The question of succession emerged following inevitable natural courses and political necessities of the ruling party. Mugabe is now 90 and is very unlikely that due to health problems will be able to maintain power at the next presidential elections in 2018. On the other, the possible scenario of a sudden incapacity of Mugabe to govern without a succession plan in place evoked the fear of a possible collapse of the regime.
Therefore, when Zanu-PF started the long debate exploring the options available, the battle for power was restricted to the representatives of the two dominant factions within party: Joice Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa. The first is a popular figure who identifies as a moderate; the second is a hard-liner with powerful links to the military and security establishment.
Zimbabweans, and international analysts, were already debating on the two political figures when a sudden and dramatic change in Zanu-PF delicate balance came out in the open. The sacking of Mujuru and the rise of Mugabe’s wife within the party ranks have reset the political system and speculations are rising on the real significance of Mugabe’s strategy.
Grace Mugabe: Mujuru’s destroyer-Mnangagwa ally?
On 09th December 2014 President Mugabe officially sacked Zanu-PF Vice President Joice Mujuru after accusing her of corruption and plotting to kill him. He also dismissed seven government ministers in connection with the alleged plot including State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa (another long-time ally of Mugabe) and Energy Minister Dzikamai Mavhaire, who was seen as close to Mujuru.
Vice President Mujuru represented a wing of the party that is wary of the years of economic and political stagnation in the country and within the party. They favor a moderate approach with the opposition and have strong support among the unprivileged members of ZANU-PF. This bloc advocates an open-market and reviving relations with the international community, including Western powers. When in December 2013 Mujuru won the party’s provincial elections, she was tipped as one of the likely successors. The obstacles were identified in the unstable party allegiances, concerns over widespread corruption, and her heterogeneous front that lacked ideological cohesion as well as support in key state institutions such police, army and judiciary — the main foundations of Mugabe’s longstanding power. But even before that Mujuru has been destroyed by the rising to power of Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
Grace Mugabe, using the mighty power of state propaganda, conducted a campaign against her for months at public rallies, telling the vice-president to resign or apologise. She openly accused her opponent while state media made sensational claims of senior government officials going abroad scouting for a hit man to assassinate Mugabe. Mrs Mugabe in October openly refused to shake Mrs Mujuru’s hand at an official ceremony and at rallies openly said that the vice-president should be sacked from government because she was described as “corrupt, an extortionist, incompetent, a gossiper, a liar, ungrateful, power-hungry, daft, foolish, divisive and a disgrace”, accusing her of collaborating with opposition forces and neo-colonialists to undermine the country’s independence.
Mrs Mujuru tried to defend herself confirming her loyalty to Mugabe and describing the accusations as “repugnant” and “ridiculous”. She accused state media of publishing lies as part of a plot to destroy Zanu-PF. Her options are now limited: staying in the party will lead to an obscure, isolated and discredited figure but leaving could be far more dangerous especially if she joins the opposition. The intelligence services are known to keep files of “dirt” for use against those who defect.
Grace Mugabe, 49, once her husband’s secretary, is now a senior party figure, having been appointed leader of Women Zanu-PF and speculation is building that she may seek to succeed Mr Mugabe when he retires or dies. Grace Mugabe has grown into a powerful businesswoman and sees herself as a philanthropist, founding an orphanage on a farm just outside the capital, Harare, with the help of Chinese funding. She is described as tenacious and ambitious with her fans applauding her style and forthright nature, while her detractors have nicknamed her “Gucci Grace” and “DisGrace” because of her alleged appetite for extravagant shopping. Along with her husband, is subject to EU and US sanctions, including travel bans. She is usually modest and reserved in interviews but her recent political career also shown a sharp and direct approach to adversaries. She is very popular within Zanu-PF youth league mainly for her stand against corruption and charitable work but senior leaders see her approach as ruthless, a danger to party unity, politically naïve, materialistic and distant from her husband more ideological background. Her spectacular rise generated speculation of becoming a potential successor, an ambition she has not declined although indirectly supported the other candidate, Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, by spending generous words and describing him as “loyal and disciplined”.
Mnangagwa, a powerful, feared and questionable figure, presides over the so-called “hard-liners” or “old guard” that have played a strong and dominant role in Zimbabwe’s history. Mugabe’s long reign of power would not have been ensured without the support from this formidable repression apparatus that is seeking to maintain its privileges. Although Mnangagwa does not have support from the party’s base level, he has established strong ties with the intelligence and military. His role has grown along the years and strengthened by Mugabe’s strategy of putting the military and security sector in command. But can Grace comments be interpreted as a further acknowledgement of his chances to become Mugabe’s heir or are part of a wider plan?
What is Mugabe’s strategy?
Different theories have been put forward to explain Grace’s role and Mugabe’s actual goals. The first theory is that Mrs Mugabe has no chance of becoming president, and has been used by Mnangagwa’s faction to stop Joyce Mujuru group. The second theory is that President Mugabe is promoting his wife primarily in order to keep all the Zanu-PF factions under his control and a third that see Mrs Mugabe as a real presidential candidate due to her husband endorsement.
All theories have some truths but probably the most correct is that they are all part of Mugabe’s strategy, one of his famous tricks and political games. Mugabe does not trust anyone except himself and his actions in these months can find roots in the party’s orthodoxy and practices similar to those adopted in the Great Purge in USSR where fabrication of accusations, plots and purges helped destroying political opponents. But if Mugabe is not Stalin in proceeding further with the physical annihilation of the opponents, nevertheless he achieves the same results. Mujuru’s political views and openness towards dialogue with the opposition and international powers, has been seen as a major danger for the party élite and its privileges. Mujuru’s camp has been deemed as “expendable” to preserve power and Mugabe’s position which could have been under question in a more liberal regime. Mugabe at the same time cannot directly appease Mnangagwa as whilst he could ensure continuity of power and keep foreign powers and opposition parties at bay, on the other could become too strong and plunge Zimbabwe into a military dictatorship.
Mugabe therefore resorted once gain to his preferred policy of divide et impera by taking control over the succession process and weakening the potential candidates. Grace served the purpose at the right time by attacking Mujuru without Mugabe’s direct involvement and propelling into politics a figure that can attract some sectors of the civil society. Her charitable work appeals to the same people from whom Mujuru found support and she is also unquestionable from hardliners due to her relationship with Mugabe. Recovering the grassroots within the party and isolating the Mujuru’s “deviationists” will strengthen the party élite and at the same time preserve Mugabe’s circle of power. But Mugabe’s tactic also weakens Mnangagwa’s old guard introducing a familiar figure legitimated by a powerful investiture that the hardliners cannot just ignore. The strategy is to keep the party under his feet, unbalanced and where factions are not able to prevail on the other without his consent. Mugabe is in a way building a safety net where a Zimbabwe under Grace Mugabe could be internationally acceptable rather than a Zimbabwe bordering military dictatorship, but at the same time by keeping the old guard in charge of security and stability. This can also open to a theory in which Mugabe uses both for the same purposes, by adopting a Korean model. Creating a “Zimbabwean Kim dynasty” he can ensure continuity of power and privileges for himself and his circle of power and on the other by protecting the military first policy can still count on Mnangagwa’s faction as the tutor of order.
Whether these theories are right or wrong would be only a matter of time to find out, but it is certain that this could be the last attempt of Mugabe to shape Zimbabwe’s future under his own desires and a mistake in his calculation can have disastrous effects for the entire country.