Who would have thought that this year would end with Robert Mugabe having lost the presidency of both the governing Zanu-PF and Zimbabwe? None could have foreseen such a development being the work of his ruling party’s inner circle.
The whole development is clearly a product of internal Zanu-PF tensions and actions. The military top brass involved are old standing Zanu-PF cadres that have propped Mugabe up for decades. Emerson Mnangagwa, who has been sworn in as his successor, has been Mugabe’s right hand man for 37 years.
Zimbabweans have every right to celebrate the end of Mugabe’s long and disastrous reign, but they would be wrong to assume that this is the end of their political problems. The same Zanu-PF leadership has taken control of this transition, making it an intra-party matter rather than a national opportunity for deepening democracy as many hope.
Mnangagwa’s first priority will be to ensure consolidation of Zanu-PF power. He may do so by positioning Zanu-PF as a born again party committed to change. He may seize the opportunity to introduce real changes in the conduct of Zanu-PF and government leadership, in economic policies and in rebuilding the social compact by showing greater maturity in relations with other political parties and civil society.
But, as reports surface about the harassment of some of Mugabe appointed ministers and their families at the hands of men in uniform, we are reminded that the military should never be encouraged to manage political problems because they are likely to cross the line of civil-military relations. Excessive use of military power is likely to follow.
Mugabe the survivor
Mugabe has survived many attempts to get rid of him before. These include the efforts of the previous opposition Zimbabwean African People’s Union (Zapu) under Joshua Nkomo in the 1980s, through to the Zimbabwe Unity Movement in the 1990s and to Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the 2000s. All these efforts failed because Mugabe has, at times, been popular, at times cunning and at times ruthless in preserving power – for himself and the Zanu-PF.
At times reliance on patronage of indigenous systems of leadership helped Mugabe and the party ward off challenges. Over the past 15 years, Zanu-PF has relied on the crude use of state power, draconian security measures and brutality on the streets.
It has also resorted to buying popularity through measures such as the violent land restitution process between 2001 and 2007.
After 2007, Zanu-PF and Mugabe had to contend with a regional mediation process by the Southern African Development Community after an election they lost, but which the MDC did not win by margins needed to form its own government. Zanu-PF responded by unleashing violence and brutality on opponents. Power sharing, which gave the MDC and its leader Morgan Tsvangarai an opportunity to position themselves as alternatives, saw Mugabe and Zanu-PF play every trick in the book to preserve power.
After Zanu-PF narrowly won the 2013 elections, it seemed that Mugabe and his party had finally prevailed. But the power battles turned inward, as party factions jostled over who would succeed Mugabe.
Zanu-PF power struggles
Various factions in the Zanu-PF have crystallised into two main camps.
The first is Mugabe and his henchmen of the so-called Zezuru group, including top heads of security forces who had wanted Mugabe to continue for a long time. They favoured Solomon Mujuru before he died and later Mnangagwa as a successor.
The second was made up of younger, rather flamboyant group of mainly men around Mugabe Zanu-PF politicians who had gained power and influence in the civil service. This group was known as the G-40. In the past few years this group backed Grace Mugabe as her husband’s successor.
Things have hung in the balance with the G40 gaining momentum because they could influence Mugabe’s judgement and decisions through his wife and nephews. This group could make a call who needed to be fired or isolated – and the president would act accordingly.
For example, when moderates in the Zanu-PF and war veterans touted Vice President Joice Mujuru as possible successor to Mugabe, the G40 aimed a barrage of insults against her and publicly declared that her time was up. Shortly afterwards Mugabe fired her and got her expelled from the party. This deepened divisions within Zanu-PF and intensified concern about the G40 and Grace Mugabe.
The last straw was the firing of Mnangagwa and threats against chiefs of armed forces.
Believing that Mugabe was being manipulated by the G40, the military stepped in to weed out those around the president. What they wanted was to persuade Mugabe to go and for Mnangagwa to replace him in as peaceful a process as possible so as not to destabilise Zanu-PF’s hold on power. The military showed great patience as it set about achieving this outcome.
New forces versus old
Mugabe is gone. A faction of the Zanu-PF that had gained currency around him is being squeezed out of every space in Zimbabwe. A new faction under Mnangagwa is in place.
Mugabe stands as a shadow of continuity behind leaders who have been around him for decades and who have now been entrusted with the renewal agenda. Mugabe has left, but what’s been called Mugabeism remains: both the positive side of vehemently defending the sovereignty of Zimbabwe and the negative side of the brutality of state power.
Mnangagwa and the military have lavished him with generous post-retirement packages, honoured with a holiday in his name and praise. The interim president has warned the deposed G-40 faction of Zanu-PF to return stolen state monies or face the law.
A clean break with Mugabe’s heritage of violence and crude dominance will have to wait even beyond elections next year. Zimbabwean citizens have been energised by their role in removing Mugabe. They would do well to remain vigilant, to press for more fundamental changes in the way the state behaves and insisting on democratic processes in economic policies. Otherwise they will continue to live under one Zanu-PF faction to another without real change in their lives.