Zimbabwe: Caught Between the Croc and Gucci City

Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s departure renews hope.
23 November 2017

ZANU-PF will use the current massive popular goodwill to rejuvenate its fortunes. The fragmented opposition has been further weakened. As a carefully choreographed scheme, the military intervention could prove a masterstroke by Emmerson Mnangagwa and his supporters. But all this will be at a high cost for future democratic alternatives in Zimbabwe.

The last two weeks have witnessed tumultuous events in Zimbabwean politics. After months of factional struggles between the Lacoste faction led by then Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, also nicknamed the crocodile, and the Generation 40 (G40) faction around President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace, also known as Gucci Grace, Mugabe fired Mnangagwa on 6 November. This followed Mugabe's warning to Mnangagwa two days before when Grace Mugabe was booed at a rally in Bulawayo. The President's wife threatened the embattled Vice President with the call that the 'snake must be hit on the head.' This was the First Lady's decisive move in her bid for the vice presidency in the upcoming ZANU PF congress in December 2017.

This most recent factional struggle in ZANU PF follows a long history of violent internal battles within the party, from the years of the liberation struggle in the 1970s around ethnic and ideological questions. A few years prior to his own party exile, Mnangagwa played a central role in the removal of the previous Vice President Joyce Mujuru, the wife of a key liberation commander Solomon Mujuru. As the Oxford scholar Miles Tendi has demonstrated, Mnangagwa, in support of the Mugabes, with the central involvement of Army Chief Constantine Chiwenga and the machinery of the military intelligence, conspired in the ousting of Joyce Mujuru. This event took place after a long factional struggle between the Mujuru and Mnangagwa factions since the 1990s. Thus both the Mugabes' succession plan and Mnangagwa's long held presidential ambitions have been in play for some time. While they have coincided in their strategic intent, at some point the final confrontation between the two was always on the cards.

The firing of Mnangagwa from the vice presidency and his expulsion from ZANU PF has, however, had vastly different effects on the Zimbabwean polity. While Joyce Mujuru's dismissal and the expulsion of several of her allies caused some disturbance in the ruling party, it was nothing like the turbulence that would follow Mnangagwa's removal. The statement justifying this decision accused the former Vice President of persistently exhibiting 'disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability'. In response Mnangagwa accused Mugabe of allowing the ruling party to be 'hijacked by novices and external forces' with a track record of 'treachery'. He also threatened that he would return to Zimbabwe and that 'we will very soon control the levers of power'.

Soon after this statement it was clear that Mnangagwa's exit statement was no idle threat. On November 13, the Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces Constantine Chiwenga sent out an ultimatum at a press conference surrounded by 90 senior officers. The armed forces, he promised, as the major 'stockholders' of the liberation struggle, would take corrective measures against counter-revolutionaries threatening to destroy ZANU PF from within. This was a clear reference to Grace Mugabe and the G40 grouping around her. On 15 November Chiwenga's statement of intent was followed by the military takeover of the country's broadcasting service. An announcement by Major General Sibusiso Moyo stated that the military was stepping into the Zimbabwean political fray in order to 'pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation'.

While the ZANU PF spokesperson and Secretary for the Youth League immediately denounced Chiwenga's statement as an attempt to subvert the Constitution, the military were careful not to cast their intervention as a coup. Major Moyo stated that this intervention 'was not a military takeover of government', but an effort to stop a degenerating political, social and economic situation in the country. Repeating the positions of both Mnangagwa and Chiwenga, Moyo described the army's actions as targeting criminals around Mugabe who were causing suffering in the country. Moreover he assured the country that Mugabe and his family were safe and that as soon as their mission was accomplished the country would return to 'normality'.

In reality, the military intervention is a coup in favour of the Mnangawga faction in ZANU PF. However the military are fully aware that neither SADC nor the African Union will recognise a new regime brought in through such means. Both have made it clear that they remain committed to constitutional order. Thus Mnangagwa and his supporters in the Zimbabwe Defence Force have opted for a carefully choreographed three-pronged strategy. Firstly, as mentioned above, the avoidance of any reference to a coup d'etat and the continued acknowledgement that Mugabe remains the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Secondly, the 'Mugabe must go' march organised by the War Veterans on 18 November was devised to provide popular support for the military's action. The organisers counted on the accumulated resentment for the Mugabe regime amongst the Zimbabwean citizenry and their calculation was correct. The thousands that turned out for the march celebrated in a carnival of cathartic joy and unified release manifested in a temporary romance between the armed forces and the citizenry. Thirdly, in order to provide the constitutional veneer for the military intervention, the ZANU PF Central Committee met on 19 November and made several decisions. It expressed gratitude to the military for its intervention in the internal affairs of the party, with a view to bringing normalcy to the party and government.

More decisively, the Central Committee expelled 20 members of the G40 faction from the party and removed Robert Mugabe from his position as President and First Secretary of the ruling party, also recommending that he resign as state President. Grace Mugabe was also relieved of her post as Secretary for the Women's League and Vice President Philekizela Mphoko removed from his post. The party then elected Emerson Mnangagwa as the new interim President of ZANU PF and nominated him to fill the vacancy of state President.

It was the hope that this strategy would force Mugabe to resign voluntarily, before which he would appoint Mnangagwa as Vice President and thus ease the path for his successor. However in a public address to the nation on the evening after the central committee meeting Mugabe took no such position. Instead he made a somewhat surreal speech assuming he was still in charge.

This forced the Mnangagwa group to proceed with their next course of action, namely the impeachment of Robert Mugabe. This process requires a two-thirds majority of both the Senate and National Assembly after what could be an extended parliamentary process. [Mugabe announced his resignation as the impeachment proceedings commenced on 21 November - Editor.]

The irony of these developments is that both factions, in this internecine struggle within ZANU PF have been at pains to deploy the language of constitutionalism while in the past they have all worked to undermine the constitutional rights of the Zimbabwean citizenry. The military have been central to Mugabe's authoritarian rule, playing a key role in preventing a constitutional change of government through elections for most of the 2000s. It has carried out mass violations of human rights and been responsible for mass atrocities such as the Gukurahundi massacres in the mid-1980s. The Generals have for a long time made it clear that they are the arbiters of rule in Zimbabwean politics. The long held perception that, despite the defining role of the military in ZANU PF and state politics Mugabe remained in firm control of the armed forces, has been decisively challenged.

Moving forward it is likely that if Mnangagwa's faction pursues the constitutional route through impeachment of Mugabe, both SADC and the AU will accept the outcome. Despite the SADC commitment to constitutionality, it can be argued the South African government in particular, since the time of Mbeki's mediation, has favoured a reformed ZANU PF through the stabilising force of the military, as the preferred option of change in Zimbabwe. It is also likely that the EU and the UK would come on board with such a solution. Since the 2013 election which once again kept ZANU PF in power, the EU has been at pains to find a workable means of engagement with the Mugabe regime, particularly through assistance given for electoral reform. As it is clear that there would be no serious electoral reform ahead of the 2018 elections, an alternative approach would have presented a real challenge for the EU. Some form of reform process without Mugabe would provide them with a new opening for further engagement, as it would for the British Government.

It is possible that a Mnangagwa-led regime could include individuals from opposition parties to present an appearance of inclusivity and as a way to get new support for an economy in deep crisis. At present the economy is characterised by low levels of production, de-industrialisation and massive informalisation of livelihoods. Public expenditures have also been on the rise in the face of shrinking revenues and high levels of debt. A monetary shortage and dominant levels of electronic money use have fuelled high levels of speculative activity in the money market. The unsustainability of this set of production relations is clear to all the major players.

The dominant mood of seeking economic and political stability at almost any cost in Zimbabwe has provided the space for the military to legitimise their intervention in favour of Mnangagwa. The opposition political forces, deeply divided as they are, will be further weakened by these events. They may be drawn into some form of Government of National Unity in which they will have a marginal and negligible role. The new face of ZANU PF, drawing on the massive popular goodwill displayed on the 18 November march, will use this time and space to rejuvenate ZANU PF's fortunes. As a carefully choreographed scheme, this military intervention could prove a masterly stroke by Mnangagwa and his supporters. However this will be at a high cost for future democratic alternatives in Zimbabwe.

PROF BRIAN RAFTOPOULOS is a leading Zimbabwean scholar and activist. Formely a Professor of Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe from 1990-2006, he has been the Director of Research and Advocacy in the Solidarity Peace Trust/Ukuthula Trust, an NGO dealing with human rights issues in Zimbabwe since 2007. He has published widely on Zimbabwean history, labour history, historiography and politics. Raftopoulos was also a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape from 2009-2016.

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