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The end of an era: Who will replace one of Africa’s longest-ruling presidents? | The World Weekly

For decades the fortunes of Zimbabwe were mainly steered by one man, Robert Mugabe. By its supporters hailed as a hero of African liberation, Mr. Mugabe has ruled the Southern African country as prime minister or president since independence in 1980. During this period he oversaw the seizure of white-owned land, a legacy of British colonialism, and crackdowns against anyone opposing his rule. 

A whirlwind of events culminating in the army taking the president and his family into custody this week has once more thrown up the question of who will succeed the 93-year-old, one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents. 

The beginning of the current crisis can be traced back to early November, when Mr. Mugabe sacked his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, accusing him of plotting to seize power. Mr. Mnangagwa, nicknamed the “crocodile” for his perceived shrewdness, is a veteran politician who worked alongside the president for over four decades in various ministerial roles before becoming vice-president in 2014. 

“He thought that by being close to me, I would carry him on my back to the presidency. But I didn't die, I didn't resign,” President Mugabe said at the ruling Zanu-PF party headquarters, referring to Mr. Mnangagwa, who was previously seen as a potential successor to the president. The former vice-president temporarily fled the country, citing threats to his life.

An ally of Mr. Mnangagwa accused Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, of having masterminded the dismissal of the vice-president, a post many thought she was in line to inherit. Ms. Mugabe, 52, had openly campaigned for the vice-president’s ouster, calling him a snake that “must to be hit on the head”. Mr. Mnangagwa earned a fearsome reputation during Zimbabwe’s independence struggle and as head of the Central Intelligence Organisation at a time of civil conflict at home. 

“The power struggle in Zimbabwe is very much exactly that - a struggle for power after the death of President Mugabe,” says Stephen Chan, a veteran observer of Southern African politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies.      

A military coup?

Mr. Mnangagwa’s sacking did not go down quietly. The head of the army, General Constantino Chiwenga, said in a rare intervention earlier this week “that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in.” He demanded that the purges against party members “with a liberation background” must stop. Participants in the liberation struggle against white-minority rule form an important power base in Zimbabwe.

The military soon went beyond verbal threats. After rumours swirled that a coup was imminent the army seized the state broadcaster where a military spokesman announced that the army was targeting “criminals around” Mr. Mugabe, adding that it had the president and his wife in custody. Reports said access to Parliament, courts and government offices was sealed off. 

Young women walk past an armoured personnel carrier in the capital Harare on November 15, 2017

However, army spokesman Major General SB Moyo stressed that this was not a coup, adding that the situation “will come to normalcy” once the armed forces “are done”. Local journalist Maynard Manyowa said the army presence in the capital remained limited on Wednesday.

Mr. Manyowa told The World Weekly from Harare that the military had been dared by the Zanu-PF youth league which had come out strongly in support of Mr. Mugabe. The head of the youth league later in the week apologised on state television for “denigrating” the army. 

The firing of the vice-president “ostracised a considerable part of the security apparatus”, Nick Branson, a senior researcher at the Africa Research Institute, told TWW. The situation remained in flux, according to Mr. Branson, but events on Wednesday showed that “the military has asserted control, while making clear that President Mugabe remains head of state”. The generals, he adds, were “desperate to avoid any impression that this is a coup d’état”.

The military takeover came less than a year before planned elections. Having been an outsize figure in Zimbabwean politics for over 40 years, Mr. Mugabe announced that he would run for another term in 2018. However, many speculated in the past that the first lady could after initially becoming vice-president follow in her husband’s footsteps. Her chances of succeeding Mr. Mugabe now seem dismal, as senior officials of her party faction have been arrested. The first lady, known for her shopping sprees and violent outbursts, remains deeply unpopular.

A scenario for a transition in the current situation could include the president reinstating Mr. Mnangagwa as vice-president, says Mr. Branson. Mr. Mugabe would then step down and hand over power to his constitutionally-mandated successor. “Of course, Mugabe will need certain assurances before this can happen, first and foremost the safety of his family and security of his assets,” Mr. Branson told TWW. A potential venue for the transition could be the ruling party’s conference next month. 

If Mr. Mnangagwa becomes president, Professor Chan says, he may offer the opposition a coalition government. “If that happens, elections may be postponed in order for the coalition to make a reasonable start to sorting the economic woes of Zimbabwe.”

As TWW went to press, President Mugabe was holding talks with South African negotiators about his future.

Emmerson Mnangagwa (L) could now become Zimbabwe’s next president

‘The days of the giants are over’

If the 2018 elections went ahead as planned - still uncertain at this stage - the economy will be on many voters’ minds. But the current power struggle “has nothing to do with the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe”, says Professor Chan. Both the ruling party and the opposition did not have coherent plans “to rebalance the country's non-productive and looted economy". A report released earlier this year implicated government officials and businessmen in siphoning off hundreds of millions in proceeds from the diamond trade. 

Economic growth in 2017 is according to the World Bank set to slightly recover due to good rains after a series of major droughts. Despite having adopted the US dollar in 2009 after a period of hyperinflation, the resource-rich country currently suffers from a severe cash shortage, which is projected to negatively influence medium-term growth. Inflation remains staggeringly high.  

Purges within the ruling party and the military’s intervention in civilian affairs “do not bode well for democracy”, says McDonald Lewanika, a political analyst who is the former director of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a pro-democracy group. “My sense is that the military knows that it is not sustainable to take over for a long period,” Mr. Lewanika says, “I think this will turn into a military-assisted takeover of power for Emmerson Mnangagwa.”  

Amidst all the turmoil, one thing was apparent. “A lot of people in Zimbabwe are desperate for change,” Mr. Lewanika says.

Over the last decades, Robert Mugabe skillfully sidelined many potential rivals, but his long rule now appears to be over. 

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