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Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye: From Harare to Blantyre: The secret elite pacts of VPs who must now take over the Presidency

Zimbabwe and Malawi have always had close ties. The railway line that ran from Harare to Blantyre in the years when Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi were part of what was then called the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland is evidence of close-knit ties between the peoples of the two countries.

There is even a narrative in the corridors that the former Zimbabwe President had his roots in Malawi while the same rumour-mill locates the origins of the current one in Mumbwa, Zambia. But that is a story for another day. The point is that there has always been a close relationship in both the politics and the people of Malawi and Zimbabwe.

This week, we focus on the commonality and similarity between the unravelling political developments in Zimbabwe and Malawi; the gipping story of betrayal, of purported agreements that have now been flouted between the Presidents and Vice Presidents that the former will allow the latter to take over the Presidency after running their single terms.

The running common story in both countries is that there was an agreement that the two respective deputies will take over the reins after their bosses had served their terms. But as their single terms run out, both Zimbabwe President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa and his Malawian counterpart Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera are reportedly digging in, in the process shutting out their deputies Retired General Constantino Chiwenga and Saulos Klaus Chilima from enjoying their hour in the sun.

The cracks in the Presidency have triggered a high political noon in both counties as there is palpable elite rupture.

As a political scientist, my scholarly mind is convinced that it will not end well in both countries. Hazvipere mushe izvi.

The gentlemen’s agreements—the background

In Malawi, following the 3 February 2020 landmark court judgement that nullified the outcome of the 19 May 2019 presidential election results, Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and Chilima’s United Transformation Movement (UTM), together with seven other parties, came together under the Tonse Alliance which ousted Peter Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party from power. Chakwera became President and Chilima became the Vice President in the new government.

But Chakwera recently withheld the delegted duties to Chilima, who with 50 other government officials is being investigated for corruption by the country’s Anti-Corruption Bureau. On his part, Chilima alleges the charges are trumped up, ostensibly as a ploy to make sure he does not take over as the Presidential candidate in the 2025 election as previously agreed.

Some three weeks ago, on 1 July 2022, Chilima, in the wake of the corruption charges against him, dropped a bombshell and alleged Chakwera was now going back on an earlier agreement that he should take over as Presidential candidate at the next election.

Chilima told the media that they had agreed that subject to the decision of the national executive committees or conventions, as the case may be, of the UTM and the MCP, the presidential candidate during the presidential election of 23 June 2020 shall not be the presidential candidate during the immediate next election and shall cede the candidacy to the running mate, in this case Chilima. He added that he and Chakwera had agreed to support one another to lead for one term.

Chilima further charged: “There is no wisdom in name-calling, abuse, arrogance, humiliation or indeed violence for something that came into being amid smiles and a sense of hope for many generations. Any departure from that agreement amounts to fraud.”

In Harare, the regime first came into office through the coup of November 2017. It was a civil-military alliance with the military face being the then military general Constantine Chiwenga, now Vice President while the civilian front-man was Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa, now the President.

The script that started as mere hushed tones was that the two had a gentleman’s agreement that Mnangagwa would not seek a second term in 2023 and would allow the coup-leader Chiwenga to run and take over as President.

News of the existence of an elite gentlemen’s pact began as a rumour but gathered real traction last week when former Zanu PF youth leader Jim Kunaka, now under the moniker Zanu PF Original, held a press conference and urged Mnangagwa to honour the agreement by not seeking re-election in 2023.

“If they agreed with General Chiwenga that he would give him five years to rule, what prompted him to change? There is no need to go to Congress. He (ED) must honour what he agreed with Chiwenga that he would rule for a single term,” Kunaka said.

The skeletons had now tumbled out. News of the existence of an agreement being talked about openly at a press conference, against a backdrop of spangled Zanu PF insignia and colours, was indeed greet news.

What had begun as cheap corridor talk had now become official, with faces and real people confirming in the public domain to the existence of an elite succession agreement. What has added further intrigue is the imminent Zanu PF elective Congress that will officially pronounce the party’s 2023 Presidential candidate. Will it be ED or the General?

Questions.

And more intrigue.

Shrill denials

As with all secret pacts or robbers’ agreements, it appears there is no proper record or incontrovertible evidence of the existence of any pact. Given that there is nothing in black and white about the so-called pacts, there have been shrill denials by the incumbents in both Harare and Blantyre.

In Harare, Tafadzwa Mugwadi, the Zanu PF’s director of Information and Publicity went ballistic and dismissed the existence of such an agreement, insisting it was all a ploy to seek the unconstitutional removal of Mnangagwa from office.

He ranted against former Zanu PF youth leaders Jim Kunaka and Godfrey Tsenengamu, who had intimated on the existence of an agreement between Chiwenga and Mnangagwa. Mugwadi charged that the two were “playing with fire.”

Said Mugwadi: “While it is to be expected that individuals can be excited, playing with fire is beyond one’s limits. It is one thing to criticize Cde ED Mnangagwa as Zanu PF President and First secretary but a different thing altogether to seek his unconstitutional removal from office. To attempt the latter, expressly or impliedly, will be tantamount to asking for tragic consequences.”

Mugwadi has not been alone in his shrill denial of fissures in the cockpit. Presidential spokesperson George Charamba too has denied any rift between Mnangagwa and his deputy.

Curiously, Mnangagwa himself has waded in to stoke the blazing fire. In what appears more a message to Chiwenga than a denial of the existence of any pact, Mnangagwa was clear on Wednesday that he is going nowhere. At a ground-breaking ceremony of the Cyber City development in Mt Hampden, which project would definitely be still in its infancy by the time the 2023 elections are held, Mnangagwa said would see the infrastructure development project to completion.

It was obviously a message to Chiwenga that he will be the Presidential candidate next year. In Malawi the Chakwera regime has equally scoffed at the existence of an agreement between the incumbent and his deputy.

Six hours after Chilima addressed the press on the existence of the gentlemen’s pact, MCP spokesperson Maurice Munthali said: “From where we stand, the MCP does not have in its possession any document that stipulates or points to the sharing of terms between Dr Chakwera and Dr Chilima.”

Presidential spokesperson Anthony Kasunda has also stridently refused to give a comment on the matter. So from Blantyre to Harare, there have been shrill denials of the existence of any succession pact.

Elite rupture and the possibility of a transition.

Both in Malawi and Zimbabwe, what is happening is glaring evidence of elite rupture. There are cracks at the apex. Political regimes operate on the basis of elite cohesion, elite consensus or unity among the leadership. But whether it be the Tonse Alliance in Malawi or the civil-military coalition in Zimbabwe, there is glaring rupture in the cockpits of both nation States.

While elite ruptures do not necessarily lead to political transitions, the possibility of these ruptures yielding new political moments cannot be entirely ruled out. Regime divisions or regime ruptures are often, but not usually, a harbinger of regime break-down and a transition to a new political order.

Amongst the pioneer students of political transitions are Guillermo O’Donnel and Phillipe C. Schmitter who define a transition simply as “the interval between one regime and another.” And one fundamental fact about transitions is that they are marked by uncertainty and flux especially in relation to the rules of the game.

Currently, Zimbabwe exhibits this fluidity in rules and procedures governing the dirty game particularly in the wake of the alleged tiff between Mnangagwa and his deputy. The macabre context of a high number of military generals who have died successively in highly suspicious circumstances is instructive in this regard.

Jim kunaka—A tortoise on a lamp-post

My late colleague Alex Tawanda Magaisa—may his dear soul rest in peace— once wrote about a tortoise on a lamp post. His point was that if you see a tortoise on a lamp post, you must know that it did not get there on its own accord because it is incapable of doing so.

The sight of a tortoise on a lamp-post means someone put it there. Similarly, given Mnangagwa’s blood-soaked credentials, Jim Kunaka, on his own, cannot just wake up and have the guts to hold a press conference with a Zanu PF back-drop to tell ED to pave way for Chiwenga. Kunaka is certainly not his own man and he has powerful political figures behind him.

Don’t be fooled by Chiwenga’s recent public statement to the effect that ED will be Zanu PF’s presidential candidate in 2023. Kunaka and Tsenengamu’s statements are banking on the weight of the big political figures behind them, most likely Chiwenga himself.

If one considers Syberth Musengezi, yet another Zanu PF cadre that has taken Mnangagwa to court for assuming office unprocedurally, one gets the impression there are just too many tortoises on this one lamp-post. And they all did not get up there on their own.

It is certain there is trouble in paradise.

Conclusion—Ngaapinde Hake Mukomana

It will most certainly not end well both in Blantyre and in Harare. And Harare has often copied what happens in Malawi. They got independent in 1964 and we followed suit in 1980. Then there was a huge tumult caused by the gigantic wave of regime change in SADC that began in Malawi in 2020. Zambia followed suit and it is certainly going to be Zimbabwe’s turn next year.

Meanwhile, as the cracks widen in Harare and Blantyre, the deafening national chorus continues to sonorously ring in the countryside: Ngaapinde Hake Mukomana . Ngaanjile Mulombe . Kangene Ujaha .

Luke Tamborinyoka, a citizen from Domboshava is a journalist by profession as well as an ardent political scientist who won the Book Prize for best student when he graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Political Science at the University of Zimbabwe. You can interact with him on his Facebook page or via his twitter handle @luke_tambo.

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