Turmoil in Zimbabwe Paving the Way for Dynastic Succession
Zimbabwe’s Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was removed from his post and fled to South Africa last week, following allegations of disloyalty and unreliability. The longtime right-hand man and Vice President to Zimbabwe’s strongman leader Robert Mugabe was embroiled in a power struggle with First Lady Grace Mugabe and ultimately seems to have lost. The purge paves the way for Grace Mugabe to succeed her husband as leader of the troubled country, a move that the opposition has described as unacceptable.
At 93, Robert Mugabe is the world’s oldest sitting head of state. The succession, once President Mugabe dies, is a key issue for the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF. Grace Mugabe is four decades younger than her husband and supported by some in the party’s younger generation, known as the Generation-40 group. Until his removal, Emmerson Mnangagwa was a key ally of the president ever since Zimbabwe’s war of independence, and is supported by the older wing of ZANU-PF, including veterans of the war.
Coming from quite a different background, the First Lady has been criticized for her ostentatious spending habits and temperament; she has also been accused of multiple physical altercations but been shielded by her position. With the removal of Mnangagwa, she has been named Vice President and has positioned herself as the key political figure after her husband. The opposition People’s Democratic Party issued a statement calling her “the biggest threat to the stability of this country; she is the biggest threat in the past 37 years” and derided her as “a person of questionable emotional and mental disposition” and a “looter” seeking personal gain.
According to the State-owned Herald Newspaper, the First Lady told a cheering crowd that “President Mugabe was an anointed leader by God and only the Almighty could decide his fate and not some ambitious people who wanted to take leadership positions through unorthodox means,” - a reference to Mnangagwa - and said that she would help make Zimbabwe prosper. Mnangagwa has indicated his interest in running for president from South Africa, although the viability of this move is uncertain.
However, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association strongly opposed his ouster and the angling to hand the presidency to Grace Mugabe. The group’s secretary general told Al Jazeera, "Mugabe is no longer doing the things we thought he would do after the war. It's like he wants to rule the country with his wife, but we can't allow that, that's not what we fought for and that's not the Zanu-PF we belong to."
The affair is reminiscent of the 2014 removal of Vice President Joice Mujuru. Then as now, the Vice President was fired and removed from the ruling party after claims of disloyalty by the First Lady. However, some positions seem to have changed: the chief of Zimbabwe’s armed forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, warned that the military “will not hesitate to step in” if it feels the country’s core political values are threatened. The veiled threat was remarkable, as the military does not generally take sides in ZANU-PF power struggles. In 2005, it remained quiet when Mujuru was removed.
Zimbabwe came into being in 1979 following a 15-year war between African Nationalist rebels and an internationally-unrecognized white-minority government. Mugabe was elected the country’s first prime minister and later its first President. The 1990’s and early 2000’s saw significant economic troubles compounded by government mismanagement. In 2008, hyperinflation destroyed the economy and Mugabe faced his toughest challenge, losing the first round of the presidential election to the opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai.
Since then, Mugabe has tightened his grip on power. The inner workings of the country’s Soviet-style political machinery can be difficult to read, and it will be interesting to see if Mrs. Mugabe’s favor can outlast the inevitable death of her husband. If she is unable to marshal the support of key power brokers, there may be a turn to democracy or a violent internal conflict. As of now, with Mr. Mugabe firmly gripping power, it is hard to say.