Mnangagwa, 63, is a sly politician who has long been touted by the media and his political allies as frontrunner to replace Mugabe as first secretary of ZANU PF, but his star has dimmed since 2004 when he was accused of plotting against his boss.
Last week, eight provinces nominated as ZANU PF second secretary, Joice Mujuru, the wife of Mnangagwa’s sworn political nemesis retired General Solomon Mujuru, dashing his political camp’s manoeuvres to wrestle control of a post that would have paved the way for him to takeover from Mugabe.
Mnangagwa’s plan was to rally six provinces, including his Midlands province, to nominate party administration secretary Didymus Mutasa as ZANU PF national chairman, succeeding John Nkomo who, together with women’s league chairwoman Oppah Muchinguri were to be nominated as second secretaries.
Assault at the presidency
If the plan had succeeded, it would have paved the way for Mnangagwa to become secretary for administration in preparation for the assault at the presidency while three of the top four party posts would have been held by his allies.
But as happened in 2004, on the eve of another congress, the plan seemed to have disintegrated right in his face, leaving the man known as “Ngwena” (Shona for crocodile) in party circles, seriously wounded after most provinces nominated Joice.
Joice is second in line to succeed Mugabe while Mnangagwa as secretary for legal affairs is fifth in line.
“This is a battle he has lost, but this is not the end of Ngwena,” Takura Zhangazha, an independent political commentator said.
Mnangagwa is credited with rescuing Mugabe last year after the veteran leader was defeated in a presidential election by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
The Defence Minister mobilised the Joint Operations Command, a cabal of hardline security chiefs loyal to Mugabe, to unleash a terror campaign against Movement for Democratic Change supporters.
Mugabe returned to power after a sham run-off boycotted by Tsvangirai and even condemned by the 85-year-old’s African allies.
Mnangagwa was rewarded with the Ministry of Defence portfolio but he has since then struggled to consolidate the gains, culminating in the latest embarrassing attempt to secure political power in ZANU PF.
Sources loyal to Solomon Mujuru said despite his position, Mnangagwa did not wield any power in the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, adding that Army Commander Phillip Sibanda and Air Force chief Perence Shiri had control of the forces.
Shiri and Sibanda are believed to back Solomon Mujuru, and last year secretly backed Simba Makoni for president. Makoni is a prodigy of Solomon Mujuru, who has sworn in private that Mnangagwa would never rule Zimbabwe.
“He is just a figurehead. The reins of power lie with the commanders, that is the hard truth and Mnangagwa knows that,” a source close to the Mujuru camp said. “So it is self-evident where the loyalty of the commanders lies when the crunch time comes.”
Mnangagwa’s critics say the former security minister, credited with moulding the country’s Central Intelligence Organisation into a ruthless and violent outfit, does not have an appeal to voters and would be no match against Tsvangirai.
But despite the setbacks analysts said Mnangagwa enjoyed support from Mugabe, the man single-handedly capable of unifying the fractious ZANU PF, and could still use skills attained when building the intelligence unit to crush opponents.
“The reality is that Mnangagwa is not finished yet as when the chips are down Mugabe uses Mnangagwa for his actions as he can be brutal to opponents. He has a long history of that,” Takavira Zhou, a political scientist at Masvingo University said.
Zhangazha added: “He might not be popular to take over the country, but he may have time on his side to compete and you can’t ignore and sideline him.”
A ZANU PF insider said there were plans by a clique loyal to Mines Minister Obert Mpofu, whose bid to succeed Joseph Msika crumbled last week, to chant Muchinguri’s name when Joice Mujuru’s name is formally nominated at the December congress.
This would be meant to give an impression that Joice Mujuru’s nomination was manipulated although that could further alienate Mnangagwa’s camp and may not go down well with Mugabe who is fighting to restore discipline in the former liberation movement.
Political commentators said it maybe too early to write Mnangagwa’s political epitaph as he is patient and calculating – a demeanour cultivated during the early years of independence as Minister of State Security – waiting for foes to make the slightest of slips and pounce in typical crocodile fashion.
“He is a gentleman who is just bidding his time, but will bounce back despite that his back is against the wall,” said Bornwell Chakaodza, a political columnist in a Zimbabwean weekly newspaper. – ZimOnline