Gift Phiri talks to Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, about the vexing developments in Zanu PF’s convoluted line of succession. Chan is currently on a working visit to Harare.
Below are excerpts of the interview.
Q: First Lady Grace Mugabe dropped a bombshell at a Zanu PF women’s league national assembly meeting in Harare on Thursday, calling on her husband — for the first time — to anoint a successor. What do you read into her move?
A: I think that there may be as it were some element of political strategy on the part of the first lady. In other words, I think that she understands that it might not be a good time for her to make her own presidential bid, but if she were a vice president, then she could buy her time while the next president really looks after a transitional administration. So, perhaps, this is a movement not so much to assure Zimbabweans about the future in immediate terms of the country, but looking beyond the 2018 election to the one afterwards.
Q: After the first lady raised concern, as the secretary for women’s affairs, that Zanu PF should revert to its resolutions that one vice president’s position be reserved for women, Mugabe retorted: “I want to accept that we made a mistake because we had agreed that one of the three top positions in government must go to a woman.” Do you get a sense that Mugabe is moving to appoint his wife one of his deputies in the State and party?
A: I think that there may well be a kite being flown here so that the wife might become one of the vice presidents. At the same time president Mugabe is hedging his bets by saying that maybe there could therefore be three vice presidents. So nobody is threatened right now by just adding one to the party the two current vice presidents will stay in place; at the same time, that would give the first lady the kind of platform that I think that she wants to have.
Q: By suggesting three VPs, isn’t the president saying in a way he is not willing to dispose of his long-time ally Emmerson Mnangagwa but is willing to accommodate his wife in the apex of the party and government? Obviously VP Mphoko is safe because of the tribal balancing act in the presidium ushered through the 1987 Unity Accord, but the G40 looks hell-bent on disposing of Mnanangwa, isn’t that so?
A: The G40 wants to get rid of him, that’s for sure. But I don’t think the president can get rid of him very easily. It’s not just the balancing act in terms of regions like between the current two vice presidents, but also someone like Mnangagwa has got very, very strong military support, certainly from General Chiwenga and you can’t just dismiss that by a snap of fingers. So all of these things need to be balanced, the positions and opinions of the war veterans need to be balanced in the equation. Right now I think Vice President Mnangagwa is going to be in the vice presidency for the duration right up until the next election.
Q: At the Chinhoyi youth interface rally on Saturday, the first lady told the crowd that the two vice presidents and herself serve at the pleasure of Mugabe. What do you read into this?
A: I think she is giving hints there that everyone is in a, let’s just say a conditional position. And it’s true that the president can select vice presidents, this is not a problem in terms of the Constitution. But she is also making the point that the president can appoint vice presidents as well as annul their appointment. I think this is very much a play so that she may attain one of the three top positions which she already, really, really has in terms of influence, that she be called vice president.
Q: She dressed down the presidential spokesperson George Charamba at the Chinhoyi rally, accusing him of allegedly capturing the State-controlled Herald newspaper, fighting with ministers, ignoring her charity projects in Mazowe and portraying Team Lacoste in positive light in the listed State newspaper. Isn’t this some conflation of State and party given that Grace — who is not a government official — is giving instructions to Charamba how to run his government department outside constitutional structures
A: I think this is all part of the political battles in this country right now where people take swipes at other people, almost leading to events in essence where she would want to take the allies of people they perceive as their opponents or their political enemies. I don’t think there is much mileage in this. These are just warning shots across the bow at this point in time. The main target I think lies in the future, not in present day where there are difficulties with one person or another.
Q: Others in the youth league and women’s league have suggested that Mugabe’s wife must succeed him, perhaps to protect the first family’s personal interests and security. What’s your view of this suggested dynastic rule of sorts?
A: Well, the interest of the country really should come before the interest of one family. However, having said that, the first lady has been very busy, and been very successful in courting their support, precisely the women’s league and the youth league. They have become, as it were, strongholds of her foundations for her. So it’s natural that they should support her. But then the whole idea of dynasties is something which perhaps is not the best way of looking at how to govern a country.
Q: Others suggest this call to anoint a heir is all choreographed to get alleged G40 candidate Sydney Sekeramayi to succeed Mugabe. Is this feasible, or it’s all part of manoeuvring by Grace to get the top prize?
A: Yah, if Sekeramayi becomes the next president, but then Mrs Mugabe becomes the vice president, that gives her a perfect position, as I say, not for the 2018 elections, but for the elections five years after. And by that time, what would have happened is that there would have been normal relationships, or reasonably close to normal relationships established with Western countries. And so the name Mugabe won’t be as quite problematic for Washington and Whitehall at that point in time, five years after 2018. In those international political terms, it might be a very wise move, provided of course the opposition parties don’t grow stronger in that interim. But at this moment of their dis-organisation, they will have to work very, very hard to be a credible alternative to government after 2018
Q: Mugabe also suggested at the Chinhoyi rally that he might be considering retiring some top security commanders. These have been part of his dynamos in previous elections.
A: He has to do this very, very carefully because those generals provide a very great deal of political strength. Having said that, it’s normal in militaries around the world for generals to be retired at a certain age. This is so that there be can a constant dynamic renewal in the military. The first role of the military is to defend the country. And you have to have leaders that are absolutely up to date with modern ways of conducting the defence of the country. Even in Great Britain, the most senior generals get one term at the top and they are replaced in what they call the chairman of the defence staff and then they have to go. So this would not be abnormal. However, here it’s a dangerous political game.
Q: It would seem the generals have been hammering Prof Jonathan Moyo for criticising Command Agriculture being spearheaded by Mnangagwa, and you have the first lady saying Moyo is being unfairly targeted. This looks like open warfare, what’s happening here?
A: Well, in fact, Jonathan makes enemies where ever he goes. He is very skilled at this and it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. He is very much like the Machiavelli of Zimbabwean politics. One can only admire the great skill with which he does this. However, what you have got, you have so many of these faction fights now within Zanu PF that everyone seems to be forgetting about something called Zimbabwe, the country Zimbabwe. And none of the factions, and this is what amuses me as an outsider, none of these factions actually has a financial policy for the future health of this country. No one is actually putting forward a plan for what the factions stand for, for the renewal of the financial base of this country. So, they are fighting for power and the big question you have got to ask is, do they really have an interest in project Zimbabwe.