Mugabe’s new political threat
Support grows for sacked vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa
Robert Mugabe is facing his biggest political challenge in almost two decades as opposition to his authoritarian 37-year rule over Zimbabwe gathers strength around the vicepresident he fired last week.
Mugabe sacked his long-time ally Emmerson Mnangagwa last Monday for showing “traits of disloyalty”, abruptly removing a favourite to succeed the 93-year-old leader and boosting the likelihood of Grace Mugabe, the first lady, becoming his next deputy and potential successor.
A close ally said last Wednesday that Mnangagwa had fled “assassins” for “a safe place” and was heading for neighbouring South Africa. Mnangagwa, who fought alongside Mugabe in a guerrilla war and went on to become a feared security chief, said he had been “vilified beyond measure” and was being “hounded by minnows who have no liberation credentials”. “I will return to Zimbabwe to lead you,” Mnangagwa said in a statement.
Chris Mutsvangwa, the chair of Zimbabwe’s association of war veterans, said Mnangagwa, 75, would lead a campaign to “restore democracy”. Analysts said the threat to the president and those close to him was unprecedented because it came from within the ruling Zanu-PF party. “Mugabe has faced challenges from outside before, but never an internal challenge. This time it is the machinery that has kept him in power that is now shuddering,” said Piers Pigou, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Johannesburg.
The sacking of Mnangagwa appears to have settled that contest in favour of the first lady, who is 52. Until recently, Mnangagwa was tipped as Mugabe’s likely successor, partly because of his support within the country’s security establishment and among veterans of Zimbabwe’s 1970s guerrilla war. Despite his alleged involvement in atrocities in the 1980s, Mnangagwa was also the preferred candidate of much of the international community.
Some observers doubt the extent of support for the former vice-president, who is hated in parts of the country. But there is deep discontent, and a protest is planned later this month to demonstrate the strength of support for Mnangagwa, his allies say.
Mutsvangwa ruled out trying to remove Mugabe by force and said war veterans would form a broad front with the opposition in elections next year. “We don’t want to abuse the military to resolve a political problem. We don’t want them to become the arbiter of political power,” he said.
On Monday Zimbabwe’s army chief demanded a halt to the Zanu-PF purge and warned the military could intervene. “The current purging, which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background, must stop forthwith,” Gen Constantino Chiwenga said. “We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in.”
The feud between Mnangagwa and Grace Mugabe has been bitter and public. Last month the first lady, who leads the women’s league of Zanu-PF, publicly denied she was behind an alleged attempted poisoning of her rival.
Activists in Zimbabwe say they hope the firing of Mnangagwa will unite a fractured opposition, while splitting Zanu-PF. The party is holding a special congress set for mid-December, and elections are due next year. The Movement for Democratic Change has come close to winning power before and activists said last Wednesday they were confident of winning any “free and fair” poll.
‘Unprecedented’ … Mugabe’s one-time ally now poses a challenge