The Decline of Mugabe and the Political Surge in Zimbabwe: What is to be, or not to be in the post-Mugabe era?

Robert Mugabe with military soldiers in Zimbabwe. Photo: a-birdie

After years of authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe, it looks as though the tide is set to change. Political tension in Zimbabwe was demonstrated in a recent ten-hour long meeting of the country’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF). Several party members were either suspended or expelled without being given a chance to argue their case, and Minister of Higher Education Jonathan Moyo, presidential spokesperson George Charamba and War Veterans minister Chris Mutsvangwa hurled invectives at each other in public. As more reports highlight President Robert Mugabe’s ill health, refusal to relinquish power and erratic behavior, the question of who will succeed him is intensifying.

If recent actions and reports are believed, Mugabe’s last days may be numbered. In September last year, he dealt with heckling in parliament after repeating a previous speech and reports of illness and a potential heart attack spread over social media whilst he was in Singapore earlier this year. Subsequent political infighting within Mugabe’s party have commanded attention and complicated future predictions as two major rival factions jostle for power.

One faction is known as Team Lacoste in reference to Emmerson Mnangagwa’s nickname, the crocodile. Mnangagwa was appointed vice president in 2014 after the sacking of Joice Mujuru, and between 2009 and 2013 he served as Minister of Defense and head of the Central Intelligence Organization. He has since cemented his position by ensuring important cabinet posts are filled by his allies and securing the responsibilities of reforming the economy and the legal system, two particularly important areas of concern.

In 2000, Mugabe organized a referendum on a new Zimbabwean constitution, expanding the powers of the presidency, allowing the government to seize white-owned land. Widespread violence occurred and many Zimbabwean whites fled the country before commercial farming collapsed. One of Africa’s most promising economies fell into nearly a decade of deep recession until 2008 and Zimbabwe’s output was cut almost in half. The devastated agriculture, lack of electricity for up to 20 hours a day, large scale corruption, fiscal mismanagement and continued sanctions has led to a stagnant economy with an unemployment rate estimated at around 85%.

In February, Mugabe also declared a ‘state of disaster’ as a continuing drought severely affects Zimbabwe. With the prediction that up to a quarter of the country may lack food in the upcoming months, many citizens are fleeing into neighboring countries. In the same month, Mugabe received criticism for his exuberant 92nd birthday celebrations which took place in the drought-stricken area of Masvingo, where 75% of stable maize crop failed. It cost up to $800,000 and was complete with an accompanying 200 pound birthday cake and the slaughter of up to 50 cattle.

If Mnangagwa was successful in tackling Mugabe’s failures voiced both domestically and internationally, he may have an advantage in being successor. Mnangagwa has previously been accused of being one of the chief architects of the Gukurahundi massacres, with estimates that around 20,000 opposition supporters were killed in the 1980s. Still, Mugabe receives great support and significant legitimacy from the military, whose political support is a clear advantage.

Despite statements that she has no political motivations to be successor, the other faction, known as Generation 40 (G40) is focused around First Lady Grace Mugabe. The Party’s women’s wing, the young government ministers, Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo and the national commissar Saviour Kasukuwere are key members of the G40. Last month, comments at a rally made by Grace were reminiscent of those that led to the fall of Joice Mujuru and highlighted her distrust of current leaders. “They go around saying Mrs. Mugabe wants to lead, I am already in charge,” she said. “Those that we thought could succeed [Robert Mugabe], we no longer have any confidence in them.” Many in the party have raised concerns about the influence that Grace may wield over the president.

Mugabe is a respected ‘freedom fighter’ because of his involvement in the Lancaster House agreement, and the consequential independence from Britain in 1980. This has the potential to become Grace’s battle cry, through her close relationship with Mugabe.

Wider opposition and broader challenges to ZANU-PF rule in Zimbabwe are limited. In 2008, after an election involving ZANU-PF-sponsored violence, Mugabe was pressured by his regional allies to form an inclusive government with Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai as vice president. It could have been a step in the right direction, had MDC legislators not been subject to arrest, imprisonment and torture.

The once strong Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is now a shadow of its former self, wracked by infighting and damaged by a political playing field that is heavily slanted in favor of Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF. Those that seek to criticize the party also do not go unnoticed. Deaths arising in suspicious circumstances are common, including that of Edward Chindori-Chininga in 2013, a former ZANU-PF chairman of the mines committee who was killed in a car crash on a distant country road.

However, one challenger for succession has emerged in former Vice President Joice Mujuru and the official launch of her new political party, Zimbabwe People First, on March 1, 2016. Reports suggest that Mujuru and loyalists secretly built structures and mobilized supporters before launching her party. Importantly, Mujuru’s political experience means that she has gained support from key provinces and younger people, especially those active on social media.

Herbert Moyo also highlights that support for Morgan Tsvangirai is strong in urban areas, and a Tsvangirai coalition with Mujuru could potentially defeat President Mugabe and ZANU-PF in 2018. A senior intelligence officer indicated that in the next 24 months, before elections in 2018, Mujuru could ‘build a party that could erode ZANU-PF’s rural support base and divide the ruling party’s traditional stronghold.’ This will coincide with the support for Mujuru from those within state party institutions, youth on social media and in political grassroots movements.

ZANU-PF’s ongoing dominance may provide order, but it continuously fails to provide key services for the Zimbabwean people. Its focus on political tension has taken attention away from the country’s grave problems and the challenges of political succession. If Joice Mujuru is able to capitalize on the wave of discontent and mobilize widespread support, there is a very real possibility that she could challenge both main factions within the ZANU-PF for power. This could result in a new era of post-Mugabe Africa.

Featured image source: The Guardian