Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, who was airlifted to China from South Africa in July - sparking intense jostling for his position - underwent a life-saving yet risky operation at a top Beijing hospital over the weekend amid revelations by his close associates that he could have been poisoned.
Top government and security officials told the Zimbabwe Independent this week Chiwenga underwent an operation to clear part of his oesophagus which was blocked, although he remains in a stable, but critical condition.
The oesophagus is a muscular tube which connects the mouth to the stomach. When swallowing food, the walls of the oesophagus contract, enabling food to be move down to the stomach.
Because of the blockage, officials revealed, Chiwenga was unable to eat, resulting in him becoming emaciated due to illness and lack of food.
He was flown to Beijing in a bad condition and was rushed to hospital on landing. Chiwenga was admitted in the Intensive Care Unit of a state-of-the-art hospital in a high security area before being moved to a private ward, security sources said.
Officials said that after intensive tests and intensive intravenous feeding -- getting nutrition into the body through veins -- Chiwenga was deemed strong enough to undergo an initial operation to clear his oesophagus.
"He has improved a lot, but because he is still critical, the medical team had to delay the operation. The operation was done over the weekend and it was successful. He is now recovering from the procedure," a security official said.
"He is still scheduled to go undergo more operations, but this will be done after he has fully recovered from the first operation. He is still in a serious condition, but the fact that he had an operation is an indication that he is improving. He was initially too weak and vulnerable for the procedure, so it's encouraging that it was finally done."
Officials said by the time Chiwenga underwent the operation he was able to walk, having been bed-ridden when he was flown to China.
Chiwenga's close associates say he was poisoned by his political rivals, although the vice-president has not himself revealed the cause of his ailment.
However, in May last year, while speaking at the burial of his sister, Margaret Machekabuwe in Marondera, Chiwenga said he fell ill during Operation Restore Legacy.
Operation Restore Legacy was the code name for the military coup which toppled former president Robert Mugabe from power in November 2017, resulting in President Emmerson Mnangagwa rising to the presidency.
In its initial stages, the illness caused Chiwenga's skin to turn lighter in complexion, resulting in speculation that he was using skin-lightening creams and might have skin cancer.
Chiwenga, however, said his new light complexion was a result of a rare disease that attacked him.
"Let me say this since the media are here. During Operation Restore Legacy, I was with General (Phillip Valerio) Sibanda (Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commander), he is a great man as you see him, I also called (Police Commissioner-General Godwin) Matanga (to the meeting). Unfortunately, I fell very sick, while in their company," he said. "This is what caused my sickness to the extent of having a light skin. I was affected all over the body, and the papers said I am applying a skin-lightening cream."
Chiwenga was flown to China at the request of the Government of Zimbabwe. He was accompanied by some aides and members of his security team.
The Chinese government is regularly updating the government of Zimbabwe through direct communication between President Xi Jinping and President Mnangagwa as well as through the Chinese embassy.
Officials say the Chinese government has told Mnangagwa that Beijing will do its best to ensure Chiwenga recovers, without giving any assurances.
Zanu PF insiders told the Independent a fortnight ago that Chiwenga's health woes have ignited frenzied jostling for his seat, with Zanu PF national chairperson Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri emerging as the front-runner. Muchinguri-Kashiri appears to be the overwhelming favourite for the position as she reportedly enjoys support from President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mnangagwa wanted to appoint Muchinguri-Kashiri as one of his deputies soon after the coup which ended Mugabe's 37-year rule, but the military demanded that the position be given to Chiwenga, who also at the time insisted on being in charge of the influential Defence and War Veterans portfolios.
"She is trusted by Mnangagwa because of her unwavering loyalty. She has been in cabinet for a long time. She also has impeccable liberation war credentials which make her the ultimate favourite. Her other advantage seems to be that women in the party have been clamouring for a position in the top three and, being in the presidium already, she is very much set for it," a Zanu PF official said.
However, Muchinguri-Kashiri is facing fierce competition from Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa, who is also thought to be interested in the top job and is being propped up by her belligerent husband, Chris.
Mutsvangwa also boasts of the same liberation war credentials as Muchinguri-Kashiri and fits perfectly into the emerging gender narrative.
Before her arrest on corruption allegations, former tourism minister Prisca Mupfumira was also in the race.
ZDF commander Lieutenant-General Valerio Sibanda's name has also been mentioned, although he is considered a rank outsider. His biggest challenge is that he has Zapu/Zipra roots along with the other Vice-President Kembo Mohadi.
Sibanda's other challenge, according to senior Zanu PF officials, is that he comes from Midlands province like Mnangagwa and his appointment would thus upset the delicate ethnic balancing imperative, a big factor in Zanu PF politics.