President Robert Mugabe is under pressure from an unlikely political spectre: it is not the British, nor is it Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), twin dark forces that have haunted him in the last two decades. This time, the spectre is a man who has been the fulcrum of his rule; his deputy in the party and government, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Simukai Tinhu,Political analyst
With a challenge mounted through his political surrogates and lately by quietly supporting the protest movements, Mnangagwa, in a subtle way, seems to have declared war on Mugabe. Though challenging Mugabe is an unprecedented political endeavour, it does not mean that there hasn’t been before attempts to challenge him. Indeed, to be sure, many within the ruling party have wanted Mugabe to go from the day that he took over in 1980. But without any real political strategy to depose Mugabe, most of them have confined their challenges to verbal attacks. Indeed, apart from former vice-president Joice Mujuru’s failed bid, few have had the tactical sagacity to directly challenge Zimbabwe’s strongman.
In other words, not only is Mnangagwa’s challenge a brave move, but it also seriously calls into question Mugabe’s ability to stay in power until 2018. The president’s threats against Mnangagwa’s allies within the party, the war veterans and also the military, have fallen on deaf ears. It seems the Mnangagwa is not holding back. With his warning against the import bans and also via his most enthusiastic backers, the war veterans supporting the recently ended stay-away, the vice-president seems to be implicitly telling the voters that he is also embracing the protests. The difference is that he has to be subtle and his intention is not to bring about change, but to sustain the existing system though without Mugabe, but him at the helm.
But these two men have not always been enemies. Dating back to the 1970s, Mnangagwa and Mugabe have always had a complex political arrangement which was mutually beneficial to both. Whilst Mugabe has been the ultimate academic anchor of the party, who intellectually stirred Zanu PF through the stormy waters of Zimbabwean politics and international affairs on global stage, Mnangagwa’s role was largely that of an enforcer. Mnangagwa unforgivingly crushed dissent within the party and foiled the ambitions of those who potentially posed a threat to Mugabe.
He is widely suspected to be the mastermind behind General Solomon Mujuru’s death, former commander of the defence forces considered kingmaker in Zanu PF politics, and through his wife, the then vice-president Joice Mujuru, seen as a perennial threat to Mugabe’s rule.
Dealing with dissent has not only been confined to the liberation movement. Mugabe has deployed Mnangagwa to crush the opposition as he did in the 1980s when thousands of civilians were killed by government forces in the Midlands and Matabeleland regions. Recently, he has been responsible for the hecatomb that saw hundreds of opposition supporters killed by the armed forces and Zanu PF militia in the run-up to the second round of the presidential elections in 2008.
Thus, it is incontestable to suggest that to a large extent, Mugabe’s rule has been predicated on Mnangagwa’s ability to manage dissent within and outside the party. The question is, will he survive without the political ruthlessness and infrastructure that Mnangagwa provided.
Mnangagwa’s ambitions are seen as betrayal, which explains why his political moves have provoked so much anger in the First Family. The understanding was that by getting rid of the then vice-president Mujuru, Mnangagwa was supposed to aid Mugabe’s plans for eternal rulership.
In particular, so riled by this supposed betrayal, the First Lady Grace Mugabe has urged her husband to get rid of him. However, the fact that to date the president has not been able to issue a “shut or quit” ultimatum to Mnangagwa about his ambitions has not only emboldened Mnangagwa’s allies, in particular the war veterans and also some sections of the security sector, but has indicated that he might not have an effective strategy to get rid of the Midlands godfather. His strategy for now of expelling or arresting Mnangagwa’s allies — Munyaradzi Kereke, Johannes Tomana, Chris Mutsvangwa and Pupurai Togarepi — is not only a simplistic solution to a complex problem, but threatens to leave him isolated further.
In terms of strategy, Mnangagwa’s personal preference is different from that of his allies. His allies want Mugabe out sooner, in order to give Mnangagwa adequate time to prepare for the 2018 elections. As a result, they want to see him being more confrontational against the president. But his strategy is to wait for Mugabe to succumb to biology — death or incapacitation, while on the other hand the First Lady and Generation 40 (G40) wear themselves out with seemingly ineffective campaigns against his ambitions.
Overally, with his team, in his attempts to push the nonagenarian out, Mnangagwa is using a three-pronged approach against Mugabe.
The first approach involves using several groups to run a campaign meant to undermine the president within the heart of Zanu PF. The most vocal and active group in this endeavour has been the war veterans association. The war veterans have made it clear that they want Mugabe gone and be replaced by Mnangagwa, a man who is likely to cater for their interests better than anyone else in the party. They have threatened bloodshed against anyone who stands in the way of the vice-president taking over as the leader of the nation. Though they have not attacked Mugabe directly, they have verbally abused his wife forcing him to complain against “cowards”.
The attack on Mugabe by the war veterans on behalf of Mnangagwa is significant at two levels. First, apart from Mnangagwa’s ability to crush dissent within and outside the part, the war veterans have been another cornerstone of Mugabe’s stay in power. They have been used to perpetrate violence against voters and the opposition.
Second, though this is not the first time that the war veterans have revolted against Mugabe, this is the first time that they have challenged the his leadership. In 1997, the group challenged Mugabe over a marginal issue of their welfare. Mugabe responded by dishing them out with a one-off lump sum each, followed by a monthly stipend.
His initial reaction to recent attacks, however, was a miscalculation. He threatened the war veterans. Indeed, in March this year, the war veterans’ attempt to march peacefully against him was stopped by the armed police who violently dispersed the group. Instead of cowering, in return, the war veterans responded with defiance leaving him with limited options to deal with the group. So desperate to contain this political tribe within Zanu PF, Mugabe has since ordered the broke Treasury, which is struggling to pay even soldiers and the police, to unlock millions in order to pay the war veterans. However, it seems this time the group wants more — they want him gone.
The second approach involves using the security establishment. Once having been efence minister and also state security minister, Mnangagwa has considerable networks in the security sector. His access and then ability to mobilise the security establishment makes his ambitions more difficult to contain as compared to those of Mujuru. The most significant security apparatus is the military.
The army is attempting to aid Mnangagwa’s ascendancy by leading the isolation of Mugabe in the security establishment and also through implicit threats against the nonagenarian. They regard themselves, together with war veterans, as the stockholders rather than stakeholders of the party, contradicting Mugabe in an act of unprecedented defiance. Also, the police, which has historically been quick to respond to any incidents of protests, has this time been lacklustre in its containment of sporadic incidents of protests across the country.
Third, despite his party being renowned for railing against foreign intervention in local politics, Mnangagwa, in a circuitous way, has sought a European and American solution to the leadership contest within Zanu PF. Ostensibly, Mnangagwa’s vision for what should be Zimbabwe’s direction in terms of foreign policy might be seen as an attempt to mend relations with the international community, but in reality its a power struggle between him and his senior.
Indeed, opting to choose a foreign policy agenda that clashes with that of Mugabe is deliberate. At a time that Mugabe is lashing out at the West on important fora such as the United Nations General Assembly, Mnangagwa is busy attempting to win the approval of European nations and the United States and also international financial institutions.
Lastly, and most potent, unbeknown to most Zanu PF elites, the current wave of protests has Mnangagwa’s hand all over it. This, the Midlands godfather hopes, will be Mugabe’s own Watergate Affair, a scandal that brought to the end, the career of Republican president, Richard Nixon. The vice-president, behind the facade of condemning the protests, is hoping that the social protests will precipitate the fall of the nonagenarian. His strategy is to ensure that they do not spiral out of control and can be managed in a way that will assist achieve limited objective of getting rid of Mugabe rather than the whole regime.
To achieve this objective, reportedly, has put his cards on the economy. The calculation is that the implosion of the economy will result in widespread protests that might weaken Mugabe’s authority. As head of government policy implementation, and with his close ally Chinamasa, the two are playing William S. Gilbert’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the 1874 play, as they attempt to get rid of Mugabe.
Indeed, through the central bank, the announcement to bring back the Zimbabwean dollar through the back door and the directive to ban the importation of certain goods from neighbouring countries, are well-calculated moves. With production in the country virtually non-existent and worse than in the period in the run-up to 2008, Mnangagwa is hoping that storm brewed by this sabotage will at last bring down Mugabe.
Is he winning the battle?
So far he is. Senior and significant party elites seem to be coalescing around Mnangagwa. Even those who are being used by the president in the form of G40 will soon fall in line as they increasingly fear being isolated and also vengeance by Mnangagwa’s camp in the post-Mugabe era.
As it stands, it appears that the president has a few straws to clutch at. In his camp, Mugabe is left with his wife, who heads the powerful Women’s League wing in the party, and the army, which is reportedly running operations in support of his presidency, in particular through the intimidation of party elites who are deserting to Mnangagwa’s political group.
Mnangagwa has promised the Zanu PF elite that he will revive the economy and thereby widening opportunities for patronage, open relations with the international community and has successfully presented himself to party stalwarts as the only candidate who can unite and save the party in the event of Mugabe’s departure.
The only tool that isolated Mugabe appears to hold against Mnangagwa is the threat of chaos in the party if he is pushed out. It is Mnangagwa’s fear of chaos which appears to be the nonagenarian’s only trump card.
Mugabe can deliberately provoke chaos in the party by firing his deputy. The position of the vice-president in the ruling Zanu PF party and in government is an appointed one. Though negotiated as a result of his political clout, in theory, Mnangagwa owes his position to Mugabe.
Mugabe has tried to dismiss him before, but this was met with resistance. Last year, using the same scotched-earth policy that was used against Mujuru, Mugabe, through his wife, tried to push out Mnangagwa. The main reason why he failed this time is that the man who finely executed that scorched-earth policy against Mujuru was this time not there to do it for him. As a result, Mugabe’s attempts to push out Mnangagwa quickly floundered.
It appears though that Mnangagwa’s aim is not to push Mugabe out, but for Mugabe to acknowledge that the political clout of his protégé has since grown. What he wants is to ascend to the presidency by being accommodated and then anointed by Mugabe in order to make the transition smooth.
Tinhu is a political analyst based in London.