Café Nush, at Avondale Shopping Centre is a charming and wordly Harare lunchery. Our own version of Pur’ — Jean-Francois Rouquette restaurant in Paris, France, I suppose. Each time that I make extra cash, I wander to the place for an occasional treat.
Simukai Tinhu Political Analyst
With prétentieux patrician étiquette, and self-taught debonairness, it seems the crowd never changes. It’s always the same people. Interestingly, one groups that also frequents the place is politicians, of all colours. Indeed, I have since learnt, from the regulars, not to show my excitement each time a politician comes into view. Those who frequent the place act very unconcerned about seeing cabinet ministers and other famous people. In any case, the scrumptiousness of the meals absorbs one’s energy.
On the eve of First Lady Grace Mugabe or Dr Amai’s, as she is now being esteemed in Zanu PF, rally in Rushinga, Mashonaland Central province, a group of youthful Zanu PF politicians walked in at the Café Nush and sat themselves in the main booth of the restaurant. I counted seven of them. Clad in Zanu PF regalia, emblazoned with Munhu wese kuna Amai slogan, they appeared detached from the surroundings, as they tersely embarked on a subject that they seemed to have started earlier on.
“He should be stopped!,” said probably the youngest, as he adjusted his glasses. His voice was terse and his anger palpable.
“(Vice-President Emmerson) Mnangagwa is not going to be president. No one will vote for him. At least, he doesn’t have seven Zanu PF votes,” laughed another member of the conclave, his index finger pointing in the direction of his colleagues. The others joined in the laughter. Judging by the respect that he commanded, he appeared to be the most senior.
“Not in my province. We will do another Bhora Musango (electoral sabotage),” the laughter went on unabated.
Poor waitress. She waited for a good few minutes. I waved at her and ordered green tea.
The waitress had to return to the group. Again, she waited. The men were absorbed in the discussion. In my heart, I communicated to the waiter that the men had not come to eat, but to plot. Telepathically, she seems to have got my message. Opportunely, she walked to a white couple that had just walked in.
I settled my bill and left.
It is not unreasonable to claim that Café Nush plotters’ disdain for Mnangagwa’s ambitions is something that is also shared by a significant section of the Zimbabwean society. Indeed, judging by the recent political behaviour of the First Lady, elites within Zanu PF and Mugabe’s seemingly unconcerned attitude towards developments in his party, it looks like Mnangagwa is being assailed from all sides. Solitude seems to be fast replacing his perceived ruthlessness and being dreaded as the most defining trait of his politics.
What explains this lonely figure that Mnangagwa now cuts? Most people agree that his unattractive personality can’t be ruled out — a ready smile is not simply Mnangagwa’s default mode. This, coupled with a dark history, have alienated various groups that are supposed to make his ascension to power smooth and rapid.
Indeed, if one wants to understand the extent of Mnangagwa’s loneliness, they do not need to go to opposition supporters. One needs to go to Zanu PF. Mnangagwa is unpopular with supporters whose party he is likely to represent as a presidential candidate come 2018 elections. Reportedly, supporters like our plotters as Café Nush, do not want to want to see a Karanga ascending to the presidency. The political group pushing for this move is named “The Gushungo Clan”. Named after the nonagenarian president, this political tribe is fronted by Grace.
All this points to the fact that despite a powerfully driven narrative that Zanu PF is a multi-ethnic party, under the surface ethnic politics is real in the ruling party. Indeed, there is resentment with regards to how the Zezurus dominate state institutions and party politics. Equally, Mnangagwa’s potential ascension to the throne is resented on the perceived notion that he will attempt to neutralise the influence of the Zezurus in the party and government. This fear, explains why our plotters at Cafe Nush are prepared to do another Bhora Musango.
The other group that is watching Mnangagwa’s political movements with concern are voters from the southwest regions of the country where, because his background, he is considered beyond the pale. Mnangagwa cannot wriggle free from his inextricable association with the 1980s atrocities against the ethnic Ndebeles in the Midlands and Matabeleland regions. The Midlands strongman has long been considered the chief architect of what has come to be known as Gukurahundi massacres. Approximately, 20 000 civilians, including women and children, died during the suppression of the insurgency by the North Korean-trained section of the national army.
Indeed, nothing occupies the political consciousness of ethnic Ndebeles more than what they perceive as murder and injustices perpetrated by the state during the Gukurahundi campaign. Attempting to dismiss the significance of the atrocities in Zimbabwean history and minimise the role of state security agencies in the deaths of thousands is unforgivable.
In 2012, Mnangagwa did just that, telling the media that Gukurahundi was a closed chapter in the Southern African nation’s history, alienating most voters in Matabeleland and Midlands regions. Roughly, ethnic Ndebeles constitutes about 20% of the electoral market. Mnangagwa might want to forget about their votes as he is unlikely to get any. Indeed, a prudent Zanu PF electoral strategy will have to avoid wasting resources campaigning in these regions.
Very much conscious that he is unlikely to make significant inroads into the electoral market in the south-western parts of the country, the VP is hoping to capitalise on the support of the voters in two provinces which he considers to be his “own”: the Midlands, where his allies have accorded him the “Godfather” status, and Masvingo, owing to his Karanga ethnic background. However, Mnangagwa has since lost to the opposition in parliamentary elections on two occasions in his Midlands stronghold. This was when he represented Zanu PF in Kwekwe, one of the bigger towns in the Midlands.
Due to the embarrassing defeat that he suffered in Kwekwe, the VP has been gravitating towards Masvingo in the hope of turning the province into his main backyard. Indeed, until recently, he was the MP for Chirumanzu-Zibagwe, a Midlands constituency bordering Masvingo that appeared to have been created specifically for him. As a Karanga, the shift towards Masvingo also appears to have been motivated primarily by an attempt to capitalise on the ethnic vote in the province.
But a close look shows that this move is not that very strategic given the fact that Karangas only make a small fraction of the electorate. Besides, the VP is not really that popular with a significant chunk of the electoral market in Masvingo. Mnangagwa is from Zvishavane, a rural district that is part of the Midlands province. He might be successful in getting a small number of votes in Mashava, Chirumanzu-Zibagwe, Zvishavane and Chivi as he is well-known in these areas due to their vicinity to Zvishavane.
Further up in the north of Masvingo province, in particular, Masvingo town, Zaka, Gutu, Chiredzi, Mwenezi and Bikita, the name Mnangagwa does not immediately register even with Zanu PF supporters. He was isolated from those areas by Simon Muzenda and Eddison Zvobgo’s dominance there until their deaths about a decade ago. These densely populated areas constitute a huge chunk of the electoral market in the province. A discussion with voters from these areas, rightly or wrongly, they believe that Mnangagwa, as others from the Zvishavane area, are not really Karangas due to the Midlands’ mixed ethnic tapestry. However, some say he is originally from the Chivi area and thus a real Karanga.
This solitude is not only confined to Zanu PF supporters. The VP is also unpopular with the urban electorate. Nothing is more illustrative than losing an election in his hometown, Kwekwe, twice in a row. Urban voters have since stopped voting for Zanu PF let alone a man whom, through his leadership of the Joint Operations Command (Joc), they blame for having manipulated electoral outcomes since 2000. Yearning for a more open and democratic culture in the country, the urban electoral market is also worried that the state will spiral down towards authoritarianism given Mnangagwa’s unpopularity.
As the VP, in principle, Mnangagwa has control over government policy and state bureaucracy. It is a public secret that the state, particularly senior positions such as those of directors and permanent secretaries of government ministries and heads or chief executives of state companies, owe their positions to former VP Joice Mujuru, who over 10 years of her vice-presidency, stuffed the state with technocrats who were affiliated to her faction. Indeed, state bureaucrats are reported to have drafted Mujuru’s economic blue-print, Build.
On the other hand, Mnangagwa has only been VP for 10 months. He will need years — time that he does not have, to successfully purge Mujuru’s allies from state bureaucracy. In any case, this might be difficult given a recent announcement that the other VP, Phelekezela Mphoko, is now responsible for supervising state bureaucrats. In the meantime, Mnangagwa has no choice other than to be assisted by his predecessor’s appointees in the running of government business. In other words, not only is this man lonely among voters and party elites, but is also isolated in his own government.
What then constitutes his powerbase, if he is that lonely? The conventional, but misleading understanding is that he controls the security sector. However, a close look tells us otherwise. Zimbabwe’s state security system is made up of five sectors. Contrary to the myth that circulates, almost all security service sectors have their allegiance elsewhere, not the VP.
Indeed, the police chief, a war veteran and close ally of Mujuru, is thought to have refused to arrest her on what many regard as fictitious charges that she wanted to have Mugabe assassinated. The Air Force commander, Air Marshal Perence Shiri, and the Director-General of the dreaded Central Intelligence Organisation, Happyson Bonyongwe, among others, ave been linked to the former VP. The two were widely tipped to lose their positions as part of a purge against Mujuru’s allies. The prison services chief, Paradzai Zimondi, is also largely regarded as a close ally of Mujuru.
This then only leaves the military, with its boss, General Constantine Chiwenga, as the only key ally of the VP. The army is the most significant of all the security services. In principle, this means Mnangagwa holds better cards than any potential contenders.
But this understanding is seriously misleading. Army watchers report of a Chiwenga who is pretty much a loner in the national army. The reasons for this perceived isolation are two-fold. Firstly, when Chiwenga was promoted to the top job, many officers who were thought to be more senior, with better liberation war credentials and also capable, were overlooked. This resulted in longstanding hostility towards him.
Secondly, though he left the national army several years earlier, the late retired army commander General Solomon Mujuru still had significant influence in the appointment and promotion of senior army officers. Resultantly, many senior subordinates of Chiwenga were promoted and appointed either at the instigation or recommendation of the late retired general. They allegedly sympathise with his wife, Joice Mujuru. Thus, on the surface, Mnangagwa has the support of the army, but in reality, he has the sympathy of one man, who is not only resented, but also disrespected by his immediate subordinates.
In international relations, splendid isolation has been a feature of the British and Americans’ past foreign policies. Mnangagwa cannot afford this. Indeed, he is on record as having told delegates at a state function that Zimbabwe cannot do without the West. This move is not only necessitated by the need to have the international community unlock the much-needed financial resources, but also to legitimate his government in case there is a perception that the 2018 elections are rigged.
However, he is already an unwanted man in some parts of the international community even if some say he is pro-capital. It remains to be seen how sustainable the overtures that the British and European Union (EU) have made towards a possible government led by him given the fact that he is not electable.
His record outside Zimbabwe makes his case even less favourable. Mnangagwa’s alledged involvement in diamond deals in the Democratic Republic of Congo is documented by renowned organisations such as the United Nations and USAid. This dark history and fears that he symbolises the status quo explain why the EU and Americans could be hostile towards a Mnangagwa presidency.
His salvation will likely come from the Far East; China and Russia in particular. The Chinese, because of their growing economic interests in Zimbabwe, are likely to accept his presidency in whatever shape or form. Indeed, China was one of the first sites of his visits when he was appointed VP.
He was also trained in China during the liberation struggle.
Apart from its platinum and diamond deals, Moscow has little other investment interests in Zimbabwe, only maintaining a loose alliance with Zanu PF simply as a position of principle that they are taking against the British and EU’s attitudes towards Mugabe’s government.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support of a possible Mnangagwa government, unlike that of China, is likely to be symbolic, and he will immediately abandon Harare if that compromises his nation’s raison d’être.
Today, Mnangagwa might be one of the most conspicuous politicians in Zimbabwe, but he is also the loneliest. Out there, in the political desert, with only the whistling sounds of the wind to keep him company, he is waging battles on many front: within and outside his party, government, security sector and international community.
But that does not mean he might not be president. What will take him to State House is unlikely to be votes or popularity. It is something else. Mnangagwa is a welthistorisch individual who knows what it takes to assume Mugabe’s political mantle — fierce will to power.
Fortunately for him, he is endowed with this ultimate talent in politics. The scorched-earth strategy, engineered by Mugabe but supported by him against Mujuru in the run-up to last year’s congress, shows the extent to which he is prepared to destroy political convention so that it paves way to his ambitions. I wonder what he has in store for the opposition in 2018.
Tinhu is a Zimbabwean political analyst based in London.