FIRST Lady Grace Mugabe last week demonstrated that she is the power behind the throne when she demanded that her husband President Robert Mugabe names his successor, joining a list of First Ladies who have attempted to manage their husbands’ leadership succession or become pivotal in their country’s power matrix.
By Hazel Ndebele
In the case of Zanu PF, the succession issue has been dragging on for years with no solution in sight. Although Grace is showing that she is currently the pot stirrer, she is doing it more cautiously than she did when she came out guns blazing against former vice-president Joice Mujuru.
In 2014 Grace threw tirades against Mujuru, accusing her of plotting to oust her husband Mugabe before she finally managed to push her out of Zanu PF. Although Grace is showing that she can manipulate situations to her advantage, this time around she is doing it in a more subtle manner as compared to the past where she railed and hurled insults throughout her rallies.
Analysts say Grace is being more careful because she is aware that her new rival is more stronger and she is playing a high-risk political game.
Her demands that Mugabe names a successor are designed to ensure that Mugabe manages and resolves his succession quickly given his old age and fast deteriorating health.
“I have told people that there will be no succession without Mugabe. I have argued with him (Mugabe) and told him that he has a right not only to participate in the succession process, but a right to anoint his chosen successor,” declared Grace at the Zanu PF Women’s League meeting.
“His word is final and mark my words, it is coming.”
Zanu PF has two distinct factions, the G40 faction loyal to Grace and another to Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
In dealing with the Mnangagwa faction, Grace is showing that she is now relatively cautious and is aware of the risk of political misadventure combating a tough customer.
The Mnangagwa faction is said to have a strong base around the military, intelligence and war veterans, which makes it harder for Grace to crack easily.
She did, however, take on Mnangagwa and his allies like Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba to the cleaners at a rally in Chinhoyi. In her blitz on Charamba, Grace complained that the state media was not reporting on issues of development and that it was biased and reporting negatively about “certain people”.
Although she described Mnangagwa as her friend, it was clear that she would leave no stone unturned to ensure she manages Mugabe’s succession and lobbies for Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi.
She is walking down a well-travelled road.
Grace, just like Malawi’s former First Lady Cecilia Tamanda Kadzamira, is moving towards being influential in the political arena and the running of the state behind the scenes. Zimbabwe-born Kadzamira was the most powerful woman in Malawi towards the end of Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s reign in 1994 and had greater control over who had access to the president just like Grace. Just as we are seeing in Grace, Kadzamira made many decisions as Banda became older and could no longer run the affairs of the country.
Kadzamira, however, unsuccessfully tried to influence Banda to appoint her maternal uncle John Tembo as his successor in the party. Tembo had been acting in Banda’s place in his absence. But Banda handed the Malawi Congress Party political baton to Gwanda Chakuamba.
Another influential First Lady was Elena Ceaușescu, the wife of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was the Communist leader of Romania. After she married Ceaușescu, Elena was given various offices at senior levels in the Romanian Communist Party. She also became a member of the politburo of the Romanian Communist Party, becoming the second most important and influential person after Ceauşescu himself. She was deeply involved in party administration alongside her husband up until she was made a first deputy prime minister, a state title she also held until they were both executed in the Romanian Revolution in 1989.
Analysts, however, say Grace is not the only succession catalyst as there are other pot stirrers like Higher and Tertiary Education minister Jonathan Moyo, who recently came out in public to voice support for Sekeramayi as Mugabe’s successor.
The war veterans are also a catalyst in the succession matrix as they rally behind Mnangagwa. The relationship between the liberation struggle fighters and Grace has not been smooth because of constant clashes over succession-related matters.
Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme said Grace is currently pulling the strings behind the scenes.
“What Grace says goes. But she is only in charge as long as Mugabe is there. Zanu PF thrives a system of patronage knitted around Mugabe. So proximity to Mugabe means being powerful as the man has run that cult system over decades using a mix of divide-and-rule antics, deceit and fear. So Mugabe is currently the number one in Zimbabwe because of the aura and mysticism around him,” said Saungweme.
“It is clear Mugabe’s capabilities are worn out due to advanced age and ill-health. He is finished; what remains is the history, name and aura.
“Once Mugabe is buried Grace’s supposed power goes with him. She will be a nobody and those she is fighting today will go for her. She is not seeing beyond her nose and punching above her level of political sophistication and weight,” he added.
Another political analyst Pedzisai Ruhanya said Grace is not the power behind the throne as whatever she is doing has the express authority of Mugabe.
“When she speaks publicly on party and state issues, do not see her, it is the president speaking. She is the mouthpiece of the president, although she muddles the script. She is therefore not the power behind the throne because the throne (Mugabe) is directing the operations. Without the support of Mugabe, the First Lady will not last 30 seconds on the Zanu PF political dance floor,” said Ruhanya. “Mugabe has both the de jure and de facto power in both party and state, and those in Zanu PF know that. It is the legal constitutional power vested in Mugabe that makes it very difficult for Zanu PF factions to manoeuvre against him. Therefore, Grace can muddy the waters as much as she wants but everything starts and ends with Mugabe.
“The day Mugabe leaves the political dance floor that will be her end. The First Lady has neither de facto nor de jure powers to rock the Zanu PF political boat without Mugabe’s authority. She does not have the political base, history and networks good enough to withstand the treacherous Zanu PF politics,” he added.