party and put the democracy project back on track.
This is not far-fetched. Given the fairly clear party and national constitutional frameworks on transition, even though there are some grey areas, a Mugabe’s succession could pass without any major incident. Zanu PF leaders might close ranks and work out compromises for collective self-preservation.
The economy is still deeply troubled. There are massive company closures and job losses. The Zimbabwe Stock Exchange market capitalisation plunged to US$3,8 billion in the first half of 2015 after losing US$1 billion in share value.
But there is a silver lining in the cloud.
In a world where businesses have finally learnt to make money in authoritarian and troubled countries, of late foreign business delegations and investors — from the United States, Britain and other European Union states like France, China and Russia — have been flocking to Zimbabwe to assess the situation and position themselves for a post-Mugabe era.
China and Russia have signed multi-billion-dollar mining and infrastructure deals with Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa is actually in China to firm up the deals. Huge gas explorations are underway in Lupane.
Despite concerns over damaging policies like indigenisation, which scare away investors especially in areas of mining where foreign companies have to cede a 51% stake to locals, fund managers see Zimbabwe as one of the most promising frontier markets that offer lucrative opportunities for the future. With its abundance of resources and human capital, Zimbabwe could rise from the ashes more quickly than other countries that have fallen.
Only the political leadership remains the big unknown. Among the line-up of possible successors to Mugabe, none of them has shown fresh and visionary thinking about where the country should go. It might be that they have all avoided revealing their true talents as that could be career limiting while Mugabe is alive.
Whichever way it ends, for those who have despaired as they have watched Zimbabwe crumble under Mugabe, the comfort is to think that the country has hit rock-bottom and that the only way it can go after this is up.
Most post-colonial African countries which have gone through similar experiences like Ghana, Kenya, Zambia and Malawi, as well as worse in Mozambique, have bottomed out and eventually risen again. Zimbabwe can too if Mugabe, in a moment of remorse on his way out, and his successor, find it in them to put the country’s interests above their own.
Muleya is editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, and Ncube executive chairman of Alpha Media and Mail & Guardian Media.