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‘Mugabe keeps options open’

The twists and turns around President Robert Mugabe’s succession have come at a huge cost to the country’s economy because of its disruptive effects on government business. It’s a subject that has also strained relations in his Zanu PF party, ahead of crucial elections next year.

Defence Minister Sidney Sekeramayi, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and President Robert Mugabe
Defence Minister Sidney Sekeramayi, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and President Robert Mugabe

In this Question and Answer, News Editor, Gift Phiri chats to Piers Pigou, a senior consultant at the International Crisis Group about the convoluted Zanu PF line of succession. Find below excerpts of the interview.

Q: The First Lady Grace Mugabe dropped a bombshell at a Zanu PF women’s league national assembly meeting in Harare recently, calling on her husband — for the first time in as many years — to anoint a successor. What do you read into her moves?

A: This development reflects a distinct shift and sense of urgency in the political calculations of Grace and her inner circle regarding her husband’s ability to play a functional political role and their desire to hold off (Vice President) Emmerson Mnangagwa’s march on State House.

Q: After the First Lady raised concern, as the secretary for women’s affairs, that Zanu PF should revert to its resolutions that one of the vice president’s positions be reserved for women, Mugabe responded by seemingly suggesting tweaking with the constitution to create a third VP slot. Do you get a sense that Mugabe is moving to appoint his wife as one of his deputies?

A: If accurate, and looked at in isolation, it reflects a direct challenge by Mugabe to Mnangagwa. As usual, the language is suggestive rather than definitive, and in theory keeps the president’s options open.

If this option is pursued and Zanu PF amends its constitution, it is of course theoretically possible VP (Phelekezela) Mphoko could be pushed, but this would require putting a Zapu woman in to cover Unity Accord commitments.

In this febrile political environment, a move to promote Grace to VP is certainly possible, but would be construed by many as a deliberately divisive move given the nature of her political posturing.

It would be a highly risky move for Zanu PF, but as we have seen it, Zanu PF is a party that is not adverse to brinkmanship.

Q: By suggesting three VPs, isn’t the president saying in a way he is not willing to dispose of his long time ally Mnangagwa but is willing to accommodate his wife in the apex of government?

A: This is classic Mugabe. Keeping his options open and avoiding laying out definitive preferences. In the past, he had simply created new positions to accommodate interests, even if it directly violates the rules.

This was evident when he stacked his Cabinet in the Global Political Agreement. The rulebook is a moveable feast. Mugabe would have removed Mnangagwa if he felt it was both necessary and most importantly, secure in doing so.

Neither position is clear, although his protection of those hurling provocations at VP Mnangagwa strongly suggests his failure to move against the VP is because of concerns that doing so would ultimately weaken his own position.

He may well have checkmated himself in this process.

Q: At the Chinhoyi youth interface rally, Grace told the crowd that the two vice-presidents and herself serve at the pleasure of Mugabe. What do you read into this?

A: Grace is not a member of the presidium and appears to be trying to, at the very least, elevate herself in the Zanu PF hierarchy.

It is curious she makes no mention of the other key Zanu PF structure, namely the youth league.

Clearly, she is leveraging off her proximity to the president to promote herself as being at the very apex of the party and by extension political power in Zimbabwe.

Q: Grace dressed down presidential spokesperson George Charamba at the Chinhoyi rally, accusing him of capturing the State-controlled Herald newspaper, fighting with ministers, ignoring her charity projects in Mazowe and portraying Team Lacoste in positive light in the listed State newspaper. Isn’t this some conflation of State and party?

A: Zanu PF has successfully enmeshed party and State interests for over 36 years in power. The first lady refers to serving the president.

In her capacity as chair of the women’s league, her responsibilities are in relation to his role as First Secretary, in other words his functions as the head of the party, not the government.

But we repeatedly see this critical distinction is not made. Grace technically has no jurisdiction over the presidential spokesperson, but evidently feels that she does.

Q: Others in the youth league and women’s league have suggested that Mugabe’s wife must succeed him, perhaps to protect the first family’s personal interests and security, a move vehemently opposed by war veterans and the opposition. What’s your view into this suggested dynastic rule of sorts?

A: A move in this direction would be deeply detrimental to Zimbabwe further diminishing is cachet in the region, continent and beyond. Such a move, if seriously considered, would be very damaging to Zanu PF’s longer term prospects and contrary to its revolutionary principles.

Q: Others suggest this is all choreographed to get alleged Generation 40 (G40) candidate Sydney Sekeramayi to succeed Mugabe. Is this feasible, or it’s all part of manoeuvring by Grace to get the top prize?

A: There is some speculation that Sekeramayi’s elevation is part of a longer term plan to facilitate Grace’s political ambition.

This seems an unlikely scenario. Indeed, her leverage will diminish considerably once her husband has left the political scene. It is difficult to see how any political force within Zanu PF will see her as a significant asset once Mugabe is gone.

Much depends on whether the political forces around her feel that a leadership role for the First Lady will translate into a strengthened position for themselves or whether they would see her as a liability.

The question must be asked, what does she bring to the table?

Q: With many expressing exasperation with Mugabe’s feared declining health while Zimbabwe is falling deeper into economic crisis, he is digging in, claiming he is fine. Given his apparent advanced age and increasing frailty, doesn’t this raise the spectre of the president’s natural wastage while in office and the attendant risk of backward slippage towards political disorder and economic collapse?

A: It is highly unusual for someone to retain this high office at such an advanced age. It is clear Mugabe no longer has the strength to provide the kind of leadership required given Zimbabwe’s acute challenges; his frequent dozing off at public events, his struggling gait, slow and mumbling delivery are all signs that do not inspire confidence and strongly suggest his stubborn retention of office reflects an inability to face reality and let go.

Q: Were Mugabe to be incapacitated, resign, removed from office or die, the new Constitution states that until 2023, the vice-president who last acted as president assumes office as president for the next 90 days until the party nominates a replacement for consideration by Parliament. Doesn’t this raise the potential for chaos given that this may see someone from outside the party presidium leapfrogging into State House?

A: It remains unclear exactly how Zanu PF will make its selection as the modalities of the special congress that is tasked with making this decision are not explicitly set out in the party’s constitution.

A selection outside of the presidium is a possibility but will be contingent on dynamics both within and outside party’s structure. It remains to be seen whether Zanu PF will be able to demonstrate a credible internal democratic process.

Q: The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) has waged an ambitious campaign against corruption since assuming power three years ago, in which dozens of senior officials have been arraigned but none jailed, including the powerful High and Tertiary Education minister Jonathan Moyo, whom the first lady exonerated in Chinhoyi claiming he is a victim of factional fights. In your view, is there sufficient political will in Zanu PF to tackle graft? How can corruption be stemmed?

A: The simple answer is no. Zanu PF has an appalling history of addressing corruption and the Zacc and its institutional predecessors have been part of the problem given their selective engagement with a cancer that had become endemic in Zimbabwe. As we have seen, a culture of impunity continues.

A: At the very highest levels of Zanu PF, there is no longer even the pretence of party unity, with rival factions in a zero-sum game. So, what does the future hold for Zanu PF?

A: Zanu PF will survive its current internal divisions. Notwithstanding the theatre of public discord playing out between some senior leaders of the party, fickleness will be the order of the day as the bulk of party functionaries align themselves with the dominant forces once it becomes clearer as to who these elements actually are. Daily News