By Tinashe Kairiza
Although former president Robert Mugabe’s dramatic return to active politics has been dismissed by Zanu PF as inconsequential, some analysts are convinced that he could inflict significant damage on the ruling party in this year’s general elections — particularly in the three politically restive Mashonaland provinces.
His ties with the recently formed National Patriotic Front (NPF), an opposition party led by liberation struggle stalwart Ambrose Mutinhiri, have rattled President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s cage, introducing a new dynamic that could shape Zimbabwean politics in profound ways.
Mugabe, whose 37-years in office ended in November 2017 following a military intervention that was widely supported by the generality of Zimbabweans, has derided the Mnangagwa administration as illegitimate and unconstitutional.
The former president’s perceived backing for the NPF is seen as a catalyst that could galvanise all ex-Zanu PF members who were unceremoniously booted out of the party at the height of factional wars.
Mugabe has expressed disquiet over how his erstwhile confidante, Mnangagwa, is trashing his “legacy”.
He has complained about how the current administration is allegedly stalling the release of his pension package.
Mugabe also says his wife Grace is constantly weeping due to the harassment his family is being subjected to.
While viciously clamping down on dissent at home, Mugabe spent the twilight years of his rule railing against Western governments and projecting himself as a fiery pan-Africanist.
His association with the NPF has drawn the attention of Mnangagwa, who has cautioned that Mugabe’s political manoeuvres will be closely monitored by his government to ensure that they do not cause destabilisation.
“The former president paita nyaya (there is an issue). Mnangagwa said last week, shortly after Mugabe had met Mutinhiri at his palatial “Blue Roof” mansion in Harare’s Borrowdale suburb.
Mutinhiri, who resigned from Zanu PF in protest against how Mugabe was pushed out of power, said the NPF would now work towards restoring democracy in Zimbabwe.
Political analysts contend that the NPF, largely a grouping of Mugabe loyalists who coalesced around the G40 faction during his rule, is to garner significant votes in the three Mashonaland provinces where Mnangagwa is perceived to be unpopular.
The three provinces include Mashonaland West, Mashonaland East and Mashonaland Central.
During his rule, Mugabe predominantly held sway over the Mashonaland constituency, a Zanu PF stronghold and home to millions of Zezuru people. Mugabe is Zezuru while Mnangagwa is a Karanga.
The Karanga tribe is based mainly in the Midlands and Masvingo provinces.
In terms of political calculus, the NPF’s strategy to upstage Mnangagwa in the elections is also pivoted on the idea that he will fare badly in urban areas and Matabeleland provinces because of his instrumental role in the Gukurahundi massacres in the early years of independence.
Voting and political mobilisation in Zimbabwe have followed ethnic lines.
Mugabe has also met his former deputy Joice Mujuru at his Borrowdale home and might also be considering forging alliances with other opposition parties as part of his grand scheme to wrest power from Mnangagwa in the forthcoming polls.
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said the formation of the NPF and its association with Mugabe would further weaken Zanu PF ‑ which has been systematically disintegrating since 2015 when it expelled Mujuru.
“The impact of the NPF is to exacerbate the division of Zanu PF. It reflects the disintegration of Zanu PF.
“The disintegration began with the ousting of Joice Mujuru followed by the coup and now the formation of the NPF.
It has left Zanu PF in tatters,” Mandaza said, noting that the MDC-T, as the largest opposition party in Zimbabwe, would be the biggest beneficiaries at the polls as Zanu PF systematically implodes.
Mandaza said Mugabe, who has reportedly scoffed at any chances of working with Zanu PF under its current leadership, will do “anything” to derail Mnangagwa’s political ambition. Mnangagwa, he said, would not survive the NPF onslaught.
“Mugabe will do anything and everything to bring down ED (Mnangagwa). I do not think ED will survive,” Mandaza said.
However, political analyst Maxwell Saungweme contends that the NPF can only effectively compete with Zanu PF in Mashonaland East and West, with Mashonaland Central now under the control of Mujuru through her National People’s Party.
“So whatever Zanu PF support remained in Mashonaland West and East will be shared between NPF and Zanu PF,” Saungweme said positing that some “disillusioned” voters in those provinces sympathetic to Mugabe would choose to vote for the opposition. Political analyst Muchesa Chatsama said the endorsement of the NPF by Mugabe, who still enjoys considerable support within Zanu PF, would scupper Mnangagwa’s chances at the polls this year.
Ultimately, Chatsama concurred with Mandaza that Mugabe’s aim was not to win power as such but to derail Mnangagwa’s electoral campaign.
“Gauging by the response of the public media you can tell how Zanu PF has been unsettled by NPF and Mugabe. As we speak right now, some people in those areas still think Mugabe is still president.
“These guys (NPF) may not really count their chances in this election. I think they just want to spoil the party for ED and company. Mugabe endorsing NPF is a big blow to Zanu PF,” he emphasised.
Mnangagwa, Chatsama said, could however counter the threat posed by the Mugabe-backed NPF, by coming up with an election manifesto that intends to address the myriad of challenges besetting the country’s fragile economy.
“But my strong advice to Zanu PF would be for them not to lose focus. They must not lose focus of critical things,” he cautioned.
“Instead of concentrating on pulling down NPF and Mugabe, they should rather work on removing bank queues, dealing with corruption and other macroeconomic fundamentals. People will judge them by their results.”