PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe's simmering succession power struggle is intensifying amid clear indications that for the first time a new group involving military strategists and politicians within the party is seriously gathering ground, sensing leadership change on the horizon.
The emergence of this group straddling Zanu PF and state structures could change the succession dynamics and possibly the outcome as Mugabe nears the end of his long political career due to old age and health problems.
Zanu PF insiders say there are serious manoeuvres on succesion because those with information now know very well that the party is on its last legs and Mugabe is inching towards the exit even though the new group wants him to first win a term of office before he retires and goes by natural causes.
Extensive briefings of the Zimbabwe Independent by Mugabe's advisors and Zanu PF insiders show the new group is gathering around Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commander General Constantine Chiwenga and Zanu PF politburo members who have lost confidence in the two main traditional party factions to provide a potential successor to Mugabe.
Zanu PF is dominated by two main factions led by retired army commander Solomon Mujuru and heavyweight Emmerson Mnangagwa. These camps are however fluid and members keep shifting and changing depending on the situation and circumstances. Zanu PF has resultantly become a study of confusion due to these factions and factions within factions.
"The situation is moving and changing fast," a senior Zanu PF official said.
"Those strategically positioned in Zanu PF know that Mugabe is on his way out due to old age, health issues and internal pressure. As a result they are fighting everywhere you find them. Clashes are now to be found at the politburo, central committee, and other lower levels of the party. In government, there are divisions in cabinet and parliament, as well as in key state institutions. The fights around the succession issue are going on."
Zanu PF spokesman Rugare Gombo yesterday said there were no factions in Zanu PF.
"We will see it (third faction) when it emerges. There are no factions in Zanu PF. Mnangagwa himself said it when he said that he was number 12 in the party. The general line I can give you is that it is the party that leads the country and not the other way round (he was referring to the military producing a candidate)," Gumbo said.
In recent years those touted as potential successors to Mugabe include Mujuru, Mnangagwa, Sydney Sekeramayi, and more remotely John Nkomo, Simon Khaya Moyo, Gideon Gono and Saviour Kasukuwere. However, Chiwenga's mention has become a dramatic and stunning proposal in the growing list of potential successors.
Sources said influential political and state institutional players warming towards Chiwenga include Attorney-General Johannes Tomana, Zanu PF politburo member Jonathan Moyo, Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri, and Brigadier-General Douglas Nyikayaramba, among others. Moyo reportedly has open doors to all these people.
Chiwenga enjoys support of the Joint Operations Command (JOC) - which brings together the army, police and intelligence service chiefs, although internal rivalries are rife. Indications are that JOC is the main body behind Zanu PF, something which gives Chiwenga a springboard if he later chooses to join the Mugabe succession race.
Nyikayaramba recently told the Independent that the military would want to see Mugabe die in office. However, when it comes to who will succeed him the army would first of all weigh the candidates before deciding to support one of them or fielding its own. Chiwenga is being bandied about as the potential candidate for the new group.
Another credible source said the view that Chiwenga must be fielded as an alternative candidate was "growing and gathering momentum".
This has riled mainly members of the Mujuru faction who do not want to entertain the idea. Senior members of the Mujuru faction, which has Sekeramayi and Kasukuwere as potential candidates, say they would block Chiwenga if he dares join the succession race.
Mnangagwa, who recently said he has no ambitions to become president, is said to be close to army commanders now as Defence minister, although they do share the same vision of the way forward.
Sources said whereas army commanders want elections this year to ensure Mugabe secures a new term for Zanu PF while still relatively fit and are hostile to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai as alternative future leader of the country, Mnangagwa is not totally opposed to him.
While army top commanders were fiercely anti-Tsvangirai, Mnangagwa recently said since he was Defence minister in 2009 he found the prime minister "a very sound, sober person and have no problem with him".
A few years ago Mnangagwa was linked to a soft landing plan for Mugabe involving Tsvangirai and a retired army colonel. The Mujuru faction also largely has no problems with Tsvangirai. Zanu PF factions need an alliance with MDC-T to elect a successor in parliament in the event that Mugabe goes before his tenure is finished.
Sources said people who want Chiwenga, who has been improving his education at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) studying political science, are pulling out all the stops to prepare the ground for him. Chiwenga's supporters are said to be trying to build a political and social base for him using military and party structures.
Chiwenga, who is reportedly 55, has strong liberation struggle credentials, hence moves to make him an alternative successor to Mugabe. He joined Zanu's armed wing Zanla in 1973 and became a member of the general staff the following year before joining the high command and operating as deputy commissar in 1978 until Independence in 1980.
After Independence, he became 1 Brigade commander in Bulawayo, commander of 5 Brigade in 1984, Brigadier-General at army headquarters, Major General and Chief of Staff and then Lieutenant-General and Zimbabwe National Army commander in 1994 and ZDF commander in 2003.
A number of ZDF officers are also studying at UZ, while key state institutions are managed by retired soldiers who may provide a soft landing for Chiwenga if he enters the race. Although Chiwenga has a solid military base to launch a political career from, he does not have a social base.
Sources said behind the scenes various succession permutations are being discussed. While all sorts of scenarios are being painted, it has always been feared someone could emerge to take power, claiming that he expresses the will of the people, pays whatever price is necessary to obtain the loyalty of the security forces and sets about eliminating rivals to consolidate himself.