ZIMBABWE has been a de facto one-party state since the mid-1980s, despite the formal trappings of a multiparty system and a series of fraudulent elections. Real politics, in terms of decision-making and genuine contests for power, is inevitably confined within the ruling Zanu PF party. The sole exception to this was the government of the national unity period between 2009 and 2013, although even then, the hegemony of Zanu PF and President Robert Mugabe remained largely intact despite convincing electoral defeats in 2008.
However, because the party is in thrall to Mugabe—and given his frequent assertions of what amounts to a divine right to rule and to a presidency for life—no mechanisms are in place for a transparent and orderly succession process, a typical feature of highly personalized authoritarian regimes. Thus any maneuvering to succeed him has necessarily been conducted away from the public glare in the subterranean world of internal Zanu PF politics, which more closely resemble the political intrigues in imperial Rome than a modern democratic state.
However, because of his advancing years, the “unprecedented jostling,” to use Mugabe’s own description of the internal competition to succeed him, has become more intense and more visible this year. Mugabe is now 90 years old and will be 94 by the 2018 elections, in which he has, improbably, already been selected as the Zanu PF candidate. That jostling peaked on December 9, in the aftermath of the Zanu PF congress, when Mugabe dismissed 59-year-old Vice President Joice Mujuru, on the grounds that she was supposedly plotting his removal with several other ministers.
This was a naked attempt to destroy Mujuru’s leadership ambitions. And in an authoritarian state such as Zimbabwe, character assassination can be a precursor to one’s physical elimination: Mysterious car crashes and accidental fires are littered throughout the party’s history. That the internal strife, and the welter of accusations and counter-accusations it is generating, has now moved into the public arena is a measure of the depth of Zanu PF’s crisis. It also provides a clear indication that the various factions are now making their moves to secure the post-Mugabe succession.
Mugabe himself is hardly marginal in all of this. For years he has sought to balance the Zanu PF factions and has refused to be drawn into making any definitive pronouncements about his successor, which might have implied recognition of his own mortality. Avoiding such pronouncements was also a means of keeping all the potential leadership contenders guessing and off-guard. We are now seeing clear signs of change on that front, as Mugabe moves to privilege the claims of a particular faction, including his 49-year-old wife, Grace Mugabe, and 68-year-old Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, long mentioned as a likely successor.Advertisement
Although neither one has been formally anointed by Mugabe, Mnangagwa was named vice president on December 10, seemingly placing him in pole position. The dismissal of Mnangagwa’s long-time rival, Mujuru, has clearly strengthened his leadership credentials. Meanwhile, over the course of 2014, a number of attempts have been made to enhance Grace’s standing as a serious political player and to lend more intellectual gravitas to an image that otherwise has been almost exclusively associated with the seizure of agricultural land and ostentatious displays of wealth—often associated with London shopping sprees—that account for her nicknames: “Gucci Grace” and “the First Shopper.”
Two developments in particular have led to Grace’s visible rise. In August, she was elevated to the chair of the Zanu PF women’s league; the appointment, confirmed in December, is potentially an important power base and gives her a seat on the Zanu PF national executive committee. And in a move reminiscent of Mugabe’s North Korean allies, Grace was awarded a doctorate by the University of Zimbabwe after a registration period of just three months. In a country where the education system is cherished despite the enormous damage inflicted on it by Zanu PF misrule since 2000, this move invited ridicule and cemented Grace’s reputation as an otherwise mediocre person whose status has been earned by nepotism and corruption.
Perhaps emboldened by her promotions, Grace led the rhetorical onslaught against Mujuru, accusing her of corruption, incompetence and colluding with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and foreign forces. These attacks reached a crescendo when Mujuru was also accused of factionalism and of plotting to remove and even assassinate Mugabe. This culminated in Mujuru’s removal from the vice presidency, the party’s central committee and the politburo, along with a wider purge of her allies. Mujuru’s emphatic repudiation of these charges as “false, unsubstantiated, malicious, defamatory and irresponsible” and her complaint of a “well-orchestrated smear campaign” against her wasn’t enough to shore up her position. Caught flat-footed by the scale of the attacks, Mujuru is, at least for now, consigned to the political wilderness.
Mugabe’s own fierce denunciations of his former deputy suggest a rapprochement is unlikely. Instead, the alliance of convenience between his new vice president, Mnangagwa, and his wife has had a decisive influence over him. On December 12, Mugabe completed his Cabinet reshuffle, appointing 10 new ministers. These changes have tilted the balance within Zanu PF firmly in favour of the Mnangagwa-Grace axis, although the durability of that alliance and the understandings on which it rests are the two major unknowns in contemporary Zimbabwean politics.
The pre-emptive strike against Mujuru led by Grace looks to have had Mugabe’s full blessing, although it may be that he has been manipulated into viewing Mujuru as an enemy to help serve the political ambitions of others. As for why events have unfolded so precipitously, speculation inevitably focuses upon political insiders’ recognition of Mugabe’s increasing infirmity and his inability to micromanage government affairs, as was his practice.
His physical decline has sent the signal to leadership aspirants and their factions that they had best begin pressing their case in earnest or risk being out-maneuvered by rivals. The charges of treason aimed at Mujuru suggest something extraordinary was required to neutralize her, given her popularity within Zanu PF.
However, these leadership issues are far from being definitively resolved, and the changes have only served to entrench Zimbabwe’s image as a highly dysfunctional state—an unfortunate message to send while simultaneously seeking support from international financial institutions.
James Hamill has been a lecturer in the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Leicester, U.K., since 1991.