I have recently met many people -- most unknown to me -- who have stopped me for a chat. Invariably the chat took a political turn.
These people, I noticed, come across the board -- politicians, journalists, school teachers, and businesspeople of all races, commercial farmers and even ambassadors.
The topic they have discussed with me is Zimbabwe's future after Mugabe.
"What do you think will happen when the Old Man is gone"? must now be the most frequently asked question in Zimbabwe.
Two issues emerge when one examines the question. One is that there is an apprehension in the minds of most people that President Robert Mugabe's exit from the political scene will be followed by Armageddon. The second is that the "Old Man" is seen as central to whatever will play out when he is gone.
The question, for all intents and purposes, implores Mugabe to do something about Zimbabwe's future in the immediate aftermath of his exit, whether through incapacity or death. The urgency in the question is palpable. You can sense it as the question is posed; you can feel that people are overly aware of Mugabe's mortality now more than ever. He is 89 in February next year. And, as in Nelson Mandela, the spirit and sparkle, will also fade as Mandela's wife Graca Machel was reported to have said of him last week.
Many people think of the worst case scenario: Mugabe's exit will create a power vacuum that will suck in the "baddest" characters, so to speak, resulting in the situation getting much worse than it already is.
The question also shows that the people recognise that the Zanu PF edifice is not going to collapse in one go as they had hoped; with Zanu PF the country is in for the long haul!
In my opinion, besides the worst case scenario, there are two other scenarios that might emerge. Zimbabwe might go the way of the Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire), or the way of Tanzania.
The Ivory Coast was ruled for the first 33 years of its independence by strongman Félix Houphouët-Boigny. In the beginning, as is always the case, he was a good president but as the years wore on "the nation's political system was bound tightly to his myth, charisma, and political and economic competence".
When he eventually passed on in 1995, the nation was faced with stark realities. For the first time the country was faced with the prospect of free and fair elections without Houphouët-Boigny. Houphouët-Boigny had been able in his long reign to suppress ethnic tensions.
The Ivory Coast's population was made up of more than 25% foreigners mostly from Burkina Faso who had lived in the country for as much as two generations, which entitled them to the vote. But as happens in most of Africa when elections loom, ethnicity comes to the fore.
The founding president had managed, through his strong leadership, to suppress these ethnic tensions but they erupted after his demise. The situation was worsened by the economic downturn which hit when the global economic crisis hit the price of cocoa resulting in the sharp rise in unemployment.
The factionalism in Zanu PF can be attributed to ethnic tension. Zimbabwean politics are dominated by ethnic consideration, hence the loud calls now for devolution. In Zanu PF one can really feel the tension between the Zezuru and the Karanga and the Manyika and the Ndebele.
Indeed, the faction leaders of the two dominant groupings are only as strong as they represent their ethnic groups. Joice Mujuru is seen as the leader of the Zezurus while Emmerson Mnangagwa is the leader of the Karangas. Add to this, the huge Matabeleland Question which has already seen a war fought in the early years of independence. By and large Mugabe has managed to suppress these tensions by right and by might. But, as in the Ivorian case, when he is gone, no one single leader will be able to keep the tension under control.
Mugabe is the huntsman who has kept his dogs on leash releasing them when need be but keeping them under his beck and call.
He is the falconer who can still be heard by the falcons but a time will come when the falcons can no longer hear the falconer, which is when the falconer is either dead or incapacitated. Then, things will fall apart, for there won't be any centre to hold them together, as happened in the Ivory Coast.
Tanzania, after Julius Nyerere, has had an almost totally different story, and that is because Nyerere noticed early the weakness of his rule. It is often said -- I searched for this but couldn't find it anywhere on the internet -- Nyerere said that in creating his party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) he didn't know he had created a monster he couldn't destroy.
A Frankenstein is something that destroys or harms the person or people who created it. Nyerere realised CCM had become bad for Tanzania and had to be destroyed or transformed.
Similarly, Zanu PF has become bad for Zimbabwe and Mugabe knows it. That's why at the party's annual conference in Gweru he talked so strongly against factionalism and corruption, the two most virulent cancers that debilitate not only the party but the country as well. This is why the worst case scenario becomes the default scenario in the minds of all Zimbabweans who care for their country's future.
For Nyerere, Tanzania is the stable country it is today. Elections are held regularly and power transfers done smoothly. The tension between Zanzibar and the mainland has been defused, hopefully permanently. Nyerere saved both his country and his party from the monster he had created. A more democratic CCM is still the dominant party in the country and the situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Houphouët-Boigny on the other hand created the recipe for the chaos that later beset the Ivory Coast and died while it simmered underneath. Nyerere, perhaps deriving lessons from the Ivorian situation, deliberately altered the course of Tanzanian history.
Houphouët-Boigny or Julius Nyerere, which one will Mugabe choose to be? This question would be frivolous and vexatious if it wasn't so urgent. It is this question that's vexing the mind of every Zimbabwean. When people talk about the Zanu PF succession issue, they are interrogating this issue; they are not being subversive or unpatriotic. On the contrary, they are thinking about their future and the future of their children.
What will happen in Zimbabwe after Mugabe will depend on what he does in the short time between now and when the "spirit and sparkle" fade.