Just prior to the Zanu-PF Elective Congress in early December, Zimbabwe’s First Lady Grace Mugabe initiated her “˜meet the people’ tour after having been nominated as leader of the ruling party’s powerful women’s wing. The tour took a dramatic turn when the First Lady launched a scathing attack on the then vice president, Joyce Mujuru, causing some to conclude that the attack was part of a well-orchestrated conspiracy to discredit her ahead of the congress. Soon after the congress, Mujuru was sacked by Mugabe, ending an unremarkable tenure as deputy in the party and nation.
In an attempt to explain the purge of Mujuru and her allies, many narratives have been constructed by commentators who enjoy different levels of access to Zanu-PF insiders. The leading, and at the same time misleading one, sees this move as Mugabe’s usual shock politics, which involves playing party factions off against each other (a ploy meant to ensure that he not only survives, but also thrives as party leader.)
The second and rather more plausible explanation, which has been promoted by the Harare administration, is that the dismissal of the vice president was inevitable following her prominent role in urging ZANU-PF supporters to vote for the opposition MDC in the 2008 presidential election; an election that Mugabe almost lost.
It appeared that she had been forgiven when she was retained as deputy to Mugabe in the coalition government with the MDC. But it was allegations that she was planning on toppling Mugabe which were seen as the last straw in her relationship with the president.
Opposition groups too, not wanting to be left out, have attempted to frame Zanu-PF’s fallout with Mujuru to suit their own political ends and its glitterati have once again overstated the demise of the ruling party. The “˜last kick of a dying horse’ has been the favourite phrase deployed to describe the latest developments in Zanu-PF.
The above analysis misses the wood for the trees. Whereas it is easy to explain the dismissal of this once strong ally as a ploy for Mugabe to remain in power, the opposite is in fact true. Having survived some of the most brutal political conditions, the Zimbabwean president has demonstrated his political immortality. However, he is also aware that he is human, and old age is increasingly exposing this fragility. This latest streamlining of the party is a clear demonstration that the veteran politician is ready to step down in the near future.
Having been groomed by Mugabe for 10 years Mujuru was the natural heir apparent and as vice president she had been allowed to design and implement her own strategy; to demonstrate to Mugabe her vision not only for the party, but also for the country.
However, the alchemy of power appears to have induced impatience and persuaded her to conspire against the president. Indeed, instead of demonstrating during her tenure that she was capable of steering Zimbabwe through dangerous political waters, Mujuru lost sight of what lies at the heart of Mugabe’s long stay in power; the survival of the party. Instead she focused on positioning herself to take over from the president, and started stuffing party structures and government departments with allies. Reportedly anticipating an imminent death or incapacitation, she also started running a parallel government. But diarchy does not work in Zimbabwe, especially when Mugabe is still in charge.
Indeed, any level of political insight would have shown Mujuru that ZANU-PF always bends to Mugabe’s will, and that despite paying lip service to internal political elections, Mugabe was not going to leave office without choosing a successor. Thus, regardless of whether one was well positioned within the party and government, the question of who was going to take over was never going to be left to the whims of an unpredictable electoral processes.
Having been retained as vice president in 2008, and 2013 despite questionable loyalty, Mujuru once again demonstrated that her gimlet eye was focused on the top job. Late last year she embarked on yet another crusade to reposition herself to take over, resulting in her political clan clinching nine out of ten provincial leaderships; a result that positioned her to win the party presidency against rivals, including Mugabe.
This move convinced Mugabe that Mujuru was more interested in taking over than working for the party. Indeed, in the latter stages of her vice presidency, Mugabe was struggling to entrust his deputy with any authority and the vice president’s policy-making responsibilities were taken away from her. Also, in plain reference to Mujuru, Mugabe started using words and phrases such as “incompetent” and “too simplistic to run a country”.
Reprehensible to those who are supporters of Mujuru, Mugabe’s sacking of his vice president has a logic of its own that was prompted by what he wants to see as his legacy; ensuring that ZANU-PF remains united during the inevitable troubled hours that are likely to follow after his departure. Thus, after streamlining the party structures by ridding those associated with Mujuru’s faction, Mugabe has brought to the centre stage the man he believes to have the ability to steer ZANU-PF in his absence.
A Dove in a Hawkish garment?
The man who now occupies Mujuru’s former seat is her long-time nemesis, Emerson Mnangagwa, a politician whose place in Zimbabwe’s post-independence history is not as simple as it is often portrayed by his opponents. His loyalty to Mugabe has seen him being confused as a hardliner, but largely by those who have little concern for detail.
Known within political circles as the “˜crocodile’ due to his cunning and calculating behaviour, in Mugabe’s eyes Mnangagwa has the mettle to unite the party and allow it to flourish after his own departure. Unlike Mujuru, who allegedly flirted with opposition groups and the idea of forming her own party, Mnangagwa’s loyalty gives Mugabe some confidence that he has a stake in the survival of ZANU-PF.
The ascendancy of Mnangagwa will herald some important changes in foreign and domestic policy; in particular policing and rule of law. Reputed to have a well-rounded and a cosmopolitan view of world politics, he is likely to accelerate tilting Zimbabwe towards the EU and United States, but at the same time deepen ties with China and Russia; a delicate balancing act that will stretch the diplomatic and strategic skills of his administration.
Developmentalist in outlook and pragmatic in his view of politics, the vice president believes that his hold on power will only be secure if his administration improves standards of living. Speaking to one of his closest allies, I was told that he is a great admirer of the first 10 years of sustained economic prosperity that followed the end of British rule in 1980. He is also known to be an admirer of Meles Zenawi, the late president of Ethiopia and Paul Kagame, the Rwandan strongman; leaders who have managed to extract meaningful benefits from the West and at the same time maintain a strong grip on power through finely-tuned foreign and development policies.
Mnangagwa is not only a disciplinarian but also an ardent admiration of protocol, partly as a result of his training in law and security. Under his stewardship, Zimbabwe is likely to witness more stringent domestic policing and strengthening of the rule of law.
Yet, in a paradoxical way, Mnangagwa’s ascendancy also heralds an enduring consistency of Mugabe’s presidency. In particular, there is likely to be a continuation of a relentless subordination of other policies to politico-security imperatives. For example, a friendly foreign policy with the West will only be considered prudent as long as it does not threaten the status quo. In other words, he is only likely to play by the rules of the established Western hegemony as long as the ruling party’s dominance of Zimbabwe’s political landscape is not threatened.
Mnangagwa’s leadership is also likely to witness either an increasing antipathy towards politics or a small but determined opposition. This is because of his alleged role in the suppression of insurgency in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions (the “˜Gukurahundi’) resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians. As Minister of State Security responsible for the intelligence services, an association has been made between the suppression of the insurgency and the role of his ministries.
Whatever the truth is, Mnangagwa’s alleged involvement remains a setback to his political credentials. The new vice president will need to expend considerable effort to reassure those who continue to view him with suspicion. Evidence might be circumstantial and outsiders might struggle to understand the complications his government faced at that time, but failure to manage the suspicion might result in continued alienation of certain sections of the Zimbabwean society.
Mugabe and Mujuru’s alliance was always a strange bedfellow. However, that does not mean that as Mujuru’s replacement is totally secure. He needs to remind himself that he faces the same complex and inscrutable boss who not only fired his predecessor, but still has the same priority; the survival of the party when he is gone. If he fails to establish himself as a strong presidential candidate it should come as no a surprise when he is confronted by the same fate that Mujuru has just suffered. After all, surprise remains very much the basis of the Mugabe brand of politics.