In what has become an annual event in bad political judgment, Zimbabwe’s longtime leader President Robert Mugabe celebrated his birthday this weekend with a lavish party, even as millions of his citizens continue to suffer his economic legacy.
This time though it was impossible to ignore the political drama that has seized the country in recent months. At 92, it’s clear that Mugabe’s time as president is limited even as no one knows exactly when it will end. There is no indication that he will step down even as his advanced age starts to show more readily.
That has left his ZANU-PF party to work out succession itself, which might just tear the party – and country – apart.
Even though elections are not scheduled in Zimbabwe until 2018, the jockeying for the potential to succeed Mugabe started shortly after the flawed 2013 elections. Internal strife within ZANU-PF saw Joice Mujuru, a government minister since independence in 1980 and long believed to be a natural successor to Mugabe, lose her position as vice president and ultimately kicked out of the party in 2014. That followed bizarre allegations that Mujuru engaged Nigerian witchdoctors in a bid to kill Mugabe and take power for herself.
But ridding the party of Mujuru wasn’t enough to quell the party infighting. Instead, the promotion of Mugabe hardliner Emmerson Mnangagwa to the position of vice president has further split the party as some rally behind Mnangagwa and others rally behind Mugabe’s wife Grace, the two new leaders of the succession battle.
Mnangagwa, popularly known as “The Crocodile” due to his affiliation with the ZANU Crocodile Group during the Rhodesian bush war, was seen as the new natural successor to Mugabe after several cabinet reshuffles saw his allies promoted and others kicked out. That was until Grace Mugabe started her charge to the Zimbabwe political scene. Barely a political player until 2014, her growing rallies and attacks of potential opponents now appear to be an attempt at a Mugabe dynasty.
Now ZANU-PF appears divided between two camps: the so-called Young Turks of Generation 40 (G40) aligned with Grace and “Team Lacoste” aligned with Mnangagwa. The infighting has become so disruptive that Mugabe delivered a rare televised speech last week to address it. Promoted as a State of the Union Address, in reality it served as a public chiding of his own ZANU-PF party.
As Alex T. Magaisa points out, while the address underscores the crisis that is engulfing the only political party to have ruled Zimbabwe since independence, it also highlights the home field advantage Grace has in pursuing her political ambitions. Despite the abusive language used by Grace against her opponents over the last two years, Mugabe refrained from criticizing her directly in his address. Instead, spoke out against tribalism and banned party members from discussing internal party politics on social media. These moves are unlikely to stop the feuding, which is bound to get worse as Mugabe’s health continues to fail and the 2018 elections move closer.
Already the stakes are being raised as veterans from Zimbabwe’s liberation war get involved. A powerful interest group in Zimbabwe, several members of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) were met with police violence last month after gathering to show support for Mnangagwa. At the same time, War Veterans Minister Christopher Mutsvangwa was ousted as chairman of the ZNLWVA by other members for being seen as aligning with Mnangagwa and not supportive enough of Grace Mugabe in the succession struggle.
The split among war vets is indicative of how deep the succession in-fighting is within ZANU-PF but it also points to divisions within the military and security forces on who should replace Mugabe. In fact, Mugabe himself hintedthat the military was being sucked into the infighting at the annual ZANU-PF party conference in December. While he posed it as a problem for the unity of the party, in reality it is a major problem for the entire country.
Since the disastrous 2008 election that saw post-election violence enveloped much of the country in the face of the strongest challenge Mugabe had seen at the ballot box, it has been obvious that the transfer of power once Mugabe leaves office is unlikely to go smoothly. The ZANU-PF infighting demonstrates this clearly, but also highlights how bad things could get. With clear camps emerging in the political, security and business sectors and no one willing to compromise, one has to question how much deeper the divisions can go before conflict becomes almost inevitable.
After more than three decades in power and with no established plan for his departure, Mugabe has put Zimbabwe on a dark path and one that the embattled country still recovering from near-economic collapse does not need. Yet oddly enough, despite all the antics exchanged among the various camps in the succession fight, the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans rarely comes up. Instead, they too are relegated to the sidelines to watch, waiting to see what will happen next.