First Lady Grace Mugabe has ruffled the feathers of senior Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commanders by her stinging direct attacks on Vice-President Emmerson Mnangangwa and military service chiefs at a time tensions are running high within the security forces over President Robert Mugabe's intensifying succession battle.
Military sources say the situation has been exacerbated by Mugabe's secret manoeuvres to remove ZDF commander General Constantine Chiwenga from his position for interfering in Zanu PF's succession politics and backing Mnangagwa, who is locked in a war of attrition with Grace.
The First Lady attacked army bosses and war veterans at a rally in Chiweshe, Mashonaland Central province, last Friday, accusing them of plotting with her Zanu PF rivals to bomb her family's private property and kill her son as part of the succession intrigues.
Military sources said during security briefings this week army chiefs voiced concern and expressed anger at Grace's remarks at the Chiweshe rally and her earlier attacks on war veterans at a gathering at Chimhanda Secondary School in Rushinga, Mashonaland Central, on October 14 last year.
Some senior army commanders and war veterans leaders are said to have joined forces to back Mnangagwa and bombard Grace's camp in a bid to seize power after Mugabe.
Searing rhetoric and a blitz this week by War Veterans minister Chris Mutsvangwa and ex-combatants leaders led by Victor Matematanda and Francis Zimuto against Grace and her allies showed they were on an adventurous offensive. However, police yesterday shelled war veterans with water at high pressure from cannons and teargas to thwart protests against Grace and her camp.
"Senior army commanders, who support Mnangagwa, are angry with Grace over her offensive remarks last week," a top military boss said. "This has fuelled tensions, fury and resentment within military circles where the situation was already tense anyway following reports that the commander-in-chief (Mugabe) wants to remove Chiwenga and his attacks on some of us in Victoria Falls (during the December Zanu PF annual conference) last year."
In an unexpected and sensational charge, Mugabe on December 11 last year warned army, police and intelligence bosses against meddling in Zanu PF's seemingly unrelenting factional and succession wars. During the evening of that day, army commanders met with Mugabe in the country's the prime resort town to discuss the tense situation. Since then tensions have been rising within the military.
Military sources said Mugabe also met with army chiefs on February 4 in Harare to discuss the problem.
A senior government official said Mugabe also on Monday this week met with Grace, Mnangagwa and co-Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko, who last Friday poured fuel to the already raging succession fires by saying after Zezurus it does not mean Karangas are ordained to rule, at State House in the capital to tackle the brewing crisis and calm down the army, war veterans and Zanu PF succession rivals.
A senior Ministry of Defence official said: "Anxieties, pressures and fears are serious in the military mainly because of factional and confrontational politics."
This is fuelling the already intense succession conflict.
Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi yesterday refused to comment, only saying: "I have no comment over that matter."
Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) spokesman Alphios Makotore said: "The army does not comment on issues of this particular nature. You are therefore advised to direct your questions to Zimbabwe Defence Forces headquarters (public relations department)."
ZDF spokesman Overson Mugwisi was said to be on study leave, while his replacement Colonel Teddy Ndlovu was repeatedly said to be in meetings.
Grace's vitriol against service chiefs comes as it has emerged most senior military figures are solidly behind Mnangagwa's presidential bid.
Military sources say senior officials backing Mnangagwa include Chiwenga, ZNA commander Lieutenant-General Phillip Valerio Sibanda and two of his deputies, Major-Generals Trust Mugoba and Sibusiso B Moyo.
Mugoba and Moyo's colleague Major-General Douglas Nyikayaramba reportedly does not support Mnangagwa.
Mugoba oversees military intelligence, training, signals, public relations and army engineers, while Moyo controls army procurement, transport, ordinance as well as electrical and mechanical engineering.
Other senior army officials said to be sympathetic to Mnangagwa are Major- General Engelbert Rugeje, head of military intelligence Brigadier-General Thomas Moyo and Zimbabwe Presidential Guard commander Brigadier-General Ansleem Sanyatwe.
War veterans, an army reserve force, have been holding meetings at 2 Presidential Guard where Sanyatwe is the boss.
Chief-of-Staff Joint Operation and Plans in the ZDF, Air Vice-Marshal Elson Moyo is also said to be a Mnangagwa sympathiser.
Senior military officials not linked to Mnangagwa include Air Force of Zimbabwe commander Air Marshal Perence Shiri and Nyikayaramba who used to support expelled former vice-president Joice Mujuru.
Some senior Join Operations Command chiefs such Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri, Prisons Commissioner retired Major-General Paradzai Zimondi and intelligence boss retired Major-General Happyton Bonyongwe also do not support Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa and his Zanu PF faction are fighting with Grace's camp to produce a successor to Mugabe. The vice-president wants to take over from Mugabe, while Grace is said to be a stalking horse for Sydney Sekeramayi who is now linked to the G40 group.
However, indications this week were that Sekeramayi is developing cold feet as he apparently refused to meet with senior officials backing the First Lady to discuss tensions in the military. It is understood G40 officials this week tried but failed to meet him to discuss the situation within security forces as signs grow that the army and war veterans are agitated over Grace's offensive and Mugabe's succession.
Last week when Zanu PF Women's League secretary for finance Sarah Mahoka attacked Mnangagwa before a crucial politburo meeting to discuss the intensifying Zanu PF bickering, Sekeramayi, who used to support Mujuru and her faction, looked visibly uncomfortable and unimpressed as he briefly exchanged remarks with party spokesman Simon Khaya Moyo.
Sources said while army commanders remain loyal to Mugabe despite their anger with Grace, they were now trying to leverage their influence and to test civilian control to obtain concessions and job security without upsetting the equilibrium of "military tutelage" under which the Zanu PF regime currently rules.
"What we are seeing now is a delicate situation and balance involving political brinkmanship between Mugabe and army chiefs," a former military commander said. '
"We are seeing the art or practice of pursuing a dangerous process or risky gamble to the limits of safety before stopping; stretched it's zero-sum politics. In any game of brinkmanship, it is possible that there would a precarious and uncertain stand-off or indeed one side will collapse in the process. It depends on what happens.
"It's a complicated strategic calculus: Mugabe is likely to calm down the situation and restore his control over the military given his power and influence, but if he underestimates the military threat to his rule and rocks the boat too much he might find himself in serious trouble."
The military is the pillar of support and strength for Mugabe's rule, especially after 2000 when the opposition MDC emerged and began to threaten his regime's survival. Since 2000, and even before that, the army propped up Mugabe and assisted him to win elections by hook or crook and keep the MDC at bay.
Mugabe's use of the military to suppress dissent and the opposition has created a moral hazard; for the very resources that enable his regime's repressive apparatus to suppress its opponents also empower them to act against the regime itself.
The current stand-off was sparked by Grace's daring attack on Mnangagwa and the military.
"If there are any service chiefs at this rally, please don't bomb our dairy," Grace said. "How evil-hearted can one be? And you want me to respect you? You really want me to smile at you and say 'Oh, well done'? Oh no ... Come to the next rally, we'll drop names. This thing of teaming up with soldiers to go and bomb (her Mazowe property allegedly to kill her son), it won't work.
"If your plan is to bomb our dairy to induce fear, hoping we'll surrender power, then you must be mad, very mad. Which post are you dreaming of occupying? Whose seat?
"Didn't you hear there's no vacancy at State House? Imagine it has got to a stage where they want to kill my son, Bellarmine. Is it fair to expect me to smile at you?"