Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mugabe Outmanoeuvres Ruling Party Opponents

President’s rivals caught flatfooted over ZANU-PF candidature for presidential poll.
By Joseph Sithole
President Robert Mugabe appears to have outwitted ZANU-PF rivals seeking to oust him from power, but remains at a loss as to how to turn around the country’s collapsing economy.



The ZANU-PF politburo last week all but endorsed Mugabe as its sole party candidate for presidential elections, to be held jointly with a parliamentary poll, early next year, beating back any challengers for the post.



Last December, he failed to get endorsement for a plan to extend his term of office by two years to 2010 at the Goromonzi People’s Conference, where he faced opposition from a ZANU-PF faction led by retired army general Solomon Mujuru. The proposal was also fiercely attacked by civil society organisations and the Movemnt for Democratic Change, MDC, which accused Mugabe of trying to extend his term of office because he was afraid of defeat at the polls.



A ZANU-PF central committee meeting on March 30 again failed to endorse Mugabe’s bid to extend his term in office. Instead, it resolved to reduce the term of the current parliament by two years, to run concurrently with the presidential term, starting next year. A special ZANU-PF congress in December was scheduled to decide who should be the ruling party’s candidate for the presidency, but Mugabe last week managed to head off any challenge to his candidature.



For some time now, Mugabe has deftly turned the tables against the enemy within. He recently mobilised alleged veterans of Zimbabwe’s independence war, led by the abrasive Jabulani Sibanda, who have been criss-crossing the country in support of Mugabe’s candidacy at the party’s special congress in December. Despite the resentment Sibanda has provoked among senior members of the party, especially from the two Matabeleland provinces, he appears to enjoy Mugabe’s tacit backing.



Formerly provincial chairman for Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city and an MDC stronghold, Sibanda was suspended from the party in 2004, and expelled two years later, for “indiscipline”, specifically for attending a meeting opposing the accession to the vice-presidency of Joice Mujuru, wife of the general.



The war veterans are aligned to Rural Housing Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, a bitter rival of Mujuru, and seen by many as a favourite of the president.



The women’s and youth branches of ZANU PF have already expressed their backing for Mugabe. The two groups are led respectively by Gender and Women’s Affairs Minister Oppah Muchinguri and Youth Minister Saviour Kasukuwere, both of them in the Mugabe camp.



With the key grassroots constituencies safely in his pocket, Mugabe last week turned on his senior opponents in the party. At the party’s ordinary session of the central committee on October 26, Mnangagwa, who is also the party’s secretary for legal affairs, said the special congress in December would only discuss agricultural mechanisation and the harmonisation of elections, and ratify a reduced term for the president from six to five year - which means there will be no debate of the presidential candidate.



Mugabe’s opponents were caught literally flatfooted as two weeks ago ZANU-PF spokesperson Nathan Shamuyarira had told the party mouthpiece, The Voice, that all positions in the presidium would be contested. But last week, Mugabe loyalists changed tack saying there would be no competition since, according to the ZANU-PF constitution, the first secretary of the party is automatically the presidential candidate.



“What this means is that anybody who raises the issue of a presidential candidate other than Mugabe would be declared out of order,” said a senior ZANU-PF official in Harare. “Those three agenda items mean the fireworks that people were expecting from the likes of Mujuru challenging Mugabe are dead and buried. Only divine intervention can change that reality.”



A University of Zimbabwe political lecturer said he was surprised by the ease with which Mugabe had outwitted his opponents within his party. “He won without breaking a sweat against dire predictions that the Mujuru camp would want to build on the victories they scored in Goromonzi against [extending Mugabe’s term to] 2010 and against Mugabe’s automatic endorsement in March,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable anticlimax.”



However, he said the party might have alienated significant constituencies in Matabeleland and Manicaland, where senior party leaders are against the readmission of Sibanda into the party. Most senior party leaders in the two provinces have boycotted Sibanda’s solidarity marches, while Mnangagwa claims Sibanda has appealed against his suspension, and in any case was doing work for a welfare organisation as leader of the war veterans.



Another analyst noted a bigger irony in the whole drama. He said while Mugabe had made “mincemeat” of his opponents in the party and the opposition was too weak to mount any serious challenge, there was no sign that the root cause of all the anger against Mugabe’s leadership - a collapsing economy - was responding positively to his political victories.



“If Mugabe could confide in anyone,” said the analyst, “I have no doubt he would confess that the economy was his greatest nemesis. He can see only spurts of sunlight in a bitterly cold winter night. While he has made mincemeat of his political opponents, in fact beating them before the game has started, the economy remains his most stubborn challenge against which he doesn’t appear to have a trick to play.”



The analyst said Mugabe had given Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono carte blanche to print money in the hope of improving the supply side of the economy. “They are hoping that increased production might shore up the economy,” he said. “But that is a big ‘if’ because it all depends on the inputs available and the rains, over which they have no control.



“Mugabe scored a lot of points against George Bush at the recent UN General Assembly in New York. He is also winning his latest spat with British prime minister Gordon Brown over his presence at the forthcoming European Union-Africa Summit in Lisbon. He has all of Africa in his pocket. Back home, the MDC is all but beaten.



“Yet with inflation raging at 8,000 per cent and unemployment nearly 80 per cent, plus pervasive shortages of all basic commodities, the economy doesn’t appear to respond positively to Mugabe’s political fortunes. That should have been a godsend for any competent opposition party.”



Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.