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Zimbabwe: Mugabe’s Successor and the Future

13 May 2015
David Dorward
Image Credit: Flickr (GovernmentZA) Creative Commons.

As Zimbabwe’s economic crisis remains unresolved, the power struggle over who will succeed President Robert Mugabe is intensifying.

After 35 years in power, Robert Mugabe at 91 is still very much in control of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, despite widespread poverty and unemployment, an economy in turmoil and the once-thriving agricultural sector barely able to feed its own people. The situation has led to the international flight of black professionals, doctors, lawyers, educators and businessman, who once made Zimbabwe the envy of its neighbours, while impoverished peasants seek refuge in South Africa.

The prolonged power struggle within ZANU-PF over who would succeed Mugabe came to a head at the December 2014 party congress. Vice-President Joyce Mujuru was accused of plotting against Mugabe and was expelled from the party, along with the demotion of her supporters within the government, the party’s politburo and provincial party chairmen. Her arch-rival, 68 year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, replaced her as Vice President and heir apparent.

Joyce Mujuru became Vice President in 2004 with the support of the ZANU-PF Women’s League and her husband, Solomon Mujuru, former head of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army during the independence struggle and later head of the Zimbabwean Army. He was a popular figure and one of the few men with the stature to openly defy Mugabe. The promotion of Joyce Mujuru to the role of Vice President effectively sidelined then speaker of parliament and Mugabe favourite, Emmerson Mnangagwa. However, Solomon Mujuru subsequently died in 2011 in mysterious circumstances in a fire at his remote farmhouse while under house arrest.

The president’s wife, Grace Marufu Mugabe, now head of the ZANU-PF Women’s League and a powerful figure within ZANU-PF, saw Joyce Mujuru as a threat to the financial and political interests of the Mugabe clan and their clients, who have grown wealthy through patronage and corruption.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as “ngwena’ or “the crocodile”, is noted for his ruthlessness and lacks wider popular support. His power base is within the state and party security apparatus. He was spymaster in the immediate post-independence era, when the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade carried out massacres of Ndebele supporters of rival ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo. During the “Gukurahundi’ or ‘washing away’, tens of thousands of ZAPU supporters were murdered. Mnangagwa was also head of the Central Intelligence Organization when Zimbabwe intervened in the civil war in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo in return for lucrative mining and timber concessions for President Mugabe and his supporters. He was instrumental in organizing ZANU-PF intimidation during the fraught 2008 presidential campaign, when then rising opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) posed a real threat to Mugabe’s hegemony.

In the violent 2008 election, the MDC-T led by Tsvangirai and a breakaway-faction, MDC-M, led by Arthur Mutambara, won a majority of parliamentary seats but were unable to form an effective coalition against Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. Tsvangirai entered a power-sharing government with Mugabe that ultimately undermined the MDC-T electoral appeal. The MDC-T squabbled over ministerial portfolios. Factions boycotted the 2013 election, while others stood as independents, splitting the constituency votes. The party went down in a crushing defeat in 2013.

The 2013 election swept ZANU-PF back into overwhelming power. Few international observers would support Tsvangirai’s claims of vote rigging. In large measure, the failure of the MDC lay at the feet of Morgan Tsvangirai, who served as a compliant Prime Minister under President Robert Mugabe and failed to deliver any substantial political or economic reforms. On a more positive note, the 2013 election saw the overwhelming endorsement of constitutional reforms, including a five-year presidential term with a two-term limit, albeit not retrospectively. In theory, Mugabe could stand for two more 5-year terms.

While the much-reduced MDC-T remains the second largest party in the Zimbabwe parliament, post-election recriminations have led to further fragmentation. An MDC faction led by Welshman Ncube and the MDC-Renewal Team, led by Sekai Holland, have formed yet another party, the United Movement for Democratic Change, a small but third largest party in the Zimbabwean parliament.

Unfortunately neither ZANU-PF nor the opposition parties have any coherent policies for rectifying the socio-economic plight of Zimbabwe. Decades of asset stripping have left few resources to be plundered. Despite that, there will be no popular uprising. Ordinary people have been cowed into submission or fled.

Robert Mugabe has once again demonstrated his skill in managing discord with ZANU-PF. Mnangagwa is a Mugabe loyalist, with the backing of the security services. He has a long history of corruption, exploitation and involvement in shady deals with foreign companies and governments. While a ruthless politician, he is unlikely to threaten the cronyism, kleptocracy and rent-seeker economy of the ZANU-PF elite. However as the moribund economy continues to shrink, Mnangagwa will need to find new resources to sustain his own patronage network. Following the political demise of Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa might be tempted to augment his war chest by turning on First Lady Grace Mugabe, a feared but unloved potential rival, and her less popular but wealthy relatives. It would be a savage and bloody coup, with no quarter given.

Sadly, international efforts to bring political and economic reform to Zimbabwe have failed. Mugabe remains a liberation hero to many disaffected black youth in Southern Africa. Jacob Zuma’s ANC government in South Africa, which is one of the few capable of putting pressure on ZANU-PF, is enmeshed in its own political intrigues and corruption scandals. The other key player is China, Mugabe’s principal international supporter, but it is unlikely to expend much effort to bring about democratic and economic reform in ZANU-PF Zimbabwe.

Dr David Dorward is an honorary research associate at La Trobe University and the former director of La Trobe’s African Research Institute. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.