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The Byzantine netherworld of inner-circle Zanu PF politics

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By Simukai Tinhu

Tinhu is a scholar and writer on Zimbabwe’s foreign policy. He has recently completed a PhD in Politics from Edinburgh University, and holds master’s degrees from the London School of Economics in International Relations, and from Oxford and Cambridge in African Studies.


In October, Zimbabwe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), held its elective congress. Delegates unanimously endorsed the country’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as the party leader for the next five years. This means the 80-year-old will be the ruling party’s representative to contest Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), in the presidential elections scheduled for mid-2023.

Analysts were quick to interpret Mnangagwa’s endorsement as not only a victory, but also successful future-proofing against an inevitable challenge by Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga. A popular local online watcher of Zimbabwean politics, Newshawks, took an extreme version of this thinking, describing the development as the burying of Chiwenga’s ambitions.

Disquieted, Chiwenga’s supporters, who had fantasised about a bloody session at the congress, also pilloried the vice-president, apparently for not doing enough to prevent what they viewed as their candidate’s public humiliation.

But, a quick perusal of Zanu-PF’s history tells us that congresses are not a serious affair in the ruling party’s politics. Even ordinary Zimbabweans have come to understand that congresses are nothing more than a ripple on the surface of the liberation movement’s often brutal succession contests.

Rather, the most consequential battles for power have tended to be endlessly played out in much darker spaces – behind the concrete walls of the ruling party’s headquarters, in military cantonments and spies’ bunkers – where brass-knuckle tactics such as bribes, death threats, murder by poisoning and grenade attacks are deployed by military hit squads to override the rudiments of electoral party politics.

In these unpredictable and more perverse spaces, where military obsessives lurk in the shadows, the fundamentals of power relations in Zanu-PF have remained stable. Still anchored by the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), Mnangagwa’s rival continues to bestride Zanu-PF and national politics, a reality which has manifested itself in various ways; the vice-president hectoring Mnangagwa into increasing funding for the military, demanding quotas for army officers in government, state parastatals and the ruling party, and abrasively appointing himself as defence minister, and most recently, health minister. This is why some see Chiwenga as president in all but title.

But, ironically, nothing demonstrates better the dominance of Chiwenga in the ruling party and government than remaining as vice-president. This assertion might read as semantics, because it was Mnangagwa who won the spot for the party leadership at congress, and used the authority bestowed by this position to appoint Chiwenga as his Zanu-PF deputy.

How then does the outcome of the congress make Chiwenga the winner? For Chiwenga, being retained as vice-president at the congress is critical because it keeps up his profile in and outside Zanu-PF, and allows him access to state patronage that he parcels out to his allies in the party and the military.

Indeed, it is failure to reorder the praesidium through an imposition of a low-profile, unambitious and more malleable second-in-command which makes Mnangagwa’s victory hollow. A powerful Chiwenga who thinks his time to take over is soon is the type of a vice-president that any leader would rather not have.

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What also makes the outcome of the congress a victory for Chiwenga is that since he became president, Mnangagwa has been attempting to do away with his domineering deputy. In search of this end, he tooled up with a two-pronged strategy with its main aspect characterised by dramatic constitutional changes, the most important being an amendment that removes the presidential running-mate clause, giving Mnangagwa authority to appoint and fire his two deputies at government level. Until 2021, the president and vice-president were jointly elected, making it difficult for Mnangagwa to remove his deputy.

The second aspect was an aggressive shake-up of the military leadership, with Chiwenga’s allies in the army either retired, or reassigned to the country’s diplomatic missions.

This operation was aimed at weakening Chiwenga’s hand in Zanu-PF politics, culminating in his ouster as vice-president at, or in the run-up to the congress. But the shake-up of the constitution and the military wasn’t enough to generate sufficient political capital, and Mnangagwa had no choice but retain Chiwenga as his deputy.

Consequently, the reaffirmation of Chiwenga as his deputy should not only be read as quiet acceptance that Mnangagwa’s second term is likely to be short-lived, but indeed, as the first inklings of the complicated process of power transfer at party and government levels.

According to Chiwenga’s team, the vice-president’s strategy to ascend to power is anchored by the agreement the two leaders made around 2014 when Mnangagwa became vice-president and Chiwenga was still head of the armed forces; that the then army commander would aid Mnangagwa’s rise to the presidency, and in return, Mnangagwa would step down after one term, paving the way for Chiwenga.

If claims by his allies are anything to go by, Chiwenga’s schedule is well within timescales. The plan is to take over sometime after the elections. The logic behind taking over after elections is that Chiwenga removed Robert Mugabe through a coup – a salvatory intervention that still gives him an upper hand in the two’s relations – and the momentum gathered by Chiwenga’s removal of Mugabe secured Mnangagwa’s electoral victory in 2018.

It is now Mnangagwa’s turn to secure Chiwenga’s first term through the 2023 elections and step down. In other words, the 2022 congress was never the time and vehicle through which power was to be transferred.

Chiwenga is also aware that taking over at congress might have been a bit of a scramble. With elections in less than a year, he would have struggled to mount support within the party to campaign for him, and also that of voters, ahead of the 2023 elections. Thus, retaining Mnangagwa as president for now should be seen as cover for his inability to devise a better winning election strategy.

However, Mnangagwa is unlikely to give up the presidency easily. With fears of what could happen to him when out of power, he does not trust that Chiwenga will protect him. In particular, he worries about Chiwenga’s intentions of bringing in as vice-president, Saviour Kasukuwere, the leader of Generation 40, a faction that fronted Mugabe’s struggle against Mnangagwa between 2015 and 2017 – and also egged on to stay by his allies who have become wealthy because of state patronage, there is a real temptation to undermine the agreement to step down after one term.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Mnangagwa’s five-year-old government continues to close in on Zim journalists

If that were to happen, Mnangagwa should not assume that a man who orchestrated the 2008 hecatomb that killed 300 opposition supporters after Mugabe had lost in the first round of presidential elections, and lately the 2017 coup, will continue to suppress his dark instincts and play rationale actor.

But how would the vice-president go about overcoming the stalling of his ambitions? In Zimbabwe, it seems very few can foretell better than the wives of incumbent presidents what might happen to their husbands, should they resist stepping down in the face of an ambitious vice-president.

In the last days of Mugabe’s rulership, Grace Mugabe never lost an opportunity to tell supporters and the world at political rallies that the then vice-president Mnangagwa and Chiwenga were organising a coup. Mugabe would later be removed from power through a coup led by Chiwenga.

Similarly, in 2018, in an unhinged rant at a senior military commander – by extension, the national army – in a leaked audio tape, the current first lady, Auxilia Mnangagwa, broke down as she accused the army of planning to assassinate her husband, apparently, in a bid to remove him from power.

The point that I seek to make here is that in the dark politics of Zimbabwe, where paranoid first ladies run parallel security and intelligence structures – Auxilia Mnangagwa was an intelligence officer herself – those clues matter. They illuminate better than seasoned political observers the trajectory of Zimbabwe’s succession politics.