HAS GRACE WON? | Zimbabwe’s long-running succession drama exploded into life on Monday when Robert Mugabe sacked Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was one of the leading candidates to eventually take over from the president.
Mnangagwa’s sudden demotion is likely to pave the way for Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, to assume more political power, perhaps even replacing Mnangagwa as vice-president after next month’s ruling party conference. Senate President Edna Madzongwe has been sworn in as acting vice-president until then.
The 75-year-old Mnangagwa, nicknamed the Crocodile, was a hardliner with close links to Zimbabwe’s security services – and a long-time ally of the president, having worked in Mugabe’s office during the liberation struggle in the 1970s.
Mnangagwa may have been officially fired on Tuesday afternoon, but his fate had been sealed several days earlier. At a rally in Bulawayo, a small group of Mnangagwa’s supporters booed Grace Mugabe, prompting a vicious tongue-lashing from President Mugabe. “I am getting insulted in the name of Mnangagwa daily. Did I make a mistake to appoint Mnangagwa as my deputy? If I made a mistake I can even drop him tomorrow. If he wants to form his party with his supporters, he can go ahead. We can’t have a party riddled with insulting each other daily,” said Mugabe, while a humiliated Mnangagwa
watched on. Fall from Grace
Mnangagwa would not be the first potential successor to fall foul of Mugabe. Former Vice-President Joice Mujuru, at one point a contender for the throne, was unceremoniously dismissed from the vice-presidency by Mugabe in 2014 – and has struggled to remain politically relevant since.
“Emmerson Mnangagwa’s fall from grace has been played out in slow motion over the last few months in another demonstration of internal Zanu-PF theatre that echoes with the purge of his predecessor Joice Mujuru,” said Piers Pigou, southern Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“Whether or not Zanu-PF emerges stronger from this latest imbroglio is questionable, and we are yet to see what the repercussions are for those elements of the party and state associated with the former Vice-President. Survival will be utmost in the minds of many of those individuals,” said Pigou. “We are in uncharted waters.”
Of particular interest will be the reaction of elements within Zimbabwe’s military, police and the ruling party veterans’ association, who have long been portrayed as supportive of Mnangagwa’s succession bid. But this relationship may have been overplayed in the media, suggests Blessing-Miles Tendi, a professor of African politics at the University of Oxford.
“He only enjoyed strong support from a faction of the military, particularly the faction centered around Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Constantine Chiwenge. Many figures within the military bore no allegiance to him whatsoever. And the idea that the war veterans from the 1970s war backed Mnangagwa, this too was myth-making, only a faction of the veterans support him,” said Tendi, arguing that Mnangagwa’s lack of combat experience – he never saw frontline action during the liberation struggle – counted against him with soldiers.
Following Mnangagwa’s demotion, the succession spotlight turns to Grace Mugabe, who must now be considered the frontrunner to succeed her husband. Not only is the Crocodile out of the way, but as of this month she has the official endorsement of the Zanu-PF Women’s League. This was accompanied by calls to ensure that the next vice-president is female, to ensure gender parity.
An extraordinary Zanu-PF congress in December is likely to anoint Grace Mugabe as vice-president of the ruling party, with the national vice-presidency to follow suit. This would mean that the Mugabes are nicely set up for a family monopoly over the Zanu-PF ticket in the next presidential elections, scheduled for mid-2018.
But although Grace Mugabe currently enjoys the upper hand, it doesn’t mean that the succession race is over. Far from it. The president has long built up potential heirs only to later tear them down, and there are no guarantees that his wife would be an exception.
“There’s been talk from people who say potentially it’s Grace who will take over, it’s in the bag now. My response to that is always with Mugabe’s attitude towards women. Mugabe’s handling of female party members and cabinet members has always been sexist, misogynistic.
Time after time, it is clear that he doesn’t relate to women much as capable political leaders. So I don’t think Grace is his preferred successor,” said Tendi.