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Politically Ambitious First Lady, Expelled Mujuru Complicating Mugabe Succession

President Robert Mugabe with his two deputies, Phelekezela Mphoko (L) and Emmerson Mnangagwa (R). Collage by Ntungamili Nkomo
President Robert Mugabe with his two deputies, Phelekezela Mphoko (L) and Emmerson Mnangagwa (R). Collage by Ntungamili Nkomo

Factionalism continues to ravage President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF party following its controversial elective congress last year, which saw the ouster and expulsion of his long-time right-hand person, Joice Mujuru, and several other top officials, who were accused of trying to unseat the veteran politician.

The party has been unstable since then with indications that all is not well in the former liberation movement, which has to juggle with a lot of stakeholders, including high-demanding former freedom fighters, a politically ambitious first lady, the electorate and a group of young Turks in the party calling itself the Generation 40 or G40.

And the question is, with Mr. Mugabe, at 91, what will happen if he left office suddenly? Section 101 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution clearly stipulates that if the country’s president dies or is removed from office, the first vice president assumes the presidency until the expiry of the former president’s term of office.

The second vice president of the ruling party is then elevated to the vacant vice presidential post and the new president appoints his second assistant.

This transition is full of political booby traps and constitutional complications in the ruling party, which arose in the run-up to its 6th Congress last year when the president was given powers to appoint members of the presidium, comprising the president, his two assistants and chairperson.

Right now the party does not have a chairperson and this is for the first time since independence.

This lack of clarity does not worry some party members like Nick Mangwana, a provincial Zanu PF leader in the United Kingdom.

Mangwana says anyone, who is above the age of 40 as stipulated in Zimbabwe’s Constitution, is eligible for election as long as they are members of the ruling party.

"Zanu-PF, the likelihood is we'll have an Extraordinary Congress to change the party leader who then will be the president," said Mangwana.

But observers say the succession battle is more complicated than this simple transition being portrayed by Mangwana and his colleagues as factionalism has ravaged the party, with some backing Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and others looking elsewhere for Mr. Mugabe’s successor, including his wife, Grace.

Political analyst Professor Shadreck Guto of the University of South Africa believes that Mr. Mugabe has eliminated all potential successors to the extent of keeping everyone guessing about the hot presidential succession issue.

"Mugabe has overstayed, he has eliminated all possible successors, or sidelined them," said Guto.

Professor Guto adds that this is leading to the demise of the party, as has happened in other countries where a leader has ruled for an extended time..

He concluded, "Zanu-PF is going to suffer greatly in the next election, partly because the party has been personalized. And if the person who has been ruling with an iron hand goes, as happened in places like Malawi, and other places, parties do collapse."

Andrew Weir, deputy editor of Africa Confidential, a London-based publication, says indications are that anyone can be the next president as the party is too secretive to understand at times.

"When you've got a factional struggle going on within a political party which is secretative, at the best of times, you can't 100% predict the outcome."

This is the first time after independence that Zanu PF has been ravaged by such intense factionalism, which may lead to the formation of a new group likely to be led by former Vice President Mujuru. According to Weir, she still has a lot to do with the current factionalism and can outpace Mnangagwa to even land the presidential post.

"These two have been sort of shadow-boxing for quite a while now, and even though she is no longer in power, even though she no longer has the position in the state, she's still got quite a strong following," Weir said.

Most observers, including Professor Guto, dismiss as far-fetched speculation that Mrs. Mugabe will succeed her husband.

WARRING: First Lady Grace Mugabe and Vice President Joyce Mujuru (Collage by Ntungamili Nkomo)
WARRING: First Lady Grace Mugabe and Vice President Joyce Mujuru (Collage by Ntungamili Nkomo)

He says the first lady does not have the political stamina to run Zanu PF and the nation.

"I don't think that Grace Mugabe will just move into that position at this point," he said, citing the party and the country's supreme law.

"There is no provision in either Zanu-PF constititution or the constitution of the country to permit that," Guto said.

Wier agrees, noting that Mrs. Mugabe was just “inserted into the party leadership” by the Zanu PF elite.

"Her exposure to public view has shown that she isn't really a politician born and bred. She doesn't really have the skills of a populist politician."

He says this is Mr. Mugabe’s way of controlling the party.

"He's always been able to keep anyone who is in the number two position unsteady, and not to take anything for granted as regards taking up the number one position."

But Mangwana is of the view that Mrs. Mugabe can land the position as long as she has the support of the party.

"If she has the support of the party, she can be our next president," Mangwana said.

However, a group of people above the age of 40, who are also eligible presidential material, are likely to scuttle such attempts and even diminish Mnangagwa and other ambitious politicians’ plans of becoming Zimbabwe’s second black president after independence from British rule in 1980.