FOR a long time now we have been writing that the stage in which we are in terms of President Robert Mugabe’s succession matrix is brinkmanship. We have reached a point where Mugabe and the military — at least some senior army commanders — are at loggerheads over who should succeed the veteran leader.
Editor’s Memo,Dumisani Muleya
Quite clearly how that confrontation pans out will determine Mugabe’s successor, apparently between Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi. The ground has shifted and the battle is evenly balanced now; Mnangagwa remains in with a good change but only if Mugabe goes by sudden death, while his endurance favours Sekeramayi.
Although the die is not really cast yet — there will still be more twists and turns ahead — Mugabe’s intervention yesterday could trigger seismic shifts in the situation. His remarks against army commanders were as unexpected as they were instructive.
Mugabe first warned security service chiefs against interfering in Zanu PF succession politics at the Zanu PF annual conference in Victoria Falls in 2015. Yesterday he raised the intensity of his attacks on military’s meddling in party politics with direct assaults on top commanders, particularly targeting Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Constantino Chiwenga, widely seen as the pillar of strength behind Mnangagwa’s faction, although he did not name him.
Since last year, Mugabe has been under pressure from his wife and G40 to retire Chiwenga. It seems that pressure can only mount, although some people say it’s too late for Mugabe to do that.
Some people even claim Chiwenga might resist removal, but Mugabe’s aggressive posture yesterday showed he was ready for a dirty fight even though he is now frail with old age and ill-health taking their toll on him.
As we have written before, we are now at a brinkmanship stage.
In his seminal book, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, Milan W. Svolik says all authoritarian regimes must resolve two fundamental conflicts: the problem of authoritarian control and authoritarian power-sharing.
Crucially, whether and how dictators resolve these two problems is shaped by the repressive environment in which authoritarian politics takes place: in a dictatorship, no independent authority has the power to enforce arrangements among key actors and violence is the ultimate arbiter of conflict.
The grave headache though is that the authoritarian ruler usually faces a complicated quandary: the dictator has to rely on repression to prevent popular uprisings, but this creates a moral hazard, for “the very resources that enable the regime’s repressive agents to suppress its oppositions also empower them to act against the regime itself”.
Svolik says the degree to which dictators choose to empower security forces is determined by the strength of the popular opposition they face. When the threat to the regime is minimal, the dictator need not empower the military that much, thus facilitating his “perfect political control”.
Conversely, when the popular threat is extreme, the dictator must rely on, and fully empower, the army, whose power subsequently crowds out that of the ruler in a delicate equilibrium of military tutelage. The most unstable and interesting scenario occurs when the popular opposition — both internal and outside is strong; creating conditions of brinkmanship bargaining.
Here, a complicated strategic calculus develops between the dictator and the military.
On the one hand, the army seeks to leverage its influence and to threaten the dictator’s power to obtain control and influence, including on such contentious issues as succession.
On the other hand, the dictator questions the resolve of the military and attempts to push the envelope. Military overthrow of the dictator occurs when the dictator underestimates the military threat and rocks the boat too much.
This is where we are now in Zimbabwe: the brinkmanship stage between Mugabe and the military. It’s an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The question is: Who will blink first?