It was like listening to an ageing Godfather of a feuding Mafia family — chiding, advising, cajoling, pleading but frustrated and trying desperately to remind members of the family that he is still alive and remains the boss. The voice had a grandfatherly calmness to it for the most part, but there were moments where it betrayed deep frustration and anger, the type associated with a man trying desperately to conceal his true feelings, but failing in that enterprise.
Alex T Magaisa Lawyer
That was President Robert Mugabe on Friday night delivering a rare live television address to the nation. When it was announced on social media it was dubbed a state of the nation address (Sona), but soon afterwards, many Zimbabweans dismissed it as no more than an address on the state of Zanu PF, the President’s party. Some called it Sopa (state of the party address) while others described it as Soza (state of Zanu PF address). Still, others called it Sofa (state of the factions address)! They employed those terms because the speech was all about domestic troubles in Zanu PF and had nothing substantive about the real challenges that people are facing in their daily lives.
Acknowledging a crisis
Although generally calm in his delivery, the president’s address sounded like a panic reaction to the escalating crisis around succession which is threatening to tear his old party to pieces.
Mugabe seldom delivers special addresses of this nature and his address was a rare occurrence. He did not even make such an address at the height of the historic economic crisis in 2008, leaving that task to his then governor of the central bank, Gideon Gono. Oft-times, Mugabe uses scheduled events, or high-profile funerals of national heroes, to deliver his political messages. His lavish birthday celebrations will be held in Masvingo province tomorrow, an occasion that he would have normally used for his political messages.
But this could not wait. It was far too serious to be delayed, suggesting this was a fire-fighting exercise in response to a crisis, perhaps on the advice of his security advisors. It is a presidential acknowledgement of the existence of a crisis in his party, which has national implications. It suggests that the succession crisis has graduated into and is acknowledged as a national security issue. His silence had become a source of uneasiness, both locally and externally, and this speech was necessary to demonstrate and reassure that he was still in control.
Oddly, however, not a single time did he mention or address the succession word, despite the fact that this is the primary source of the crisis. Clearly, it is not an issue that interests him. He acknowledges there is a crisis, but does nothing to address the source of the crisis itself.
Instead, it became a Mutsvangwa-bashing show, with war veterans leader and minister, Chris Mutsvangwa, at the receiving end of a severe verbal lashing. By the end, it sounded like a dismissal speech.
Mutsvangwa was blasted for misleading the war veterans, who were subjected to heavy-handed treatment by the riot police at their gathering in Harare on Thursday. While apologising to the war veterans, Mugabe said Mutsvangwa had been irresponsible, had acted illegally and abused his ministerial office.
The apology to the war veterans was deliberately designed to isolate Mutsvangwa from his core constituency in the succession battle. This is a major test for the organisation: having backed their chairman all the way, will they abandon him in this hour when he needs them the most?
But in a battle between their patron (Mugabe) and their chairman (Mutsvangwa), there will be only one winner and it will not be Mutsvangwa. Yet if they have any self-respect, the war veterans would defend one of their own. After all, he was not acting alone, but in common purpose with his committee.
Mugabe’s apology to the war veterans is also designed to avoid alienating an important and loyal constituency that has been critical to his political campaigns. If he is to run again in 2018, he knows he will need the war veterans on his side. He knows too that an apology will do the trick and they will come running to his side, leaving Mutsvangwa bare or with a few renegades.
Setback for Team Lacoste
While the attack was on Mutsvangwa, there is no doubting who the real casualty was here. It was the man sitting to the right of the President, Vice-President (VP) Emmerson Mnangagwa. After all, it was his interests that Mutsvangwa was representing all along. He has been the most vociferous ambassador of Team Lacoste and silencing him will leave the faction weaker. Although Mugabe denounced the two warring factions — Generation 40 (G40) and Team Lacoste — between them, Mugabe’s address weighed heavily against the latter, which is a huge dent on Mnangagwa’s presidential ambitions.
It’s de javu for Mnangagwa, following his disappointment in 2004 when in the last hour, he lost the vice-presidency to his then rival Joice Mujuru. But there are also lessons there for Mnangagwa’s allies. The main architect of Mnangagwa’s bid in 2004 was Professor Jonathan Moyo, but he found himself thrown out of the party afterwards. But Moyo may have lost faith and loyalty after Mnangagwa failed to protect him.
In his speech last night, Mugabe said neither of his VPs knew anything about the war veterans’ demonstration, condemning Mutsvangwa for acting unilaterally. The implication is that Mnangagwa did not defend Mutsvangwa and that he had disowned his key ally. It would seem Mutsvangwa has effectively been thrown under the bus.
The effect of this will be devastating on Team Lacoste because members realise that their godfather does not have the capacity or will to protect them. Those who were backing him or those who were sitting on the fence will read the wind and run for cover. This can only strengthen G40 while weakening Team Lacoste.
Mugabe’s address also demonstrated the home advantage that Grace Mugabe and G40 enjoy over their rivals. This is shown by the selective approach Mugabe adopted in criticising party members for use of abusing and insulting others.
Mugabe was clearly upset by the insults that he and his wife have allegedly been subjected to, which he referred to as “uncultural” and “disgraceful”. But while he blamed others, he steered clear of criticising his wife, despite the fact that she has been one of the foremost exponents of abusive, uncouth and derogatory language directed at others, including questioning their children’s paternity. His message would have been well-received if he had taken a more objective approach to the issue.
Last week, he gave an analogy of an old woman in his village who would always blame everyone whenever her child returned home crying, without even checking if her child was wrong. The irony is that here, he took the old woman’s approach, blaming everybody else for insulting his wife, but failing to realise and acknowledge that she was also part of the problem.
There will be at least three consequences of this selectivity: his wife will be more emboldened because she is immune from criticism. But he risks losing respect from party members for his obvious bias. People will say he is being controlled by his wife and that he is blind to her obvious faults. The irony is that in trying to protect her, he is only encouraging further resentment. The kid that snitches on others and gets special treatment from the teacher is never popular.
To his credit, Mugabe spoke well about the dangers of tribalism. This was an important message which needed to be delivered at the highest level. The dangers of tribal politics are well known, the Rwanda Genocide and our own Gukurahundi being prime reminders.
Events at the Chiweshe rally last week were completely out of order. But even on this issue, President Mugabe showed his selective approach to the problems. Indeed, those who had presided over the poisonous Chiweshe rally where malicious Zezuru superiority chants were made, where the Karanga ethnic group was targeted, were spared public criticism, which differed sharply from the way that Mutsvangwa was treated over the war veterans’ issue. One of those people who had made such hostile insinuations was wife.
Winners and losers?
When the balance of power between the two factions is worked out in the aftermath of Mugabe’s speech, it is Mnangagwa’s Team Lacoste that has suffered the biggest setback. In Mutsvangwa, it will almost certainly lose its most combative advocate in the corridors of power, with Mnangagwa’s failure to protect him dampening team morale. He will probably retreat to the margins and become a peripheral figure.
The irony for Mutsvangwa is of the highest order: having been the most vocal and belligerent character in the removal of Mujuru two years ago, he himself may now be following the same route, a circumstance that once again fulfills the old adage that what goes around, comes around.
But if there is a real winner in all this, the trophy goes to the incumbent, the Capo di tutti Capi — the boss of all bosses, Mugabe. He is the godfather of the Zanu PF family, and here, he was like an old Don trying desperately to cover the cracks. But he may have left it too late, the cracks have become gullies.
Finally, what now after this? Will Mugabe’s speech douse the succession fire? Not really. He avoided the succession issue and instead of addressing his wife’s role in the crisis, he chose, perhaps as a loyal husband would do regarding his wife, to defend and support her — to see, hear or speak no evil about his dear beloved.
What about Mnangagwa — is this the end of the road for him? He has to face the hard fact that his chances are now more diminished after this. He might have heard Mugabe chiding those who abuse elders and thought it also applies to the likes of Grace Mugabe, Moyo and Sarah Mahoka who have allegedly abused him in the past. But if he believes that, he would be delusional.
Mugabe’s speech is unlikely to put out the fire. A lot of resentment has been sown in this period and Mugabe’s handling of it has been less than satisfactory. The phenomenon of Bhora Musango (protest vote) will haunt whoever succeeds in this race. For this reason, even if G40 feel vindicated in this moment, they have also succeeded in building a huge reservoir of resentment.
Magaisa is a lawyer and lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom and writes here in his personal capacity — alexmagaisa.com