PHOTO: Independence fighter Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years. (AP: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
By Mary Lloyd
It is a very special type of despot who habitually fronts public rallies wearing suits cut from cloth emblazoned with his own image: 93-year-old Robert Mugabe is that man.
For 37 years he has ruled Zimbabwe, first as an inspiring freedom fighter, who vanquished his country’s white rulers, then as an authoritarian ruler who cracked down on dissent with brutal efficiency, and finally as a stumbling nonagenarian who was prone to nodding off in meetings and once read the wrong speech in parliament.
Mr Mugabe’s health has long been a cause of speculation about who would succeed him.
He has consistently refused to step aside, but powerbrokers within his ruling Zanu-PF party have nevertheless been manoeuvring for several years in anticipation of the time a new head of state is needed.
The two leading contenders — Mr Mugabe’s vice-president, and his wife Grace — have long been rivals.
Now it seems the moment has come when one or the other will win, but it might be too early yet to call the outcome of this long-expected dash for the top job.
PHOTO: Grace Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa have long been political rivals. (Reuters: Philimon Bulawayo, file photo)
Emmerson Mnangagwa, a 71-year-old veteran of the 1970s war of independence, was seen for many years as Mr Mugabe’s anointed successor, until three years ago when Ms Mugabe rose through the ranks of Zanu-PF, and became a leading member of a party faction that is pushing for older members to be replaced.
While Mr Mnangagwa earned full “struggle credentials” fighting in the war for independence, she has no liberation legacy because she was too young to join the fight.
Ms Mugabe has instead succeeded as a result of her proximity to Mr Mugabe.
She has enjoyed the backing of the powerful Zanu-PF women’s league and has already succeeded in ousting several challengers for the presidency.
Mr Mnangagwa has the support of the even more influential war veterans, the military and intelligence agencies.
What could possibly overshadow all of that, however, is the political baggage each bring with them.
Ms Mugabe more divisive than popular
Ms Mugabe has very little political experience. She leapfrogged her way into the Zanu-PF politburo by winning enough influence to become the head of the women’s league.
She is more a divisive figure than a popular one.
Her vitriolic attacks against possible presidential successors have been matched only by her violent, public outbursts — one allegedly directed against a photographer in Hong Kong, and another allegedly involving a model and an extension cord in a Johannesburg hotel.
These incidents, along with her fabled shopping sprees at a time when most Zimbabweans face the economic ruin, have only served to reinforce the view that she is a member of the elite that operates in its own interest and above the law.
Her rival is known in Zimbabwe as “crocodile” because of his political cunning and his proven ability to wait for the right moment to strike. But his nickname also demonstrates his reputation for being fearsome and ruthless.
Mr Mnangagwa has been at Mr Mugabe’s side, on and off, since the early days of independence in 1980, so Zimbabweans hoping for change will be hoping for someone else.
He was the minister of state security in Zimbabwe’s first post-colonial government when a military operation massacred suspected anti-government members of the Ndebele community.
Mr Mnangagwe has denied responsibility, but his critics say he has blood on his hands and use the killings to characterise him as a hard line, strongman akin to Mr Mugabe.
A rift between old allies
Last week the bitter battle between these two rivals appeared to deliver a victor.
Mr Mugabe accused his vice-president of plotting against him, sacked Mr Mnangagwa and vowed to purge others who stood against him.
Ms Mugabe had long pushed for the move, but when the military stepped in to take control, it looked ill-judged and may ultimately lead to the couple being cast into political oblivion.
Whether Mr Mnangagwe will fill the void and continue as Zimbabwe’s leader is not a sure thing, however.
The smoothest way to move forward would be for Mr Mugabe to reinstate his vice-president, then retire so that Mr Mnangagwa automatically and in accordance with the constitution takes over, until the party appoints a new leader.
VIDEO: Zimbabwe army: Mugabe safe; army targeting ‘criminals around him’ (Photo: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo) (ABC News)
Assuming the army can negotiate such a deal with Mr Mugabe, the real challenge will be building support among voters for the transition.
With unemployment rampant, inflation soaring, agricultural production poor, hospitals collapsing, schools understaffed, government workers unpaid and corruption rife, ordinary Zimbabweans — if they haven’t sought work in a neighbouring country — are looking for hope.
They are tired of the old revolutionary rhetoric that delivers riches to a select few and further economic ruin to the rest.
Will Mr Mnangagwa be able to turn that around, to lead the country to free and fair elections, and work towards a non-authoritarian state that delivers sustainable political transformation, and accountable government?
Based on his past, he would seem an unlikely pick for the role.
Zimbabwe’s military and its powerful war veterans further cloud the issue.
The military’s top brass has reaped the rewards of being the true power behind Mr Mugabe for years.
It seems unlikely they will be willing to relinquish their control to anyone who might take away some of their power, or not reward them so easily.
Likewise, for the war veterans. Mr Mugabe ruled with their consent, having fattened their pensions after they threatened a bloodbath at the start of the century. As a result they became essential to his suppression of the opposition.
Human rights group have accused the war veterans of using harassment, intimidation, and violence during each election since 2000.
During Mr Mugabe’s tenure, Zimbabwe sank into a dreadful state, costing millions of people the opportunity to work, learn, and enjoy good health.
His swift departure, although long willed both inside and outside of Zimbabwe, is no guarantee that life will get any better.
Grace Mugabe: Why is the President’s wife at the centre of Zimbabwe’s crisis?
PHOTO: Grace Mugabe had been positioning herself as a successor to her ageing husband (Reuters: Philimon Bulawayo)
He’s 93. She’s 52. And they’ve both been put under house arrest by Zimbabwe’s army.
At the centre of the crisis currently gripping Zimbabwe is President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace.
Her rise from political obscurity to become the front-runner to succeed her ageing husband appears to have prompted the country’s military to step in, with tanks on the streets and Mr Mugabe confined to his home.
The military insists it hasn’t staged a coup, but is rather targeting “criminals” around Mr Mugabe.
And that has been taken to be a reference to supporters of the first lady.
Find out who she is and how she got to the position she’s in.
Their affair started as Mugabe’s wife lay dying
Mr Mugabe admitted in a fly-on-the-wall South African television documentary that they started an affair while his first wife, Sally, lay terminally ill with kidney disease.
Sally died in 1992, after which Grace and Robert married in 1996. They have three children.
Ms Mugabe has been a fierce defender of her ailing husband, declaring that he could run as a “corpse” in next year’s election and still remain in power.
Her rise to potential president had been swift
Ms Mugabe addressed her first political rally in 2014, just months after being nominated to head the ruling party’s women’s league.
Since then she has openly indicated her interest in taking the presidency herself, even publicly challenging her husband to name a successor.
“Some say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?” Ms Mugabe said at a rally in 2014.
She has the support of party leaders in their 40s and 50s (the so-called “G40”) and appears to have the support of the party’s youth wing.
She represents a generation change; unlike many top ZANU-PF leaders, Grace played no part in the 1970s armed struggle which rid Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, of its white-minority government.
After the purge of Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa last week, the path looked like it had been cleared for her to succeed her husband.
She appeared positioned to become one of Zimbabwe’s two-vice presidents next month.
Her life of luxury has seen her dubbed ‘Gucci Grace’
The 52-year-old first lady is unpopular among many socially conservative Zimbabweans for her lavish spending on mansions, cars and jewels.
Last month, she went to court to sue a diamond dealer for not supplying her with a 100-carat diamond that she said she had paid for.
Her lavish spending has touched a nerve in a country whose economy has fallen apart, and has earned her the moniker “Gucci Grace”.
She was accused of whipping a model in a South African hotel suite
PHOTO: Gabriella Engels at a news conference in Pretoria, South Africa (Reuters: Siphiwe Sibeko)
Gabriella Engels, a 20-year-old model, accused Ms Mugabe of whipping her with an electric extension cable as she waited with two friends in a luxury Johannesburg hotel suite to meet one of Mugabe’s adult sons.
The model’s mother Debbie Engels said her daughter suffered a gash on her forehead that required eight stitches, and another on the back of her head that needed six.
Police had placed border posts on “red alert” to prevent her from leaving the country, but South Africa’s international relations minister said she had granted Grace diplomatic immunity.
However, South Africa’s opposition is challenging the international relations minister’s decision to give her immunity — a move that could in theory affect any future plans Ms Mugabe has to travel to that country.
As far as we know, she’s now under house arrest with her husband
The Guardian was reporting that sources suggested she had left Zimbabwe for Namibia, but the publication’s Africa correspondent Jason Burke said this appeared to be false.
“Singapore and Malaysia, where the Mugabes own property, are potential destinations if she is allowed to travel into exile,” he wrote.