ZIMBABWE Defence Forces (ZDF) commander General Constantine Chiwenga and other senior Zanu PF leaders have reportedly endorsed Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa to succeed President Robert Mugabe ahead of Vice-President Joice Mujuru, in a move which will fuel the party's already fierce succession battle.
Sources said Chiwenga, who was guest of honour at Mnangagwa's 66th birthday party at his Sherwood Farm on the outskirts of Kwekwe on September 15, sang praises of the minister, describing him as a liberation hero, while further claiming he was one of the few surviving senior party members who attended the first-ever Zanu PF politburo meeting.
"Mnangagwa is the only surviving member of the first politburo meeting because in the first days, the president (Mugabe) did not attend the politburo," Chiwenga is reported to have said. "All the others who attended the first meetings are now dead. I'm sure he is alive for a reason which we all know."
Contacted for comment on the utterances by Chiwenga, who now seems prepared to abandon his own reported succession ambitions to support Mnangagwa, ZDF public relations director Lieutenant-Colonel Overson Mugwisi confirmed the birthday party did take place although he was not in a position to say anything since he was not invited "because it was a private function".
Mnangagwa's birthday party was attended by his key allies, including ex-Labour minister July Moyo, former Masvingo provincial governor and politburo member Josaya Hungwe, permanent secretary for defence Martin Rushwaya, Zanu PF Midlands vice-chairman Larry Mavhima, provincial security officer Owen Ncube, and local chiefs Gwesela and Samambwa, among many others.
Ncube refused to comment, referring comments to Machaya or Mavhima who were however unreachable.
Sources said Chiwenga's statement suggested the army was backing Mnangagwa ahead of Mujuru. Zanu PF's succession puzzle has threatened to tear the party apart, with two factions led by Mnangagwa and Mujuru battling to strategically positioning themselves to succeed Mugabe.
Sources also said Mnangagwa's endorsement by Chiwenga was reinforced by his closely ally, Hungwe's biblical reference to Mnangagwa as a redeemer.
Hungwe, once lambasted by the late Zanu PF politburo supremo and political maverick Eddison Zvobgo for "usurping" pastors' responsibilities because of his penchant for quoting scripture, likened Mnangagwa to the biblical Ezra.
"In the Bible, Ezra was a legal advisor sent by God to redeem the Israelites," Hungwe reportedly said. "Now in Zimbabwe we also have Emmerson, who happens to also be a legal expert, and was also sent to redeem the children of Zimbabwe. He is our own Ezra."
In the Bible, Ezra was a minor prophet sent to redeem the Israelites after they were taken as slaves for the second time in Babylon. He was from a high priestly family and was a descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses.
Mnangagwa some months ago told the Zimbabwe Independent he was "ready to rule" although he later disputed that after internal Zanu PF ructions and resorted to legal action to protect himself.
Mugabe's succession struggle is manifesting itself in Zanu PF and national political platforms and processes, including the ongoing constitution-making exercise through which senior party officials are now trying to manage the problem.
Zanu PF officials recently tried to handle the succession issue by accepting a running mate clause in the Copac draft constitution, something which Mugabe and his Zanu PF politburo later rejected after day and night meetings lasting almost 50 hours.
Now Zanu PF wants to introduce a provision which says if a sitting president is incapacitated or dies, he shall be replaced by a member of the party to which he belonged. This is widely seen as an attempt to manage events in the occasion of Mugabe's retirement, incapacitation or death.
Anxieties are running high in Zanu PF about Mugabe's re-election prospects as polls continue to delay. Mugabe this week showed in a high court by-election case that he wants early elections by March next year. He had initially tried to force elections last year and this year but failed. Insiders say this is largely driven by growing age and frailty concerns.
Mnangagwa's succession ambitions recently took a big knock following the disbandment of District Coordinating Committees (DCCs) after Mujuru and hardliners in the party aligned to the powerful Joint Operations Command (JOC) influenced Mugabe to dissolve the structures earlier this year.
Mnangagwa faction had gained control of most provinces, including Mujuru's Mashonaland Central province, putting him a strong position ahead of the Zanu PF congress in 2014.
The motion to disband the DCCs was moved by Matabeleland North provincial governor Thokozile Mathuthu, a former Mnangagwa ally, and was seconded by Mwenezi East MP Kudakwashe Bhasikiti - both now Mujuru allies.
The Mujuru faction took advantage of the fact that Mnangagwa was not at the politburo meeting as he was in China, while Mujuru herself was around although she later left the meeting when national commissar Webster Shamu was presenting his report on the state of the party and contentious DCC elections.
"Chiwenga was here for a reason and that is to mobilise support for Mnangagwa as Mugabe's successor," said a senior Mnangagwa faction member. "When the DCCs were disbanded, everyone thought the camp was now in disarray but we have serious support even without those structures."
Zanu PF's politburo disbanded the DCCs blaming them for fuelling divisions as Mujuru and Mnangagwa's factions fought for control and dominance of the organs to position themselves to succeed Mugabe. Violence erupted in several provinces whilst there were charges of rigging, intimidation, vote-buying and stuffing of ballots, among other complaints.
Speaking in the Chirumanzu Zibagwe constituency in April this year, Zanu PF central committee member Victor Matemadanda said Mnangagwa was the Midlands political godfather and second most senior party leader after Mugabe.
"Mnangagwa is the face of Zimbabwe because he faced the death penalty during the liberation struggle, but never sold out," Matemadanda was quoted as saying. "He continued to sacrifice his life for a sovereign Zimbabwe."
He continued: "He was the second person after Mugabe to join the liberation struggle, the rest of us and others in the party leadership followed later and served under his command."
MDC-T Mbizo MP Settlement Chikwinya said the heavy presence of senior security officers at the birthday party suggested the military was firmly in Mnangagwa's corner. During the 2004 congress Mnangagwa tried to climb to the vice-presidency but was shot down and Mujuru got in although he seems to the climbing back now.