President Mugabe to retire?

HARARE – President Robert Mugabe, leader of Zimbabwe for more than three decades, is reportedly mulling stepping down as Zanu PF’s presidential candidate if the liberation party fails to get SADC consensus on plans for an early election; authoritative party sources said yesterday.

Mugabe, who has been in worsening health since late last year, has already hinted his intention to end his long domination, and celebrated his 87th birthday in February saying that even if his body “may get spent” he still has the political ideas of a young man.

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Zanu PF Politburo, Central Committee and Consultative Assembly sources all confirmed separately yesterday that Zimbabweans could wake up “quite soon” to find that the era that began after the fall of the supremacist Ian Smith regime was over.

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The mounting speculation comes just days before all regional leaders of the SADC bloc are due to meet in Namibia next week to discuss an election roadmap that is expected to pave the way for fresh, free and fair elections in Zimbabwe.

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“It all depends on the SADC summit, really, and the election timetable that will emerge from Namibia,” said a Politburo source. “Obviously if our plan for early elections is not successful, then we will have to look at Plan B. If we are going to have elections in 2013, that means mukuru will be 89 and we will have to see if he still wants to stand. But I will tell you, he is the best candidate we have right now and we hope he will still be around to defeat that pseudo democrat, Morgan.”

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Another Central Committee source, who like the Politburo member declined to be named, said: “There is no succession as long as vaMugabe is alive. What we are witnessing here is just speculation. VaMugabe is still in power so the issue does not arise.”

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Another Politburo source, a staunch Mujuru faction loyalist, said the President has hinted he was “tired” but alleged that “sycophants” in the Mnangagwa faction have appealed that the party cannot afford to allow him to take a rest right now “when the ship is in stormy waters.”

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Efforts to verify this with Zanu PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo were futile last night. But Zanu PF’s chief negotiator at the Zimbabwe dialogue Patrick Chinamasa declined to comment whether the President was mulling retirement if the election timetable is deferred to 2013.

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“I don’t comment on speculation,” Chinamasa said. The Politburo member said: “Of course he has spoken about retirement, but he has emphasized that he is only prepared to rest if he is bequeathing the country to the right people. He will never leave power in the hands of counter-revolutionaries and puppets.”

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Frail and tired due to advanced age, President Mugabe has been the sole source of Zimbabwe’s political power between 1980 and now. Mugabe has led the nation with absolute authority since taking over 31 years ago. Speculation has been brewing about succession since late last year when the veteran President began shuttling between Harare and Singapore reportedly over a cancer ailment.

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There are concerns that his sudden death without a leadership plan in place could spark chaos in the party. Zanu PF Politburo member Prof Jonathan Moyo has already hinted that if elections cannot happen this year, it will have to be in 2016, what is being interpreted as a time the party would have sorted out its succession conundrum. The Politburo source said while President Mugabe could withdraw as the party’s presidential candidate, but remain politically influential as first secretary of the ruling party and as Zimbabwe’s elder statesman.

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The search for the next leader will begin after the SADC summit, which is widely expected to throw out calls for an early election Zanu PF wants this year. Lindiwe Zulu, President Jacob Zuma’s Foreign Affairs advisor has already brushed aside Zanu PF’s posturing on an early election saying “we will not concern ourselves with what is said outside the negotiating process.”

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Zulu has said elections are out this year. The SADC summit slotted for Windhoek, the Namibian capital is expected to secure promises from Zimbabwe’s three principals that elections will only happen after the completion of the roadmap and only after political violence ceases.

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But political analysts say President Mugabe can still invoke sovereignty mantras and reject SADC’s dictation, forging ahead with a snap election he insists must happen this year. Derek Matyszak, senior researcher with the Research and Advocacy Unit have said the sovereignty principle poses a serious threat to Zimbabwe’s political transition.

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“This will always be the trump card in the Zanu PF propaganda pack: sovereignty,” said Matyszak in May 11 report titled ‘Land reform, sanctions, regime change, and sovereignty’.

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“Whenever any of the other cards played fails, Zanu PF plays this one and it was played again in the aftermath of the SADC Troika meeting in Livingstone.”

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In the aftermath of the SADC Troika summit in Zambia where Mugabe was advised by Zambia’s Rupiah Banda to closely watch events in North Africa where people power has toppled authoritarian regimes, an angry President Mugabe warned SADC’s point man in the Zimbabwe dialogue Zuma against attempts to prescribe a solution to Zimbabwe’s problems, and said neither the regional bloc nor the AU could dictate solutions to Harare. Zuma, who is the SADC’s mediator between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has insisted that there will be no election this year until the roadmap is completed But Mugabe told his Central Committee last month: “The MDC thinks SADC or the AU can prescribe to us how we run our things. We will not brook any dictation from any source. We are a sovereign country, even our neighbours cannot dictate to us. We will resist that.” Matyszak said Mugabe and his party were invoking sovereignty mantras for political expediency.

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“Thus, we wait, in the aftermath of Livingstone, to see whether SADC will ratify the Troika decision, be able to send in a monitoring team, and whether this team will be able to act with full independence,” said Matyszak. “Given Zanu PF’s general aversion to being held to agreements, we will be amazed if SADC manages to overcome the sovereignty principle.

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However, if political parties, civics, labour, churches, and the like, support strongly the Troika decision, then perhaps for the first time Zanu PF will have to accept that it is a member of the international community and obliged to adhere to common standards, including accepting a loss at the polls. And there is no more certain result, in a genuine election, than Zanu PF will have to accept loss, and a loss that has been avoided since 2000.”

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Matyszak warns that Mugabe’s plan for an early elections risk sparking a coup similar to what happened in Ivory Coast after the defeat of Laurent Gbagbo. If SADC manages to move Mugabe’s hand on his plan for an early election, that could be a game changer, which could lead to the veteran leader withdrawing from the presidential race.

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Mugabe’s departure from the presidential race could allow younger members of the ruling elite to ascend to stronger positions. Mugabe has strongly hinted at a need for a generational change. Possible eventual successors are the vice-president, Joice Mujuru, the Defence minister Emerson Mnangagwa, and another faction of the so-called Young Turks.

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A Zanu PF Consultative Assembly source, who is a member of the Mujuru faction, said the President’s ill health was denying him the physical ability to fully commit to the job of running the country. For ordinary Zimbabweans the prospect of Mugabe stepping down as the presidential candidate is likely to be unsettling. Almost two-thirds of Zimbabweans were born after the revolution and have known no other leader.

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Mugabe’s legacy is a mixed one. His revolution swept to power deposing the ruthless British-backed apartheid dictatorship of Ian Smith. He used his power to bring sweeping social changes and instituted widely admired healthcare and education systems in the early years of his rule. But he never brought back democracy; and economic mismanagement, coupled with sanctions, has left Zimbabwe desperately poor.

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The last decade has also saw the disappearance of Western sponsors and since then Zimbabwe has relied heavily on tourism and mineral revenues and the hard currency sent back by its exiles. Yet predictions of the rapid end of Mugabe’s hold on the southern African country are likely to be premature.