VICE-PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa’s history is littered with a legacy of “political handouts”, colloquially described as “freebies”. His last significant exploits as a self-made cadre was when he worked as part of the Crocodile Gang, which was formed during the liberation struggle as one of the first insurgent guerilla groups in 1964.
Allen Hungwe Political analyst
As a member of this essential group (although key members of the outfit say he wasn’t), Mnangagwa was a central cog in some guerilla operations which involved sabotage activities in the then Rhodesia as well as recruiting supporters and freedom fighters. When Mnangagwa emerged as special assistant to the President of Zanu at the Chimoio congress in 1977, that was the dawning of a new era in his political life; an era of his rise and subsequent flirtation with a culture of “political handouts”.
As Mugabe’s special assistant, Mnangagwa became his close “task manager” and this disciplined him into choreographed capitulation; quite distinct from bis boss’ nature of over-dominance and demand for blind loyalty. In 1977, upon his ascendancy to the helm of Zanu, Mugabe created a consolidated, single centre of power in the party, tightly controlling both the military and political wings of the organisation.
When Mugabe became prime minister in 1980, he parceled out the Ministry of Defence portfolio to himself, as a way of consolidating the harmonisation of the political and military, this time not only against internal rivals, but external Rhodesian and Zapu forces, who were to be integrated in a unified government he led.
In order to bolster this consolidation, Mugabe had to assign critical security roles to his confidantes and trusted lieutenants. This is how Mnangagwa landed the leadership of the state security ministry in 1980. By that time, he had already become accustomed to being trusted by Mugabe as a “task man” who would land accolades based on the extremity with which he carried out instructions, rather than a self-determined disposition that others who emerged from the struggle had otherwise clothed themselves in. At that stage, Mnangagwa had given up a political trail that would depend on self-acclamation, but rather on “political handouts” as dispensed by Mugabe or others.
When Mnangagwa lost the Kwekwe parliamentary election to little-known Blessing Chebundo in the 2000 general elections, it had to be Mugabe who salvaged him from near political oblivion by appointing him as Speaker of Parliament. This again was a huge dent to any prospects of a self-determined political career. In 2005, after another bashing by Chebundo in the Kwekwe Central parliamentary elections, Mugabe had to appoint him a non-constituency MP and Minister of Rural Development; a role considered not only as junior but somehow peripheral in the power matrix of his boss’ configuration of government.
The emergence of ideas around Mnangagwa as a possible successor to Mugabe came in the early 2000s, when party insiders began to naturally consider Mugabe’s prospects to hold on to power in the wake of the birthing of a strong opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), as well as a growing socio-economic instability that was beginning to fuel discontent among the populace.
Again Mnangagwa did not self-propel in being considered as a possible successor, he was rather proposed by some proxies who otherwise felt he would be easier to manipulate as national and party leader; something which had not even remotely occurred in Mugabe’s witty and cunning imagination. Mnangagwa’s long history in the liberation struggle was also an attractive tribute, though his vulnerability was more compelling.
The 2004 Tsholotsho Declaration was also initiated by a coterie of party political players and Mnangagwa was to be simply invited to his “inauguration” as official successor to Mugabe. When the Tsholotsho debacle unfolded, Mnangagwa was himself ironically safe from Mugabe’s wrath, in an arrangement that was otherwise meant to urge him further into the presidency.
Mugabe, being aware of Mnangagwa’s legacy of “political handouts”, was very intentional in dealing with those who were masterminds of the Tsholotsho declaration rather than the one they had sought to elevate. Mnangagwa survived, not because he deserved to, but simply because his affinity for “political handouts” kept him safe as Mugabe was aware that he had never been a self-made political animal but one that had always been made by others.
After the Tsholotsho affair had settled, Zanu PF entered another phase of contentions between Joice Mujuru and Mnangagwa — again the latter’s political ambitions were not self-driven but were pushed by proxies.
He once again became a backbencher in a succession race where he was being presented as a frontrunner. There are many instances where many succession tactical moves were made by his proxies and he would only learn about them from other people, and would then be forced to at least act to show some desire for the presidency. Things have gone as far as some proxies making presentations claiming passion and intensity in Mnangagwa’s desire for ascendancy without his knowledge or consent.
After the 2013 elections, in which Mnangagwa was instrumental in delivering a Zanu PF victory having been tasked to do so by Mugabe, he started to get endorsements from unlikely allies — the Western diplomats. Western diplomats began to tout him as the most preferable successor to Mugabe by painting an abstract notion of an unfamiliar tag; that he was reform-minded. These diplomats began courting Mnangagwa and opened a new frontier for his “political handouts”. Mnangagwa rose to the bait of the “freebies” of the Western diplomats’ overzealous imagination his presidency.
Although many initially thought the dislodging of Mujuru from Zanu PF in 2014 was driven by Mnangagwa, he was in fact a by-stander who otherwise thought he would harvest the outcome of that nasty ouster. Given his history of “political handouts”, Mnangagwa never played a significant role in Mujuru’s ouster, but simply attempted to leverage on the ouster to edge closer to what now seemed inevitable — the presidency. In that period, Mnangagwa also made several trips to China, where he also became a recipient of the “political handouts” of the Chinese, who expressed to Mugabe that he was their preferred man for the succession plan.
Having survived for so long on “political handouts”, Mnangagwa now finds himself as an outright victim, not just from peripheral political opponents but from Mugabe himself. Mugabe knows Mnangagwa’s reliance on “political handouts” and how he has over time been a mere recipient of opportunities rather than be a creator.
Mugabe knows how Mnangagwa is deeply vulnerable based on his poor history of self-making and having relied more on being made by others. Mugabe knows the “Achilles’ tendon” in Mnangagwa’s political life. The unfortunate dimension of this current political phase is that Mnangagwa’s proxies are presenting him not only as a possible successor but as a direct challenge to Mugabe’s grip on state power, with his wife Grace now in the background.
So Mugabe has decided to focus on where it matters most; not on Mnangagwa himself, but rather on those who seek to make him the president. Mugabe has decided to crush Mnangagwa by scrapping off the layered profile of proxies, who have all along learnt the art of creating Mnangagwa as a fort in the presidential succession race, while he simply follows the ordered steps of how to get there. Mugabe will therefore scrap off this whole layer of proxies in order to leave Mnangagwa exposed. In fact, it is not Mnangagwa who is a threat to Mugabe in the succession tussle, but his proxies.
Unlike in 2014 and in the past when those with critical ambitions were dislodged from the party, including the likes of Edgar Tekere and Mujuru; Mnangagwa is not a threat to Mugabe. Therefore his containment will involve simply dealing with those who have been offering him “political handouts”. At the end of the day, Mnangagwa himself will remain ensconced close to Mugabe and continue to enjoy even more “political handouts”, this time not from proxies or any others but from Mugabe himself and his household. Mnangagwa will simply live the rest of his political life as part of the furniture in Mugabe’s household, loyally serving the master of the house and his family entourage. After this, never again will Mnangagwa appear in any context as a presidential candidate or aspirant.
Hungwe is a social development specialist working for an international development organisation.