WHILE President Robert Mugabe emerged unscathed during last weekend's Zanu PF annual conference after suppressing the explosive succession debate which had unexpectedly surfaced, a bruising battle for the vice-presidency triggered by Vice President John Nkomo's deteriorating health has erupted, pitting the party's heavyweights in Matabeleland region against each other.
Nkomo - whose condition is said to be grave - has been ill for some time, forcing him to miss important party and national events, including the conference in Gweru. He started by scaling down and eventually stopped his involvement in his hectic official duties as his condition moved from serious but stable to critical, then extremely critical and now grave health condition.
As a member of the Zanu PF presidium, Nkomo was supposed to play an important role at the conference as part of the management committee - which oversees the running of conferences - but he is now in a grave condition in which only close family members are allowed to see him. Sources said Nkomo was flown from South Africa last week where he was being treated so he could "recuperate" at home.
However, when the Zimbabwe Independent visited Nkomo's Milton Park residence in Harare this week to check on his condition amid rumours of his death, the paper was told he was in a grave condition and only close family members could see him. There have been many unfounded rumours of his passing on of late.
While Nkomo is critically ill, his colleagues from Matabeleland are already jostling to replace him before his death.
Although Zanu PF chairman Simon Khaya Moyo is seen as the favourite to succeed Nkomo if he retires as he is now incapacitated or dies, sources say Mines minister Obert Mpofu's growing influence in the region has also brought him to the fore as possible successor.
Moyo and Mpofu, as well as Zanu PF politburo member and former Zapu chairman Naison Khutshwekhaya Ndlovu and former Zipra commander Ambrose Mutinhiri, were involved in fierce political tussles around Nkomo's rise to vice-presidency after the death of Joseph Msika in 2009.
Now Moyo and Mpofu seem to be the ones slugging at each other over the fight.
Mpofu, who calls himself "Mugabe's ever-obedient son", has never been a favourite of most Zanu PF gurus from Matabeleland largely because he floor-crossed to Zanu PF before the signing of the Unity Accord in 1987, and is thus viewed as a "traitor".
His biggest weapon, however, appears to be the grassroots support he enjoys in the region, especially in Matabeleland North and Bulawayo where he has used his resources to build a solid support base and endear himself to the electorate.
The Matabeleland turf war has been protracted, resulting in suspensions and counter-suspensions of Bulawayo and Matabeleland North Zanu PF chairpersons, until elections were held a week ahead of the party's conference.
The elections somewhat confirmed Mpofu's dominance after his allies swept to power in a convincing win. In Matabeleland North, former Zanu PF District Coordinating Committee chairman for Umguza, Richard Moyo, who is close to Mpofu, won the provincial chairmanship by a crushing margin after defeating Patrick Utete by 6 689 votes to 674. Khaya Moyo and Matabeleland North governor Thokhozile Mathuthu were backing Utete.In Bulawayo another Mpofu ally, Killian Sibanda also won the elections, putting the two provinces under the minister's control. Mpofu is said to be now working on a plan to spread his influence to Matabeleland South where Khaya Moyo hails from.
In recent weeks Khaya Moyo and other senior officials from Matabeleland have escalated their campaign to discredit and thwart Mpofu, who has been attacking them saying they have alleging they no popular support.
At the Zanu PF conference last week, Khaya Moyo passionately denounced corruption and urged the party to take action against individuals implicated in corrupt deeds, in remarks seen as targeted at Mpofu.
"Entrepreneurs have been replaced by corruptepreneurs," said Khaya Moyo. "Where entrepreneurs have been replaced by corruptepreneurs, such conduct is unacceptable. Such conduct must be curbed by all. It is my considered view that once we deal with corruptepreneurs, we will succeed to indigenise, empower and create employment."
Mpofu, who has controversially built a vast business empire, insists he acquired his wealth by legitimate means and allegations of corruption were purveyed by his detractors. Mpofu also says Zanu PF officials from Matabeleland without constituencies were the ones against him.