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Zimbabwean Leader Gets His Way

Battling for survival at regional as well as national level, the president has secured his party’s backing and at least outward endorsement from neighbouring states.
By Hativagone Mushonga
President Robert Mugabe scored two victories last week. In a slap in the face to his critics, opposition politicians and the Zimbabwean population, southern African leaders backed Mugabe at a crisis meeting of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, on March 28-29.

A day later, in another triumph for Africa’s longest-serving ruler, the Central Committee of the ruling ZANU-PF endorsed him as the party’s candidate for the 2008 presidential election.

The Central Committee’s backing, which has to be formally approved by a party congress in July, dealt a huge blow to the ZANU-PF heavyweights who have been jostling for the top post since Mugabe announced in 2004 that he would not seek re-election.

The “100 per cent” support voiced by SADC leaders, plus ZANU-PF’s endorsement of Mugabe’s increasingly autocratic, came as a shock to Zimbabweans who had hoped the tide was finally turning against the octogenarian president.

In recent months, Mugabe had been backtracking on his earlier promise to retire after the expiry of his term of office in 2008, saying he would not leave while ZANU-PF was still divided.

Strong indications that Mugabe was unwilling to hand over power emerged just before the ZANU-PF conference in December, when he announced that there was no vacancy for his post. This was bolstered by a recent televised interview marking his 83rd birthday when, in a seemingly joking remark, he asked what Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, would say if he, Mugabe, stood for election in 2008 and still beat him.

Mugabe is currently presiding over a 1,730 per cent inflation rate, shortages of basic commodities, crumbling health and education facilities, and mass unemployment. Some three million Zimbabweans have emigrated to neighbouring southern African countries.

He has also received widespread international condemnation over the arrests of, and assaults on, dozens of opposition activists earlier this month, including Tsvangirai and his spokesperson Nelson Chamisa.

Zimbabweans had expected ZANU-PF party heavyweights – retired Army General Solomon Mujuru and Rural Housing Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa – to block Mugabe’s nomination as the official candidate for the election.

A clearly disappointed Mujuru, whose wife was at one time tipped to take over the presidential seat, shook his head in dismay at the end of the Central Committee meeting in Harare. Mujuru had thought he had won the fight to raise his wife, currently vice president, to the highest post in the land after outmaneuvering Mnangagwa, who was also in the running for the post.

Top officials in Mujuru’s camp feel that allowing Mugabe to stand in 2008 and continue as president for another five years will plunge the country deeper into the economic crisis it is experiencing and thereby ruin any chance for ZANU-PF retaining power once he finally leaves office.

That is what happened in a number of countries including Zambia, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where long-serving parties failed to stay in power after the departure of their veteran leaders.

A top official in Mujuru’s camp told IWPR after the meeting that they had tried their best to block Mugabe’s candidature, but all the work they had done over the past three years to promote Vice-President Joice Mujuru for the top job had come to naught.

Mugabe’s bid to run again was backed by loyalists in the ZANU-PF Women’s League and Youth League.

To maintain his hold on power, President Mugabe has over the years perfected the tactics of divide and rule, fuelling factionalism within ZANU-PF. He has been switching support among the presidential contenders, who included the vice president, Mnangagwa, and Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono.

The official said the tactic once again worked for Mugabe, as the two main factions could otherwise have united to block his candidature for the elections.

“With a united front, we might have made the Central Committee count and we might have been able to force Mugabe to honour his promise to retire in 2008. Because of a lack of trust in each other, we were not able to do that,” he said.

The Central Committee also endorsed moving the parliamentary election set for 2010 forward to 2008, so that presidential and legislative ballots can be held simultaneously. This was an indirect rebuff to the president’s earlier proposal to shift the presidential vote back to 2010 to coincide with the general election – giving him two extra years in office. Mugabe effectively acknowledged that his plan was unworkable in an interview for the Southern Times newspaper in early March, indicating that both votes would take place next year

On threats by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to boycott elections if major reforms are not undertaken, ZANU-PF spokesperson Nathan Shamuyarira said his party would go ahead with them regardless.

Members of the powerful ZANU-PF Politburo tried to have the issue debated when it convened two days before the Central Committee meeting, but they were brushed off by Mugabe.

ZANU-PF sources said Simon Khaya Moyo, the country’s ambassador to South Africa, asked Mugabe to clarify press reports that he now wanted the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2008 and that he wanted to stand, “so that we are guided accordingly”.

An angry Mugabe is said to have told Moyo that this was “none of the Politburo’s business, but a matter for the Central Committee”.

At this point, ZANU-PF Women’s League chair Oppah Muchinguri intervened, shouting, “We want you for life, Mr Mugabe.”

Muchinguru had previously threatened to undress in public if Mugabe was not endorsed as party candidate.

At the suggestion that Zimbabwe should have a president for life, former cabinet minister Dumiso Dabengwa snapped back at Muchinguru, “Where have you heard such a thing?”

Hativagone Mushonga is a pseudonym used by a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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