opinionBy Simon Allison
Who will succeed President Robert Mugabe?
With the nomination of First Lady Grace Mugabe to a senior Zanu PF position, the great succession debate is dominating headlines once again. But is it still too soon to contemplate the future? By all accounts, there is life in the old dog yet -- and maybe even a new trick or two.
The year 2014 has been a tough one so far for Zimbabwe. The Movement for Democratic Change, for so long the only real opposition to |Mugabe's autocracy, has self-combusted into irrelevance; the economy has gone from bad to much worse, with no sign of light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel; and Mugabe and his Zanu PF are about as entrenched in power as they ever have been, smug and secure after last year's comprehensive election victory.
It's not hard to understand, then, why so many Zimbabweans - its journalists in particular - are obsessed with the succession debate. It must be a comforting thought, to think that the old man - 90 years and counting - can't go on forever, that at some point there will be a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. That in the near future, no matter who takes over, there will be change, any change, for surely nothing can be worse than these decades of dictator-induced stagnation?
Contemplating the future, uncertain though it is, must be so much more pleasant than dealing with the present, and the uncomfortable reality it keeps throwing up - that Mugabe isn't going anywhere quickly. In fact - even as the President is wining and dining delegates at the Sadc summit in Victoria Falls, having just assumed chairpersonship of the regional body - he is consolidating his death grip on the levers of power domestically.
Take, for example, last week's Zanu PF Women's League elective conference in Harare, where the assembled dignitaries made two significant decisions.
First, they decided to endorse Mugabe as Zanu PF's sole candidate in the 2018 presidential elections, placing a surprising amount of faith in the nonagenarian's continued good health. (Maybe we shouldn't be reading too much into those mysterious trips to Singapore - whatever they are doing to him there, it seems to be working.)
Second, they decided to nominate his wife, Grace, to the prestigious, influential position of Women's League secretary, a decision that is almost certain to be confirmed at the Zanu PF elective congress in December.
The 49-year-old First Lady was once a presidential typist, before being plucked from obscurity by the President himself. Soon, she will be on the politburo of the ruling party, the most influential committee in the country, which just happens to be headed by her husband. If there was any doubt before that Grace is one of the most powerful women in Zimbabwe, there is none now.
Shameless nepotism aside, what makes her nomination even more remarkable is that the Women's League had to break its own rules to make it happen. These clearly state that any office bearer must have actively served the party for 15 years, including five years in provincial structures. Grace falls well short of these requirements, having spent the time since her marriage to Mugabe in 1996 running a dairy farm, among other extensive business interests, and conducting humanitarian work (the need for which has been greatly exacerbated by her husband's social and economic policies).
No matter. This is Zimbabwe, where all too often rules are made to be bent or broken (sometimes, rules are actually made specifically to allow transgressions, such as the extraordinary provision in Zimbabwe's constitution which suspends key clauses for the next decade - ensuring, in other words, that they never apply to Mugabe).
More interesting is what this tells us about the power games at the very top of Zimbabwean politics.
Of course, attention has quickly focused on that succession battle, which pits two influential factions against one another. In one corner is former spy chief and now Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, thought to represent the party's hardline, conservative elements. In the other is Vice-President Joice Mujuru, who's a little more moderate (these things are relative, remember).
Last week, the Mail & Guardian newspaper ran an excellent piece on how Grace's entry into active politics has "shaken the power dynamics in Zanu PF" and destabilised the Mujuru faction.
"The Mujuru faction looked all set for a clean sweep at the (December) congress, paving the way for Mujuru to succeed Mugabe.
With Grace entering active politics, the Mnangagwa faction was given a huge shot in the arm and panic hit the Mujuru camp," it explained. Apparently, Grace and Mujuru don't get along; and Grace is also looking to secure her own future, nervous that the President's death would leave her vulnerable.
It's an interesting analysis and probably accurate. But it obscures the bigger picture, which is that neither the Mujuru faction nor the Mnangagwa faction has the upper hand - not even close. That honour, of course, belongs to the Mugabe faction, which is still firmly in control of Zimbabwean politics. There's nothing to suggest that it won't remain so for some time to come.
The author is a South African freelance journalist based in Hargeisa, Somaliland. He specialises in Middle Eastern and African politics.