By Lexi Merrick Boiro
The current Zimbabwe political crisis has reached new heights. However, Tuesday night’s events are merely indicative of the ongoing scramble for power within the ruling ZANU-PF party rather than a sudden change in the Zimbabwean political scene. These events are the result of the power struggle for succession to President Robert Mugabe, 93, who has ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1980.
The apparent military coup occurred just over a week after Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa fled the country after repeated verbal attacks by First Lady Grace Mugabe stating that Mnangawa and his allies in the “Lacoste faction” of the ruling ZANU-PF party were seeking to breed factionalism in their efforts to succeed her husband as President. Mnangagwa first left the country in August after he was apparently poisoned. The First Lady denied any involvement. After returning to Zimbabwe, he was verbally condemned at repeated rallies by both President Mugabe and his wife before being fired on November 6th, 2018. On Tuesday, the head of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, spoke out against Mugabe’s “purges” of “members associated with liberation history” and warned that the military “will not hesitate to step in.”
Grace Mugabe has emerged as a polarizing figure in recent years. In what some have described as a rags-to-riches story, she began in the early 1990s as a typist for the President, married Mugabe in 1996, and has since built up a dairy empire and a reputation for her violent temper. She often appears beside her husband in matching colorful suits at party rallies and has gained the support of Zanu-PF’s youth league and the supposed “G40” faction of Zanu-PF. Their support, flowing from her loyalty to her husband, propelled her to be endorsed by the party as candidate for Vice President following Mnangagwa’s departure, while the youth wing also declared their loyalty to the First Lady. Kudzai Chipanga, leader of the youth league, stated, “Defending the revolution and our leader and president is an ideal we live for and if need be it is a principle we are prepared to die for,” at a press conference on Tuesday.
Mnangagwa is not the first Vice President to be ejected from power in recent years. In 2014, former Vice President Joice Mujuru was also fired after the First Lady accused her of seeking to topple Mugabe. Mnangagwa and Mujuru are both considered freedom fighters who were members of the liberation struggle for independence, leading to a question as to why the Army decided to enforce their support of Mnangagwa in this instance while allowing Mujuru’s fall. One possible explanation is that Mnangagwa is said to have close allies in the Army and his firing was seen by the army as a symbol of a wider purge of Zanu-PF officials to make way for Grace Mugabe’s rise to the Presidency.
Regional organizations will likely play an important role in the resolution of the current Zimbabwean political crisis. The central role of the West African regional organization Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in negotiating the Gambia’s political crisis in January 2017 with Yaya Jammeh, another entrenched ruler, suggests the Southern African Development Community (SADC) may have an important part to play. On Wednesday, South African President Jacob Zuma, who is the current President of the SADC, sent emissaries to Harare. Zuma’s role in the intervention is noteworthy, as a similar factionalism in his own party at home has threatened the African National Congress’ (ANC) prospects in coming elections in 2019. Thus far, the SADC has only issued a statement urging an amicable resolution and confirmed that Mugabe is safe but “confined to his home.” The SADC does have a history of intervention during crises in its member countries (notably militarily in eastern DRC and diplomatically in Lesotho following the 2014 disputed elections), and in 2003 introduced a Mutual Defense Pact giving “each member nation the right to intervene in armed attacks of the other member nations.”
Any intervention by regional bodies will be complicated by the international politics surrounding Robert Mugabe. His image has been historically juxtaposed between some degree of support from other leaders on the continent, particularly within the SADC, and the image of a dictator often portrayed in the West. Though the position is largely ceremonial, the fact that Mugabe served as chairman of the African Union from 2015-2016 indicates at least a modicum of acceptance. The African Union has thus far only called for a return to constitutional rule and has not indicated any intention to intervene.
The coup does not immediately offer hope of a political opening in Zimbabwe. Zanu-PF has been the dominant political force in the country since independence in 1980. The party has held on through means of political violence, electoral malpractice, and intimidation of opponents and remains a powerful political force. The military seems to be preparing to put Mnangagwa in power, but his politics and ethics should not be seen as wholly divergent from the regime’s ruling style of the past three decades. Mnangagwa, nicknamed “the Crocodile”, was implicated in state-sponsored violence following the 2008 elections, where government forces perpetrated violence upon suspected opposition supporters in former Zanu-PF strongholds.
This significant repression has imperiled opposition parties in Zimbabwe. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is the leading opposition party, though it too has fractured in recent years between two leaders, Morgan Tsvangirai and Welshman Ncube. The MDC called on Wednesday for “peace, constitutionalism, democratisation, the rule of law and the sanctity of human life”, but did not condemn the military’s actions.
The still-unfolding political crisis in Zimbabwe remains uncertain. Military leaders clearly do not want to humiliate Mugabe, but will he see resignation as retaining any sense of dignity? It’s unclear how long the military will remain in control or what would happen should Mnangagwa seize power. It is clear that what is happening in the country is the result of an internal power struggle within Zanu-PF rather than any move toward meaningful democratic change. Only time will tell whether the fractionalization of the party will result in a loosening of its grasp on long-held power.