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What happens in the period after Mugabe? Deep down the key issue is whether ZANU-PF will go down with him or it will try to re-align itself in the post-Mugabe political dispensation. There are many people who are suspicious of the role of the army and war veterans in Zimbabwean politics.  Certainly, Robert Mugabe did not ruin Zimbabwe alone.


Wednesday 15 November 2017 will go down in history as one of the most memorable days in Zimbabwe’s political history. Army General Constantino Chiwenga took many by surprise by first warning those who were betraying the revolution, and said the army would not tolerate any further purging of senior party stalwarts. Little did we know that something more serious was in the offing. Then the unexpected or even unthinkable happened—President Robert Mugabe under house arrest, the army takes over the national television, tanks fill the streets…  Then we are told, this is not a military coup but just to deal with unruly and corrupt characters surrounding the president. It is too early to tell what these unfolding events will lead to, but it is important to ponder a bit on what might transpire given the rising political temperatures in Zimbabwe and in the southern African region.

No doubt the Zimbabwe situation with Robert Mugabe at the heart of a political storm will continue to dominate the global news for some days to come.  At the same time, events are unfolding rather fast, at a pace hard to fathom.  Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional leaders are not resting either as Zimbabwe nears the precipice.  Uncle Bob, as he is affectionately called, has a long history of struggle and stubbornness and will first put up a fight, before his Greek-like tragic demise.

The “Crocodile” escaped from the waters and sparked a political storm

While the political temperatures continue to rise following the military intervention—“coup” by any other name - and uncertainty about President Mugabe’s fate, we must not forget what initially sparked off the unfolding political drama.  The much-feared close ally of Mugabe’s, Emerson Mnangagwa, nicknamed “crocodile”, because of his shrewd survival tactics, was fired from his post as Vice President. Talk in town was that he was nursing presidential ambitions to succeed Mugabe.  Another narrative was that Grace Mugabe, the First Lady, did not take Mnangagwa’s presidential ambitions lightly and hatched her own plans.  Speculation is rife that it is these two competing political ambitions that led to the firing of Mnangagwa. 

Those in the know claim that the “crocodile” does not take a political fight lying low.  So when the axe fell on the crocodile, dealing a severe blow to his presidential ambitions, two options were clearly on the table.  First, that the crocodile would fight back with all the might in an all-out confrontation with his boss.  Second, that the crocodile would just sneak out of the political waters quietly and live a quiet life in some unknown location in exile.  Knowing what the crocodile is good at, those who follow Zimbabwean politics closely were not surprised by the military intervention—it was as predictable as day follows night.  Emerson Mnangagwa has networks both in the intelligence and armed forces and he is known as a close friend of the Army Commander. Did anybody think that he would fail to sneak out of the country and return at will? Sure enough, the crocodile is able to navigate the waters of the Zambezi and the Limpopo with ease and dexterity.

It is now a game of wits between Uncle Bob and his former close ally Mnangagwa. It is not easy to guess who is the master political chess player between the two, since both have been at it since the 1970s when they were fighting the Ian Smith regime, up to just these two weeks when they openly fell out. 

Did Mugabe underestimate the crocodile’s survival instinct? We are still watching and the drama is just beginning. Up to now, we have not yet heard from Emerson Mnangagwa as the drama has now shifted to behind-the-door negotiations on what next for Mugabe.  The African Union Chairperson Alpha Conde has spoken out that the AU will not tolerate unconstitutional means of taking power — military takeover. The military cleverly said this is not a “coup.”  But clearly no one can deny that Zimbabwe is now in a serious political crisis of titanic proportions. 

All this is happening when ZANU-PF is preparing for its national conference this December.  The key issue is succession politics. Who will succeed Robert Mugabe since he cannot rule for ever, even if he rules for life? Did Robert Mugabe outwit himself by playing all his political colleagues against each other until he was left almost alone in the ring? Are we experiencing a sort of Greek political tragedy unfolding? Some with a Marxist sense of history might be thinking of what usually befalls new Marxist movements that end up with revolutions eating their own children.  Are the last two children being chewed by the revolution or will one survive to tell the story?  These are some of the questions that might be arising in the minds of Robert Mugabe and Emerson Mnangagwa.

What about Amai Grace Mugabe?

The brewing political storm in Zimbabwe cannot be delinked from the First Lady Amai Grace Mugabe, whom many agree has developed some good appetite for State House.  She is no doubt one of the leading actors now with her famous G40—an outfit of young zealous political activists that include Jonathan Moyo, who want the old regime of war veterans and liberation heroes to end.  There is some irony in this.  Will the G40 need Robert Mugabe’s blessing? But Mugabe is the Chief Liberation Hero No. 1.  Will Zimbabweans believe the narrative of G40 that preaches a break with the liberation rhetoric, or G40 is another gimmick to entrench dynastic politics with a rebranded narrative?

Clearly, we are witnessing a divided polity and divided liberation movement. Some would say this has been going on for decades and that it was a mode of operation within the ZANU-PF. So then “the chickens have come home to roost,” as the saying goes. If this is true, then the December ZANU—PF congress is held in balance.  If Robert Mugabe had wanted to control the December congress and tilt it in favor of his wife by first getting rid of Emerson Mnangagwa, then we are in for a showdown. 

Given that Grace Mugabe has some good following among the ZANU-PF Youth League and some rural constituencies that generally follow what Robert Mugabe says, the current crisis might just be unfolding. Mugabe might be telling those who are negotiating his exit: “Look, I have a huge following, so how do you want me to abandon my mandate?” His critics might respond: “Look, you have been at it since independence in 1980, and you are now 93, what else do you really want to achieve?” The answer to the latter question lies deep in Robert Mugabe’s heart and those who are very close to him.

What are the sticking issues?

The street protests by both opposition and ZANU-PF supporters are a clear indication that Robert Mugabe’s days are clearly numbered.  Media outlets (Al-Jazeera, BBC, and SABC) are airing some of the best analyses of the Zimbabwe situation blow by blow.  Some of leading experts on the country such as Brian Kagoro, Dr. Ibbo Mandaza and Simukai Chigudu have expressed their informed opinions on the unfolding situation, from political, economic and health perspectives. The general consensus is that it is not business as usual.

The first challenging issue is, who is in charge as crisis intensifies? The men in uniform seem to be on top of things and setting the strategic agenda.  This confirms what was known all along that even Robert Mugabe was beholden to the military and security agencies—now they have come out in the open.  Is Mugabe still the Commander-in-Chief? He got a commander-in-chief’s salutes after the rambling night speech in which he refused to resign.  Were the salutes mere acts of courtesy? The ruling party ZANU-PF is also playing a critical role—party leaders stripped Mugabe of his chairmanship and have quickly moved an impeachment motion in parliament that they dominate.  The main opposition MDC is also warming up for a stake and has even suggested that a transitional arrangement be made that includes all stakeholders.  The fight for the soul of Zimbabwe is on.

Deep down the key issue is whether ZANU-PF will go down with Robert Mugabe or it will try to re-align itself in the post-Mugabe political dispensation. There are some who are suspicious of the role of the army and war veterans in Zimbabwean politics.  Their view is that Robert Mugabe did not ruin the Zimbabwean economy alone.  They are clamoring for a clean break with the politics of entitlement or “divine right” that has marked Zimbabwe for the last 37 years.

The leaders in SADC are also worried of what the forceful removal from power of Robert Mugabe will mean for the region.  Might this have a contagion effect in the region where liberation movements have been monopolizing state power for decades? In this situation of near anarchy, does it make sense to invoke constitutionalism and the AU principle of not changing government by unlawful means? What if there is unanimity that a leader has outlived his ability to govern and is in fact undermining principles of constitutionalism?  

What next for Zimbabwe and what should the region and AU do?

The Zimbabwean crisis has been coming since 2008.  It started off with the government of national unity after the disputed elections of 2008 and the subsequent economic crisis.  Let no one isolate the current stalemate from the broader political economic crisis that Zimbabwe has been experiencing.  This is just the climax.  All actors on the Zimbabwean political landscape need to be part of the dialogue and not just closed-door negotiations.  Some have argued that this is a ZANU-PF child and so the party should deal with it alone. This is not true.  If Zimbabwe implodes it is not ZANU-PF alone that will bear the ugly consequences of such a crisis.  Zimbabwe has a vibrant civil society, a strong opposition and a regional body SADC—all these actors can work together to get a solution for the common good.  It is probably the opportune time to think of a transitional arrangement that will facilitate free and fair elections both for inter and intra-party processes.

Of course military takeover is a thing of the past. At the same time some form of military intervention in case of anarchy is permitted, for some time.  Zimbabwe still has functioning institutions and they can be put to good use even as the current political impasse is being addressed.  However, it should be made clear that the real immediate issue is succession politics within ZANU-PF that has triggered off the current stalemate.  ZANU-PF will have to do its own soul-searching if it wants to survive beyond Robert Mugabe.

SADC and the AU have organs that deal with such complex emergencies.  It is high time they did the right thing, without fear or favor.  The political economy of affection, where the philosophy of “I scratch your back and you scratch mine later” reigns, will not save a country that is undergoing severe political stress. The common mantra of “African solutions for African problems” should be tested on Zimbabwe.

The current crisis needs the contribution of all stakeholders. And Zimbabwe is not in short supply of civil society organizations at home and experienced technocrats who fled the country as the crisis set off as early as 2008.  Their expert voices need to be heard at this time of need.  The main opposition party MDC that has been challenging ZANU-PF has a crucial role to play in any arrangements that will be negotiated as short and long term solutions. 

The Holy Bible that Robert Mugabe knows quite a bit about has some piece of wisdom: “There is time for everything.” We can add: There is time to rule and time to stop ruling. Uncle Bob, it is time to stop ruling! There is life after the presidency. After all, there is even life after death.

* ODOMARO MUBANGIZI, PhD, teaches social and political philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, and he is Editor-in-Chief of the Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.



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