PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe will today officially open Zanu PF's congress at a defining moment following its defeat in last year's general election. There have been explosive internal clashes recently which have exposed simmering regional and ethnic hostilities threatening to tear the party apart.
The watershed congress, coming at a time when Zanu PF has lost its majority in parliament and battling infighting with tribal undertones, could leave Mugabe and his party further fractured and weak, signalling an acceleration of its decline. Mugabe yesterday denounced factionalism at a central committee meeting, saying the party should unite as they prepare for the next elections to be held soon after a positive constitutional referendum expected at the end of next year or early 2011.
He said factionalism cost the party an outright victory in the 2008 harmonised elections and should therefore end immediately if Zanu PF is to claim its ruling party status.
For the first time since 1980 the Zanu PF congress will come under a cloud following its decisive defeat by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC and the prospect of further casualties in future elections -- which may come sooner than the expected 2013 date.
There has been open wrangling that has triggered resignations and threats of demonstrations by disgruntled party officials and their structures.
The congress could be a theatre for political drama as rival factions battle it out for power and control. State and Zanu PF security officials were this week working flat out to suppress looming protests.
Manicaland chairman Basil Nyabadza resigned during the week in protest against what his region saw as tribal sidelining of party stalwart Didymus Mutasa, currently secretary for administration, during the recent leadership nominations. Mutasa was gunning for the party chairmanship but his region attributes his defeat to tribal and factional alliances in the party.
The election of the new Zanu PF top four leaders from Mashonaland and Matabeleland provinces -- which put Zezurus and Ndebeles in charge -- has left Karangas and Manyikas mainly from Masvingo, Midlands and Manicaland regions boiling with anger.
Karangas wanted to recapture one of the positions of vice-president which was left vacant in 2003 by the late vice-president Simon Muzenda, a Karanga, but was taken over by Joice Mujuru, functionally a Zezuru.
Manyikas wanted to seize the chairmanship, arguing Ndebeles are overrepresented in the presidium to complete an ideal tribal balancing act.
Nyabadza told the Zimbabwe Independent that failure to strike a tribal balance in the party's top four positions is going to leave Zanu PF deeply divided.
By refusing to address the issue and endorsing the nomination of two Zezurus and two Ndebeles to the presidium, he said Zanu PF was now at its most divided with serious threats of regional divisions.
"This issue is getting entrenched because of sinister motives for political expediency," said Nyabadza. "This turn of events is dangerous and short term. It is self-destructive and we cannot carry on this way. It is our right to raise these issues so that we do not get used to this bad idea.
"As a party we should not continue to take others for a ride -- we don't want to remain permanent guests of the party. We need to strike a tribal balance within our party. We are referring to the positions of first secretary, the two second secretaries and chairman -- these positions should be circulated within five regions -- we need to strike that balance."
The regions which Nyabadza was referring to are Mashonaland, Matabeleland, Midlands, Manicaland and Masvingo.
The Karangas, who mainly occupy Masvingo and Midlands provinces in the south, also agree with the Manyikas that there was need for the tribal balance.
Sources in Masvingo's top leadership said there was no tribal balance, with the Zezurus holding the top posts in the politburo, government, army, airforce and public service commission.
"People are starting to complain that only one region holds most of the power," said one top Masvingo official "Are they then saying that they are the most learned; hence others are incapable of holding top posts? We want to raise these issues and seek clarity on the party's position."
They feel that since power fell into the hands of Mugabe, he has ignored their contribution during the liberation struggle, sidelined their leaders and promoted members of his own clan.
Sources said the latest stream of problems in Zanu PF was discussed at the party politburo meetings on Monday and Wednesday. On Monday Mugabe clarified the issue of chairmanship, saying it was not reserved for Zapu officials only, by extrapolation Ndebeles.
On Wednesday Zanu PF was confronted with Nyabadza's resignation which has fuelled the spectre of regionalism and ethnicity in the party. Senior Zanu PF officials wanted the issue openly discussed at the central committee yesterday.
Senior party officials interviewed this week over the issue said they feared the party could rapidly start disintegrating along regional and tribal fault lines. A top Zanu PF politburo member attacked the recent nominations, claiming they amounted to "village politics".
"What happened during the recent nominations was not new in the party but it smacked of crude village and tribal political manipulation," the politburo member said. "Zezurus who were facing a serious challenge for power ganged up with Ndebeles to sideline Karangas and Manyikas. This recent ethnic mobilisation approach started in Mashonaland West and spread across the country."
Mashonaland West was recently hit by a wave of tribal tensions as Zezurus mobilised to push Karangas from their province.
However, another Zanu PF official defended the new leadership line-up, saying it was due to dynamic alliances in Zanu PF.
"In 2004, the Karangas, Manyikas and Ndebeles all ganged up against the Zezurus but were defeated. Nothing has changed except that this time around the Ndebeles just joined the winners -- Zezurus!"
In 2004 Joice Mujuru, with Mugabe's Zezuru faction support, defeated the grouping of Karangas, Manyikas and Ndebeles -- often described as "south-south cooperation" -- led by Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The Mnangagwa faction had secretly proposed that the presidency of the country must be circulated among the four main ethnic groups of the country -- Zezurus, Karangas, Manyikas and Ndebeles -- to avoid ethnic hegemony and defuse political tensions. The plan failed.
Nyabadza's resignation, out of bitterness, followed a vicious fight for the position of Zanu PF chairmanship left vacant after the elevation of John Nkomo who has replaced the late vice-president Joseph Msika as co-deputy party leader and state vice-president. The Zanu PF top four to be endorsed by the congress includes Mugabe, Mujuru, Nkomo and Simon Khaya Moyo.
Reports say the Mnangagwa faction or Oppah Muchinguri, who was nominated by Masvingo province to replace Mujuru, acting with the backing of some of her disgruntled supporters could mount a challenge from the floor at congress, although this is seen as unlikely.
Anger has been building up and complaints loudly echoed in the run-up to the congress in Manicaland, Masvingo and Midlands. Nyabadza took the protest to new levels by quitting, insinuating Mutasa's failure to rise to the top four smacked of regional and tribal marginalisation.
"Manicaland has never participated in the (Zanu PF) presidium since Independence in 1980," he said.
Zanu PF insiders say Nyabadza was expressing a popular sentiment in Manicaland. There are reports of looming threats of more resignations by officials in Masvingo and Manicaland.
Before 1973, Zanu PF was mainly seen as Manyika-dominated. Zezurus had been disgruntled by lack of control and formed their own party in 1971. After the 1973 controversial Zanu PF external elections, the results were interpreted by party officials to mean a Manyika defeat and a Karanga victory. Five out of eight Dare reChimurenga members were presumably Karangas.
The situation led to vicious tribal infighting within Zanu PF which was blamed for the assassination of party chairman Herbert Chitepo in March 1975. Karangas were accused of plotting his killing and the Zanu PF Dare chief of defence Josiah Tongogara and other Karangas were arrested over it.
Prior to that in 1974, a group of militants led by Thomas Nhari had rebelled against Tongogara but were crushed in early 1975. During the months of January, February and March 1975 real and suspected rebels were rounded up to face retributive justice. Sustained kidnappings, mass trials and executions followed.
Zezurus then captured power in Zanu PF in 1977 when Mugabe became party leader until now.
Meanwhile, disgruntled Zanu PF supporters from Harare province have vowed not to work with the Amos Midzi-led executive saying they would continue with their parallel structures until the party agrees to nullify the Harare elections.
They are planning to stage demonstrations outside the Harare International Conference centre, the venue of the congress this morning to coincide with Mugabe's arrival.
"We are remaining and working in the parallel structures. We will never work with Midzi and his executive and we will never recognise them. We are going to demonstrate at the venue," said one war veteran from district co-ordinating committee 3 (DCC3).
They were lobbying different provinces to have the central committee, which the party's decision-making body, to reverse a decision by the politburo this week to endorse the Midzi executive.
"Contrary to what a lot of people think, it is the central committee which is the party's decision-making organ and it can decide to reverse any decisions by the politburo. So we are hoping our friends in the central committee will raise the issue and, hopefully, a decision will be made to nullify the Harare elections," he said.
Some supporters in Harare province formed parallel structures after their candidate Hubert Nyanhongo lost to Midzi in what they described as "fraudulent" elections and a "dubious" restructuring exercise of the province.
They said they will not vacate the district offices and their headquarters would be in Harare South constituency, the only parliamentary seat won by Zanu PF in Harare in the March 2008 harmonised elections.