After Mugabe: the infighting begins now

With the presidency in the bag and parliament in their pocket, Zanu-PF can relax in the certainty that they will dictate Zimbabwe’s foreseeable future. But who will dictate to Zanu-PF? Botox or no Botox, Robert Mugabe’s not getting any younger, and the circling sharks can smell the blood in the water.

Forget the MDC. Forget Morgan Tsvangirai. Forget Welshman Ncube, and Tendai Biti, and David Coltart. Their game is played – and they lost. Yes, they played bravely; but the playing field was hopelessly tilted against them; and the referees were playing for the other team. There’s no disputing this, unless you are a Zanu-PF spokesman or an African Union election monitor. We know the best team did not win, but that’s no longer the point. Zimbabwe is playing a different game now and unless the MDC have something dramatic up their sleeves, they’ll be spectators rather than participants as the real fight for Zimbabwe’s future gets underway. (And it doesn’t seem that the MDC have anything up their sleeves at all. As Tsvangirai frankly admitted on the weekend, “there’s no strategy for the leadership of the MDC”.)

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The new game in town is, of course, the battle to succeed comrade-in-chief Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who, in case you have forgotten, is 89-years-old. That’s old, and his top lieutenants – the men and women of Zanu-PF who have been by his side for the past three decades, patiently waiting for their turn at the top job – know it.

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Not that Mugabe seems in any danger of following in the footsteps of Levy Mwanawasa, Bingu wa Mutharika, Meles Zenawi, Umaru Yar Adua, John Atta Mills, etc., all leaders who have made dying in office somewhat fashionable among African heads of state in recent years. The rumours of Mugabe’s ill health have dogged him for ages, yet every report of a mysterious trip to a hospital in Singapore is confounded by another sprightly public appearance from the man himself. Sure, he’s getting a bit doddery, and he’s not as energetic as he used to be, but then few octogenarians are.

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Nor has Mugabe given any public indication that he plans to abdicate his de facto throne. Asked on the eve of last week’s polls if he intended to serve out his full five-year term the president responded: “Why not? Why should I offer myself as a candidate when I know I won’t finish my term?”

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Emmerson Mnangagwa and Joice Mujuru can probably think of a few reasons. Although the inner working of Zanu-PF are famously opaque, these two are widely considered to be the main contenders to succeed Mugabe, if and when he does step aside.

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Mujuru is the vice-president, Mugabe’s running mate in these polls and without doubt the most powerful woman in Zimbabwe. She is a liberation struggle veteran in her own right – under the nom de guerre Spill Blood she claims to have shot down a Rhodesian helicopter with a machine gun. She holds extensive business interests and plenty of political capital. She has also inherited the legacy of her husband, Solomon Mujuru, who died in 2011 in a suspicious fire at his farm (or at least, the one he appropriated from a white farmer). Solomon was the head of the guerilla forces in the bush war and was rumoured to be one of the few men willing and able to challenge Mugabe within the party.

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Mnangagwa, meanwhile, was Mugabe’s long-time spy chief before becoming Minister of Defence. He was, allegedly, the mastermind behind the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s, which wiped out thousands of supporters of Mugabe rival Joshua Nkomo as well as their villages. As he told a rally at the time: “The campaign against dissidents can only succeed if the infrastructure that nurtures them is destroyed.” He’s known as the Crocodile, and one local NGO claims that he’s the only person that inspires more terror than Mugabe himself.

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Together, as Mugabe’s right and left hands, they are a classic good cop/bad cop combination (or at the very least bad cop/terrible cop). Mujuru’s faction of the party has a reputation for being relatively moderate, reform even, and willing to go through the motions of respecting the constitution and democratic process. Mnangagwa, meanwhile, is the iron fist with tight control of the security forces and a demonstrated willingness to use intimidation and violence to achieve his ends. Both are implicated in dubious business interests, with Mnangagwa said to be heavily involved in the illicit Marange diamond trade.

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In the run-up to this year’s elections both were vital in mobilizing support for Mugabe, although they stayed true to their roles. According to the Zimbabwe Independent, Mujuru was crucial in organizing the rallies and campaign stops which helped mobilise the vote and give some credence to the result, while Mnangagwa was the point-man with the shady Israeli firm that has been accused of manipulating the voters roll and final results in Mugabe’s favour. (The firm, Nikuv, denies these accusations.)

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The question now is which of them will make a move – and when. For both, it made sense to keep Mugabe at the helm for these elections. The cult of personality he has developed over the last three decades remains a potent force and is still Zanu-PF’s most important electoral weapon. Without Mugabe, it’s doubtful whether the party would have been able to secure the vote, rigging or no rigging. Certainly they would have struggled to attain that magical two-thirds majority in parliament, which gives it effective carte blanche in government. For Mugabe, and whoever succeeds him, this is near-absolute power.

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That one of them will make a move, or that Mugabe will anoint someone seems likely, despite what Mugabe may say about staying the term. It’s not just his age; another clue is the clause in the new constitution that states the ruling party can appoint the president in the event of the sitting president’s death or retirement. This, surely, was included to make sure that Mugabe’s successor in the party is his successor in the Presidency too and Zanu-PF’s vigorous determination to have it included a sign that a change could be imminent.

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But both of Mugabe’s likely successors should be wary of what happens to parties and countries after the departure of the only leader they have ever known, especially when that leader has maintained such a personal grip on power. More often than not the result is collapse, which could be disastrous not only for the presidential ambitions of Mujuru and Mnangagwa but also for the country as a whole. Zimbabwe need only look north to Egypt and Libya for current examples of what happens in the power vacuum created by the sudden departure of a president-for-life.

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Managed poorly, the succession battle could destabilize Zimbabwe more thoroughly than anything the MDC could dream up. Managed well, it could condemn the country to yet another long stretch of Zanu-PF misrule. These are bleak, dangerous times in which the business of government will once again take a backseat to the furthering of personal ambition.