by Bryan Burgess
In a late 2014 column, ZANU PF chaos – early Xmas present?, Moses Chamboko quipped that the unfolding tensions within Zimbabwe’s ruling party would “take a person like William Shakespeare to write a meaningful script on this episode.” A year and a half later, with an aging strongman, three contenders for the throne, and a new wave of protests taking to the streets, even the Bard could only guess at what lies ahead for Zimbabwe.
Robert Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980, has shut out any suggestion of having a successor for decades. Yet after celebrating his 92nd birthday in February, and with protests in the capital city of Harare intensifying in this past week, Mugabe’s grip on the country appears to be weakening alongside his health.
For the first time since independence, Zimbabwe may have a new leader. Candidates are already competing for 2018.
Of the three likely contenders for President, two are fighting for control of the state party, ZANU-PF: the current Vice President and Minister of Justice Emmerson D. Mnangagwa and the president’s wife Grace Mugabe. The third, Joice Mujuru, who held Mnangagwa’s spot as Vice President until Grace Mugabe exiled her from the party, now commands the sizable Zimbabwe People First (ZPF) party.
Emmerson Mnangagwa fought with Mugabe in the revolution and has been a senior member of the ZANU-PF apparatus for decades. His term as Vice President began in 2014, when he replaced the former heir apparent to Mugabe’s rule, Joice Mujuru. In the past months, Grace Mugabe has attempted to exile him from the party in much the same manner as she expelled Mujuru: having allies denounce him and even blaming his supporters, “Team Lacoste,” for inciting the current wave of protests. Mnangagwa has so far resisted the first lady’s Macbethian attempts at his expulsion from ZANU-PF due largely to his close ties to the security forces, particularly the generals. Recently, General Constantine Chinegwa, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Force and a man whom the New York Times has described as “positioning himself as the power behind the throne”, made an indirect threat against critics of Mnangagwa, including Minister Mandi Chimene. Chinegwa and his senior officers have made clear that the military intends to present a unified front, with Chinegwa as that face.
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Grace Mugabe nonetheless commands the support of several of heavyweights in the ruling party with her “G40” faction including Phelekezela Mphoko, Vice President and Minister of National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation, Saviour Kasukuwere, Minister of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing, and Professor Jonathan Moyo, Minister of Education. Grace Mugabe’s close ties to the president and the continued attacks against Mnangagwa have led some to speculate that the “G40” group has the tacit blessing of Robert Mugabe, though the president has so far denied any factionalism within his party. Unfortunately for the first lady, she has spent much of this year embroiled in ongoing disputes with the crucial bloc of Zimbabwe’s war veterans, whom she has for the most part abandoned in favor of ZANU-PF’s youth coalition. Grace Mugabe enlisted the support of a token veteran, Minister Mandi Chimene, but the tone of veterans’ protest has shifted from opposing her candidacy to more urgent tenor demanding the resignation of the president.
Capitalizing on the anger of the veterans, Joice Mujuru leads the campaign against ZANU-PF. Initially slated to succeed Robert Mugabe as president, Mujuru has become an increasingly powerful force in her own right. She has won the support of the People’s Democratic Party and may gain the support of the broader National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera), composed of 18 opposition parties. Mugabe’s weakening grip and growing antipathy toward ZANU-PF may allow Mujuru’s ZPF to contend as an opposition party in 2018, unlike in 2013’s notoriously rigged elections. Mujuru and the ZPF appear to be getting bolder, attacking Mugabe in rallies and his age and health on their Facebook page.
One of the greatest unknowns is the #ThisFlag movement. Sparked by an unknown pastor, the movement has evolved into a series of protests and boycotts under the banner of #ThisFlag, initially calling for massive reforms in the ruling party. And contrary to Chloë McGrath’s claim in her July Foreign Policy piece, the #ThisFlag tag is increasingly being paired with #Tajamuka (“we have rebelled”), which has been used to call for the immediate resignation and removal of Mugabe by Zimbabweans nationally and internationally. Even Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi has participated in the call to action. The protests show no sign of slackening, especially given the government’s recent attempts to restrict the manufacture and sale of the national flag, a primary symbol of the protestors.
While an Arab Spring style revolution is currently unlikely, Mugabe’s actions toward protestors and currents of discontent will shape the future of Zimbabwe’s presidency.
Protest voices may bolster an opposition candidate to power for the first time in Zimbabwe’s history, and will certainly demand that whoever dons Robert Mugabe’s mantle within ZANU-PF make substantial reforms if they hope to hold onto their ruling party. The mounting pressures from both within and without the ruling cabal provides a unique opportunity for the global community to re-engage Zimbabwe. With Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa’s recent fundraising crusade leading to further protests and the necessity of a police rescue in London, Zimbabwe’s leadership knows it stands on very, very fragile ground at home and abroad.
Whoever succeeds Robert Mugabe cannot be allowed to forget that fact. They must be reminded of Mugabe’s fleecing of billions from the diamond industry while millions face starvation. They must be embraced as a partner in fighting the global campaign against HIV/AIDS, with near one and a half million people living with HIV. And they must always remember Gukurahundi, Mugabe’s slaughter of over 20,000 civilians. Luckily, a new generation of active, committed, patriotic Zimbabweans has coalesced behind the #ThisFlag movement and are going to demand change. As development partners look toward Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe recovery, citizens and millions of others will have a crucial voice. It would be a tremendous disservice to the country if they were left away from the table.
Bryan Burgess is a junior at the College of William & Mary majoring in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He is the Managing Editor for the Monitor: Journal of International Studies, a research assistant at AidData, a lab that works with donors, governments and civil society organizations around the world to improve international development. He is also an active member of the International Relations and Cycling clubs. In his free time, he enjoys riding his bike through the Virginia countryside and making cider.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
Art by Danielle Trevino.