ANY doubt about who really rules Zimbabwe was erased by the outcome of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party congress held in December. President Robert Mugabe is still nominally in charge. First Lady Grace Mugabe has emerged as the power that shapes the throne.
Over the years, President Mugabe has rendered the once strong rival opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) completely ineffective as the opposition lost popular support and splintered into factions. Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, once beloved by some powerful foreign governments and many people at home, no longer holds sway over even his peers. Tsvangirai, who in the 2008 presidential elections led the party to a first round win over ZANU-PF, was co-opted into a unity government as prime minister by Mugabe and then jettisoned once the old man regained full control.
Before the party congress the only thing that stood between Mugabe and life presidency was a decision of his own party. The congress removed any such obstacle, if it ever existed, and added more powers to Mugabe’s authority. As things stand, the president has made sure that even if the natural order of old age renders him mentally incapable of making decisions, Grace Mugabe, 49, will help him carry on.
The congress granted unlimited powers to President Mugabe to choose his deputies and all party leaders. Within a week, he moved decisively and sacked his deputy Joice Mujuru, alongside seven ministers, and appointed Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, 68, as new vice-president.
Soon afterwards, he sacked many more leaders in a continuing massive purge of loyalists of the former vice-president. Mugabe announced that he would stay in power until death or insanity made it impossible for him to continue. At 90 years of age, the party had decided that he would be the sole candidate for elections as President in 2018, even as the economy continues to wobble. He will be 94 and would have been in power for 38 years, one of the longest political rulers in Africa and in the world.
But is President Mugabe playing to a script written and produced by Grace Mugabe? Is former Grace Marufu, typist in the office of President Mugabe when he wooed and married her in 1996, now steering affairs of government? The signs and actions since the past six months appear to confirm her ascendance and reign as real leader whilst Robert Mugabe willingly goes along.
Until things changed recently, Joice Mujuru, who has been vice-president for 10 years, seemed like the next president, anointed by Robert Mugabe. A close confidante, President Mugabe appointed Mujuru to the cabinet at age 25, the youngest ever member, and mentored her through various positions in the ruling party and government to get to the exalted office.
Mujuru was a firebrand liberation struggle veteran whose nom de guerre was Teurai Ropa (Spill Blood). Young Mujuru had abandoned studies for the national cause and only passed her high school examinations after independence.
The President, who had educated himself and acquired several degrees under difficult conditions, guided her to get a first degree in 2005, and a Masters degree in 2008. Mujuru got a doctorate degree at the University of Zimbabwe in 2014, whilst serving as first ever female vice-president. Suddenly things changed for the worse for her, and supporters.
Grace Mugabe, at a public rally a few months ago accused Mujuru of extortion, corruption, causing division in the party, and plotting to assassinate President Mugabe. Mujuru defended herself, claimed innocence and pledged her loyalty to the party and the president.
Quite unexpectedly, Mrs. Mugabe—who had hardly been involved in politics previously—was nominated as Leader of the Women’s League of ZANU-PF, a powerful office that makes her a member of the highest organ in the party and government. The nomination was confirmed by the party congress. When critics accused her of showing undue political interest and ambition, she retorted, “People say I want to be President, why not? Am I not a Zimbabwean?”
A few months before the party congress she was awarded a doctorate degree in sociology by the University of Zimbabwe, a degree which the official news media said that she earned after three months of enrolment at the university. Critics said that her thesis was not available at the usual places whilst Mujuru’s thesis, which was earned at the same time, was uploaded at the University website and could be confirmed at the university.
Not yet done, a prominent street near ZANU-PF headquarters was named “Dr. Grace Mugabe Way”, as the first lady vowed that enemies of the party and president would be ousted and dealt with.
So far the script has unfolded as Grace Mugabe had stated. Those named in the said conspiracy against the President did not attend the party annual congress as they feared attacks and faced threats. The congress and meeting of politburo that followed showed unflinching support for President Mugabe. The president repeated what his wife had said about Mujuru, and labelled her as liar, gossiper, ungrateful, incompetent and an extortionist.
Newly named Vice-President Mnangagwa is a long ally of Mugabe and he had served in numerous cabinet posts for about 25 years. He was a prominent candidate in the successor line until ten years ago when he suffered a demotion in a characteristic Mugabe-style purge that allowed Mujuru then to climb up close to Mugabe. For Mnangagwa, this is a return to the upper rung of the political ladder but it has not resolved the succession issue which becomes more important as Mugabe ages.
At the party meeting of some 12,000 delegates, Mugabe, who had spoken at the podium in a rambling fashion, stopped only when he got a note from the first lady. He read it and informed the audience: “Mukadzi anyora uyu, hanzi mave kutaurisa. Ndizvo zvandinoitwa kana kumba. Saka ndinofanira kuteerera.“ (It’s my wife who has written this note. She says I am now talking too much. That’s how I am treated even at home, and so I must listen).
On that same podium, Mugabe, in what many people see as new, growing signs of aging, had mistakenly said, “Pasi neZanu PF, “meaning “Down with ZANU-PF,” although he corrected himself shortly after when the mistake was pointed out to him.
If the constitution were followed, Mugabe will be succeeded by his new Vice-President, Mangangwa. But hazarding a guess on who will replace the president in Zimbabwe has become too risky to bet on.
What is sure at present is that Grace Mugabe speaks for the President and represents his positions. She is a powerful friend for some people and a formidable enemy for those she despises; and where she points the president follows. It appears that only she can say who President Mugabe wants to succeed him in the highest office which he bestrides like a colossus. And if she decides that she really wants that office for herself, she may just get it.
Makinwa is a communication for leadership entrepreneur based in South Africa and Nigeria. Follow him on Twitter: @bunmimakinwa.