THE simmering political power struggle between President Emmerson Mnangagwa — currently ruling under military tutelage after coming in last November through a coup — and his co-deputy retired General Constantino Chiwenga over the unresolved Zanu PF leadership issue after the overthrow of former president Robert Mugabe has now exploded into the public domain.
This follows the shooting and killing of more than six civilians in Harare last week in the midst of violent protests over the hotly-disputed presidential election result.
The incident and renewed repression in the middle of fierce reprisals against the opposition has outraged Zimbabweans and the world, leaving the country under siege as it slides back into political instability reminiscent of the Mugabe era.
Mnangagwa, who has emerged weaker after the elections which revealed his fragile social base in Zanu PF and nationally as he won by a wafer-thin 0,8% margin, while his party got a two-thirds majority, has buckled under local and international pressure to investigate the gruesome killings which were captured vividly in the mainstream media and social media platforms.
High-profile security bosses and experts fear that the current environment might precipitate a bloody fight between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga, and their militarised factions.
“Now that Mnangagwa has caved in to pressure to appoint a team to investigate the shootings, which suggest he did not deploy the army himself and ordered the killings, this will bring him into direct confront with Chiwenga,” a security boss told the Zimbabwe Independent this week.
“He might want to settle big political questions with this. This will become messy, particularly in the context of the unresolved Bulawayo explosion mystery which has fuelled suspicions and tensions within the Zanu PF leadership hierarchy. We are under military tutelage and hence some brinkmanship between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga, and their allies.
“But for now the big question here is: who deployed the military and ordered them to kill civilians? Was it Mnangagwa or Chiwenga, or both in consultation? Was the deployment constitutional and lawful? Who also ordered police to disrupt the media conference? There are volatile issues in this political powder key environment.
“Therein lies the moral hazard of the coup; you will have some agitation when some individuals change their behaviour as their risk-taking is borne by others. This is a recipe for disaster.”
The security chief added: “Let me give you an example of the military in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, the military was prevented from dabbling in politics under founding leader Ben Ali. When army attempted to participate in the ruling party’s congress in 1979, Ali refused to attend and dismissed the defence minister.
“In Egypt – we will come to Zimbabwe later – the military is dominant like in Syria. The Egyptian military has been the repressive pillar of all the past regimes since the July 23 revolution (the Egyptian coup of 1952 led by first president Muhammad Naguib and his successor Gamal Abdel Nasser which had far-reaching consequences for the country and the region).
“In Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa is facing the moral hazard familiar in authoritarian repression environments. He is in a big dilemma: if he confines soldiers to the barracks, he can easily be overthrown by MDC Alliance or the opposition related movement in the streets. But if he relies on the military for repression and to fight them, he becomes vulnerable to an almost inevitable challenge by Chiwenga and the military.
“Of course, Mnangagwa and Nasser are very different and the situations are also not the same, but there are a few parallels. Nasser was a very consequential Egyptian leader; we are yet to see Mnangagwa’s impact and legacy.
“After taking power through the military in 1952, two years later Nasser survived an attempt on his life by a Muslim Brotherhood member. Following that there was fierce repression and he put his ally in the coup (Naguib) under house and seized power. So you have coup allies fighting each other just after two years down the line.
“In the aftermath of the second coup, Nasser’s fears of his own military heightened. It is not really surprising Nasser became suspicious of his own military afterwards. They seized power together with Naguib and 24 months later he grabbed power for himself using the army, hence there was no logical reason why his allies in the military could not do the same. I’m not saying this will happen in Zimbabwe, but the environment and conditions might lead to that. The signs of internal strife and tensions over an unresolved leadership issue, power and self-aggrandisement are bubbling under the surface.”
As first reported by the Independent months back, political events currently unfolding in the country are pointing to emerging deadly factional confrontation between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga, widely seen as the power behind the throne.
The chaotic Zanu PF primaries, the defeat of Mnangagwa’s key allies in the general elections, the Bulawayo explosion and the bloody polls aftermath are said to have become a deadly cocktail fuelling tensions between the two leaders.
Mnangagwa before the elections publicly spoke about an inside plot to impeach him after the polls. During the campaigns, Mnangagwa and Chiwenga appeared like rivals instead of allies, insiders say.
Mnangagwa also spoke about an attempted assassination after the Bulawayo explosion which killed two security aides and injured many other people. He did not exactly say who was behind the attack.
Although Mnangagwa might have some newfound authority following his recent disputed narrow election victory which gave him the people’s mandate, Chiwenga’s manoeuvres since the coup last November suggest he has presidential ambitions and may not be patient for his boss to even finish one term.
Insiders say initially the coup deal was that Mnangagwa would come in as a civilian face and serve one term and go, leaving power to Chiwenga.
However, Mnangagwa’s repeated talk of two terms is said to have widened the rift between the two. There have also been differences on the transitional arrangement, critical appointments, dismissals, especially in the security sector, business deals and the direction of the administration, sources say.
That Chiwenga is holding the levers of power has been demonstrated in various ways, including his own rushed appointment as vice-president ahead of Oppah Muchinguri whom Mnangagwa apparently had given the job and the seizing of the responsibilities of defence and war veterans from co-vice-president Kembo Mohadi to him. Mohadi initially controlled defence, security and war veterans, but once Chiwenga barged in he grabbed defence and war veterans, while Mnangagwa took security amid fears his deputy would become too powerful. Mohadi was compensated with national healing and reconciliation portfolio.
Insiders say while he might have succeeded in toppling Mugabe, Mnangagwa owes it all to Chiwenga – and his military allies – who executed the coup on the ground while he was in South Africa after he ran away upon his dismissal by Mugabe.
Against such a background, Chiwenga is seen as the kingpin – at least for now.
The Zanu PF primary elections before the general elections laid bare their rivalry and infighting.
Zanu PF national political commissar Engelbert Rugeje – one of those that traded military fatigues for civilian suits – was on coalface of the battle. Its clearest manifestation was in Norton where the outspoken war veterans leader Chris Mutsvangwa had lost to someone preferred by the military.
Mutsvangwa, who was angry police officers had been used to in the primaries run by the army, warned Mnangagwa could lose the presidential election at that rate. Mutsvangwa, whom Chiwenga and his allies apparently do not want, lost the parliamentary election. It is said the military could have played a key role in ensuring Mutsvangwa lost to independent candidate Temba Mliswa, a further manifestation of the Mnangagwa-Chiwenga rivalry.
Mnangagwa controversially won by a narrow margin 0,8% backed by the military as Mutsvangwa’s warning almost came to pass.
MDC Alliance leader nelson Chamisa is challenging the result in court.
Recently, Mnangagwa, who was set to be inaugurated for his first term of office this weekend, indicated he wants to serve for the two full terms provided for by the constitution. Mnangagwa’s inauguration will now take a bit longer after Chamisa’s court challenge.
However, insiders say Chiwenga is not prepared to wait for 10 years of Mnangagwa’s rule to come in, settling the stage for a bruising power struggle ahead.