by Simukai Tinhu
In the capital, Harare, there are clamorous whispers of an impending demise of Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Indeed, this week, a local daily in one of its headlines even had the audacity to suggest that the vice-president was contemplating tendering his resignation. Two events, which have happened in quick succession, explain why the media and some political analysts have come to such a conclusion.
The first is the shock attack and death threat against Mnangagwa on the day of the last politburo meeting a fortnight ago by Sarah Mahoka, Grace Mugabe’s ally. Strikingly, President Robert Mugabe did not address Mahoka’s attacks on his deputy when he gave a lukewarm response to her ranting. To those who care to understand Mugabe’s pysche and behaviour, this was a powerful insinuation that he already had a side even before the politburo meeting. Ross McKibbin, a professor of social history at Oxford University would see Mugabe’s attitude as passive connivance.
A creation of Jonathan Moyo and Generation 40 (G40)’s engines of Machiavellian politics, these attacks were followed by Grace’s vicious attack on Mnangagwa during a rally in Chiweshe, Mashonaland Central province a fortnight ago. The vice-president was accused of plotting to assasinate the First Family and also attempting to snatch the presidency from her husband.
The second is the adoption, by G40, with some success, a strategy aimed at isolating the vice-president. For example, following the rally in Chiweshe, Zanu PF political commissar and also a strong Grace ally, Saviour Kasukuwere, suspended three provincial party chairs who are linked to Mnangagwa. War veterans leader Chris Mutsvangwa, the vice-president’s most vocal ally was the first to be pushed into a corner. He was suspended by the leadership of his province late last year. A vote of no confidence was also passed on him by a G40-aligned Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association after Grace’s address. And, it appears that the prunning of Mnangagwa’s allies has not been confined to the party only. The Prosecutor General, Johannes Tomana, who is regarded as being very close to Mnangagwa is also fighting to save his career under circumstances that have been heavily criticised by legal experts.
Tomana is facing charges of abuse of office after he released two of the four accused of attempting to bomb Mugabe’s Gushungo Dairies plant.
But things are moving very fast in Zanu PF. Indeed, it was only last week when the consensus, both in the media, political and diplomatic circles, and even the public, seemed to suggest that Mnangagwa was already the president in waiting.
Mnangagwa is not — as his allies, and equally, the First Lady and G40 have miserably failed to understand — a putischist. Rather than push the nonagenarian out, he had opted for a gradualist approach and was prepared to wait for his turn. His mistake was that he failed to contain and supposedly communicate this message to his overexcited allies such as Mutsvangwa, whose utterances were projected as being successionist by G40.
Jonathan Moyo and his G40 created the belief both in the First Family and amongst Mnangagwa’s enemies that the vice-president, nicknamed “the Crocodile”, was plotting against Mugabe.
Indeed, stories of clandestine meetings held at various secret locations in and outside Harare, were used by G40 to butress this thinking. Reckless behaviour by some of his allies also provoked further speculations about the vice-president’s intentions. For example, Moyo’s claim in an interview with the weekly Standard in which he alleged that the president’s spokesperson, George Charamba had been tasked by security services chiefs to confront him about his allegiances, must have been the final nail on the coffin.
To make matters worse, Mnagwagwa has been reluctant to speak against these allegations.
Did British spoil it for Mnangagwa?
The president and his wife are still under the European Union (EU) and British sanctions. Economically sound, Mnangagwa’s attempts to stir the nation towards the West, in particular, Brussels and London were not only viewed as politically unstrategic, but also daring.
Indeed, they were interpreted and projected by G40, as an attempt by the vice-president to distance himself from the First Family. With one of his close allies, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, Mnangagwa had also taken economic policy positions that could be regarded as defiance of the president’s long held foreign policy positions.
Reportedly, Mugabe was not happy with this course and as usual he chose to be coded in his warnings to Mnangagwa. For example, despite the strides that the vice-president had made to re-engage with the EU, Mugabe continued with the anti-EU and British rhetoric. The recent speech at the AU is telling. But as if in defiance, Mnangagwa continued with positions that were diametrically opposed to the president’s rhetoric.
For example, last year, he was on record saying that “We (Zimbabwe), cannot do without the West”. At around the same time, his ally on the economic front, Chinamasa who has been busy courting the IMF and the World Bank, which the president regard as “Devils”, professed his preference for doing business with the Brettonwoods Institutions. “Yes, I have fallen in love with the IMF and World Bank,” he told Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries delegates.
This was a miscalculated move. The way Mugabe operates is that he does not sit down with his ministers and give them instructions on what he wants. He expects them to be smart enough to know what he wants. Mnangagwa and his allies seriously misread what Mugabe wanted and took a path that was likely to undermine his stature and authority. An anti-Western stance is at the heart of Mugabe’s political showmanship across the region and appeals to a certain constituency amongst Zanu PF’s electoral market.
In theory, reconcilliation with the West, was likely to undermine his stature in the region and also alienate hardline supporters within the ruling party. Most importantly, economic reforms were likely to indirectly force political reforms. For example, in return for opening credit lines, some Western countries are said to have been behind the idea of a biometric voting system in Zimbabwe. Mugabe, better than anyone else in the party understands that Zanu PF is at a stage where it cannot reform without serious consequences. The revolutionary party cannot be touched, otherwise it will crumble. Mnangagwa’s reform agenda was spoiling things for Mugabe.
Impressed with the direction the Zanu PF government was taking, the EU and the British made it clear that Mnangagwa was their man.
Indeed, indiscreet in their preferences, the British and the EU might have spoiled it for their choice. Word around not only amongst the diplomatic circles, but also sections of the public was that the British had praised Mnangagwa as “pragmatic”, prompting the leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai to protest vehemently.
Going the Mujuru way?
To those who watched closely the events leading to the demise of Joice Mujuru, the campaign against Mnangagwa appears strangley familiar as it fits largley into the pattern that preceeded the former vice-president’s outster. Indeed, the strategy deployed by the First Lady and G40 is conspicuous by its lack of innovation.
The tours, or the “Meet Amai Rallies”, as in 2014, are being used as a launch pad to hammer away at the bulwark of Mnangagwa’s base in the party. Allegations of plotting against the president, of attempting to assassinate the First Family and also of speaking ill of the First Family reminds us of the same allegations levelled against Mujuru. These allegations, as in Mujuru’s case, have been accompanied by attempts to weed out from the party those perceived to be Mnangagwa’s allies. For example, the national disciplinary committee, which includes Grace, Kasukuwere and Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko, is likely to boot out Mutsvangwa in the same way his predecessor Jabulani Sibanda was kicked out.
But Mnangagwa is unlikely to be removed as vice-president anytime soon. Though short of mass support, he has an elite base that will shake the party beyond repair if he is defenestrated. What is likely to happen is that using primarily military intelligence, the president is likely to opt for ousting his allies from the party or sidelining them, until Mnangagwa’s ability to challenge for the presidency is severely weakened.
In the looming cabinet reshuffle, a lot of Mnangagwa’s allies, most notably, Chinamasa, might be sidelined. This, coupled with unrelenting attacks from Grace and G40 is likely to leave his position untenable. The honourable move would be to put in his resignation, which is unlikely.
Options for Mnangagwa
There are four potential options for the vice-president. The first is to wait it out, hoping that the storm will calm. This is a gamble, as his enemies, in particular, G40 and Grace are determined to see him removed from his position. The speed at which his allies are being sidelined in the party and the inevitable desertion by some in the near future will make it difficult to regroup and relaunch their campaign.
The second option is to launch a strike before his position is weakened further. Mnangagwa has over the years unremittingly projected himself as a strong leader – which is why he is preferred by the EU and British. Launching a palace coup against the president will bolster that narrative. However, this is a risky strategy, which may backfire.
Unlike his supporters who believe he should strike before the nonagenarian finishes him, Mnangagwa understands that Mugabe takes power seriously and he will strike back with unforgiving ruthlessness if the move fails. Also, the complex nature of Mugabe and Mnangagwa’s relationship also makes it difficult for “The Crocodile” to launch an attack against the nonagenarian. Having spent close to 50 years together, Mnangagwa needs Mugabe as part of his identity as a politician. The demands of that relationship will cause Mnangagwa to watch as the developments that threaten his position break all around him.
The third option, in the event of having been kicked out of the party, is to opt for a coalition with the other opposition outfits, most likely Mujuru’s newly-formed Zimbabwe People First party. However, due mostly to pride, Mnangagwa is unlikley to take this offer. Also, other opposition parties are aware that he brings in very little electorally. In fact, he will be considered as a liability.
The fourth option, which will never happen is that in the event of Mnangagwa being defenestrated from the party, he will launch his own political outfit. The vice-president is of the older generation and if he fails to take over by 2018 that is the end of his political career. By some accounts, he is 77 years, and by 2023, it will be difficult to sell him as a viable candidate. Mnangagwa also knows that he is unelectable which explains why he wanted to use Zanu PF and also the security establishment to ascend to power. Outside the “system”, Dumiso Dabengwa or Welshman Ncube have a far better chance than him.
Is this the end?
These days, the president speaks through proxies; his wife, G40 and the Youth League. Indeed, it is naive to think that Mahoka was being melodramatic, random and senseless when she warned Mnangagwa that “he will die in the house” — not literally, but his political career — if he continued to challenge the president. In other words, Mahoka’s utterances were not consequences of Mnangagwa’s perceived ambitions, but a calculated response to them. Together with the allegations made by the First Lady in Chiweshe, Mugabe has been freed to deal with Mnangagwa in a manner that he sees fit.
However, it is not too late for Mnangagwa. The scattered pieces of the jigsaw could still be put together, in a somehow similar shape that still has him as vice-president. But Mnangagwa, will need nothing short of exculpating himself from the forbidden business of succession by publicly or privately renouncing his ambitions and allies.
Defiance, as shown by sections of the media or war veterans is not an option. Mnangagwa should remind himself that he did not become vice-president through his allies, the party, war veterans, the state media, the security establishment or voters. It was a personal appointment. Mugabe alone had the power to appoint or remove Mnangagwa.
Tinhu is a Zimbabwean based in London.