At 93, Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, is in a rush to secure his immortality. This week, he had Harare’s international airport named after him and next year will see the start of a national holiday in his honour, Robert Mugabe Day.
If the country had a currency, Mr Mugabe’s face would doubtless adorn that, too, but the ageing despot’s eccentric economic policies have put paid to that. In 2009 the Zimbabwe dollar was removed from circulation after one of the world’s worst bouts of hyperinflation.
If Mr Mugabe’s haste to preserve his legacy suggests he knows the end is nigh, then the tooth-and-nail succession battle raging around him suggests others think so, too. In a week extraordinary even by Zimbabwe’s tumultuous — not to say farcical — standards, the president moved decisively against one pretender to his throne while another — his wife, Grace — made it clear she wanted her husband’s job once he is gone.
After 50 years by Mr Mugabe’s side, Emmerson Mnangagwa — a former security chief so feared Zimbabweans call him the “Crocodile” — fled the country for his life this week when Mr Mugabe sacked him as vice-president. “The road has lions. There are pitfalls,” Mr Mugabe told a rally after ousting his life-long comrade. “There is death.”
Grace Mugabe, 40 years her husband’s junior, made her presidential pretensions explicit. “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?” she told a rally outside Harare on Thursday. Mr Mnangagwa, who had accused her of trying to kill him with poison-laced ice cream, was, she said, “a snake” whose head should be crushed.
Behind all the venom and drama lie an ailing economy and a ruling Zanu-PF party consumed with factionalism, ambition and paranoia about what comes next.
“The writing is on the wall for Mugabe,” said Lloyd Msipa, co-founder of Africa Public Policy Research Institute, a London-based think-tank. “He’s isolated. He’s done away with everyone who was in the liberation war with him.” The people who were now trying to muscle into power — the so-called G40 faction around Mrs Mugabe — “were in diapers when the war was going on”, he said.
Grace Mugabe, left, said Emmerson Mnangagwa, right, was a snake whose head should be crushed ©️ Reuters
Clionadh Raleigh, an expert on Africa at the University of Sussex, also thought this might be the endgame. “The sky is always falling in Zimbabwe, but something real has shifted here,” she said.
Mr Mnangagwa, who is believed to be in neighbouring South Africa — though there was a counter-rumour that he had flown to China — vowed to fight back. In a statement attributed to him, Mr Mnangagwa said: “I will go nowhere. I will fight tooth and nail against those making a mockery against Zanu-PF.”
Veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war have reacted with fury to the prospect of Mr Mugabe leaving behind a dynasty, accusing his wife of a “coup by marriage certificate”. At the same time they have ruled out supporting military action to install Mr Mnangagwa, saying the army would not become “the arbiter of power”.
Analysts say that Mr Mnangagwa will only be able to break the impasse if he gains the support of police units or individual military commanders, who have so far been silent on his firing.
Supporters of Robert Mugabe gather at Zanu-PF headquarters to back Grace Mugabe becoming the party’s next vice-president after Emmerson Mnangagwa was sacked.
Speaking to AFP Mr Msipa said the fractured opposition might now rally around Mr Mnangagwa, who had bona fide liberation credentials. Both Morgan Tsvangirai, a veteran trade union leader and former prime minister, and Joice Mujuru, a life-long Mugabe supporter who was also ousted as vice-president for alleged disloyalty, were prepared to work with Mnangagwa, Mr Msipa said.
Ibbo Mandaza, a former senior member of Zanu-PF, played down Mr Mnangagwa’s chances, saying he was isolated outside the country. Equally, he dismissed the idea that Mrs Mugabe was now favourite to succeed her husband, saying Mr Mugabe was using her as a battering ram against his enemies. He tipped Sydney Sekeramayi, defence minister, as a vice-president and possible successor.
Peter Pham, head of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center in Washington, said the real backdrop to the drama was Zimbabwe’s disintegrating economy. “Almost the entirety of the national budget is nowadays spent paying salaries of the military, security personnel, and civil servants, leaving the regime very little space for manoeuvre or room for error if it is to retain the loyalty of its cadres,” he said. -Financial Times