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Mugabe Under Threat From ZANU-PF Dissidents

Powerful figures in the ruling party are building up momentum for a direct challenge to the president.
By Nonthando Bhebhe

A powerful ZANU-PF insider has confirmed that plans to replace President Robert Mugabe as the ruling party’s presidential candidate in the March election are at an advanced stage.

In December, Mugabe appeared to have dealt with his critics within ZANU-PF once and for all when he secured unanimous endorsement as the party’s official candidate at an extraordinary congress of members.

It had been thought that the party meeting would see his nomination at least debated if not challenged, but that possibility was taken off the agenda in advance. Ahead of the meeting, a key ally, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the party’s secretary for legal affairs, said the congress would not be looking for a new presidential candidate since ZANU-PF’s rules made it clear that the First Secretary – in this case Mugabe – must automatically be put forward for election.

Now, however, IWPR has learned that high-placed dissenters within the party are revisiting the issue, and are gathering support for a challenge to Mugabe.

IWPR’s source, a key party insider who asked not to be named, said that within a matter of weeks, Mugabe would be removed as the party’s official candidate and replaced with former finance minister Simba Makoni.

He said nine out of the ten provincial branches were now opposed to Mugabe and wanted a change in leadership before the crucial election. This even includes Mugabe’s home province, Mashonaland West.

The only divided province, the source said, is Midlands, which is home to Mnangagwa.

Always regarded as Mugabe’s preferred successor, Mnangagwa is a bitter rival of retired army commander General Solomon Mujuru, who has led the drive to oust the president and is now believed to be the kingmaker behind Makoni.

“All those that were opposed to Mugabe standing as the party’s presidential candidate are backing Makoni as the preferred candidate for the elections. Everyone agrees that if ZANU-PF goes to the elections with Mugabe, it will lose - hence the need to change the leadership now,” said the party insider.

“Most of the politburo members, including the powerful former army commanders Mujuru and General Vitalis Zvinavashe and influential former ZAPU-PF member Dumiso Dabengwa, want Mugabe out of the race. The majority of cabinet ministers are also opposed to Mugabe as the candidate.”

He added that the few undecided senior members included security minister and ZANU-PF secretary Didymus Mutasa and the party’s national commissar Elliot Manyika.

“We can safely say 90 per cent of the population is opposed to Mugabe, and obviously ZANU-PF will not win under his leadership. It is an inevitable outcome. What is happening now is that the majority ZANU-PF membership and all other forces we are talking to will support these initiatives.”

The state-run Herald newspaper has carried a barrage of insults directed at what is termed the “Makoni project”, indicating that the news has made Mugabe’s backers jittery. The remarks have come from columnist Nathaniel Manheru, believed in reality to be the Mugabe spokesman George Charamba.

This is not the first time that Makoni’s name has been mentioned as a potential successor to Mugabe. In the past he has failed to make headway because, while he is an expert on financial and economic matters, he has been regarded as a political lightweight in the brutal world of ZANU-PF politics.

His future has always depended on the backing of more powerful party barons.

Mujuru is now said to be the driving force behind him. Analysts say Mujuru is not interested in becoming president himself, but wants to be the power behind the throne.

A long-running battle for the succession has divided ZANU-PF into a camp led by Mnangagwa and supporters of Mujuru.

Although he retired as head of the army more than a decade ago, Mujuru has endured as one of the most feared and powerful figures in Zimbabwe. Under the nom de guerre Rex Nhongo, he led Mugabe’s guerrilla army during the 1970s war of independence against white-ruled Rhodesia.

He went on to become a wealthy and hardnosed businessman, and is rumoured to own several farms seized from white farmers under Mugabe’s ill-fated land reform programme launched in 2000.

The retired general was responsible for the rise of his wife Joyce Mujuru to the ZANU-PF presidium in 2004, blocking the way for Mnangagwa. Joyce Mujuru was appointed deputy head of the party when it amended its constitution to make it mandatory for one such post to be held by a woman.

As far back as 2006, IWPR was told by a source close to Mujuru that discussions with Makoni were under way. Efforts to woo him started when the general realised his wife was not the ideal candidate to succeed Mugabe, who was then hinting that he might step down.

“The general knows that what he wants is a winner,” said the source at the time, explaining that this meant a figure who could not only beat Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, in an election contest, but also defeat Mnangagwa and win acceptance from ordinary Zimbabweans.

A highly-educated technocrat, Makoni is perhaps the most widely liked figure in a deeply unpopular party.

Both friends and critics agree he is extremely clever and has a reputation for integrity, once again a major asset when much of the establishment has been tainted by corruption scandals and human rights violations.

Makoni could just be the most presentable choice available for those in the establishment who want to end Zimbabwe’s international isolation. He is popular among the business community, where it is felt he has the charisma, ability and intellect to mount a serious challenge to Tsvangirai, and he is also seen by many as a match for Mugabe.

The Mujuru/Makoni faction has reportedly ruled out any alliance with the MDC, preferring to continue with ZANU-PF’s ideological line under a new leadership.

Compared with most of the senior ZANU-PF candidates Makoni, 58, is a youngster. While the old guard was fighting the liberation war in the Seventies, he was studying chemical engineering in Britain, where he obtained a PhD. He also represented the exiled ZANU in Europe.

In the first post-independence government, Makoni was appointed deputy agriculture minister at just 30 years of age, and subsequently served as minister of energy and of youth before becoming finance minister.

He was forced out of government in 2002 by ZANU-PF old-timers who saw him as a threat to their interests. A senior party official once described him as being “too hot to handle”, and “too clever and too young” for the older members.

In the Nineties, Makoni served for ten years as executive secretary of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, the precursor to the Southern African Development Community. This gave him international experience and a great deal of exposure, and he returned to Zimbabwe a far sharper and more polished politician.

He is currently an investment consultant working widely in Africa.

Nonthando Bhebhe is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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