When Zimbabwe’s veteran President Robert Mugabe suavely hosted journalists at State House on the eve of last month’s election, there was only one question that caught him off guard.
Asked if the presence of Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa by his side meant he was his chosen successor, Mugabe paused awkwardly amid laughter and then replied unconvincingly that Mnangagwa had just dropped by to see him.
Three weeks after Mugabe’s re-election in a disputed vote called a fraud by his main rival but accepted by his African neighbours, there are no doubts Africa’s oldest leader is holding firmly on to the presidency after 33 years in power.
But the question of whether, at 89, he can serve out all of his new five-year term – and who will succeed him if he steps down or dies – would have hung uncomfortably over his re-installation as Zimbabwe’s head of state last Thursday.
It will also be crucial for the future of the nation, which is rich in minerals but still emerging from a decade-long recession brought on by political violence and government-backed land seizures.
Mugabe faces few immediate threats. Rival Morgan Tsvangirai has been stunned by the enormity of his defeat in an election he says was rigged from start to finish; last week he dropped a challenge to Mugabe’s re-election that his Movement for Democratic Change had filed in the Constitutional Court. The court confirmed Mugabe’s win was “free, fair and credible” and had reflected the “will of the people”.
Faced with broad endorsement of the result by regional and continental bodies, Western governments must now decide whether to shun the man they have reviled as a ruthless dictator for years, or attempt a rapprochement in the interests of practical diplomacy.
Mugabe’s non-committal answer on the succession is typical of a wily and inscrutable guerrilla politician who fought a liberation war leading to independence in 1980, crushed a revolt once in power and has outfoxed rivals in and outside his fractious Zanu-PF.
“Mugabe and Tsvangirai have fought their last elections… one way or another. Whether it was stolen or not, this was a historic election that prefigures change,” Stephen Chan, professor of international relations at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said.
Adding to Zimbabwe’s uncertain outlook is the perception that another Mugabe term will intensify a succession battle within the ruling party. Zanu-PF has a history of feuds and splits dating back to its bush war against white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia.
Defence Minister Mnangagwa, 66, a guerrilla war veteran and Mugabe’s main security enforcer, is widely seen as a succession contender, along with vice-president Joice Mujuru and State Security Minister Sydney Sekeramayi.
Mnangagwa, earned a hardline reputation as security minister in the 1980s for his role in suppressing rebels in Matabeleland.
Mnangagwa, Mujuru and Sekeramayi have been members of Mugabe’s cabinet since 1980, and played a major role in Zanu-PF’s re-election machine.
During campaigning, Mujuru addressed rallies, Mnangagwa acted as Mugabe’s presidential election agent and Sekeramayi was the ruling party’s point man for the legislative elections in which Zanu-PF was declared the winner.
On the face of it, Mujuru, 58, another liberation war veteran whose nom de guerre was Teurai Ropa (“Spill the Blood”) appears to hold an advantage in the succession stakes because as first party vice-president she acts for Mugabe when he is away.
But under a new constitution adopted earlier this year, Zanu-PF would choose a new president if Mugabe stepped down or were to die before the end of his term. Many fear this could lead to a scramble for power among ambitious aspirants.
This week Mujuru attacked party rivals and presented herself as the moderate leader Zanu-PF needs after Mugabe, local media reported.
“We know that the president will soon be 90 and God might decide to call him … I am best placed to succeed Mugabe if he departs whether by natural wastage or voluntary retirement,” she said.
Far from mellowing his rhetoric, Mugabe has told his post-election critics to “go hang” and promised to increase the pace of “indigenisation” policies forcing foreign-owned firms to sell majority stakes to black Zimbabweans. – Reuters