Mugabe: A lesson in winning by refusing to change

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The question of succession is an intriguing one, yet seemingly off the table.

One of the most entertaining parts of every congress of the ruling Zanu-PF is the ironic sight of emissaries of “sister parties” from across the region lining up at the podium, plying Robert Mugabe with profuse praise for refusing to change. 

He is feted for standing fast against the West’s regime change agenda, Zanu-PF speak for any calls for Mugabe, 90, to step down. Last year, Pendukeni Ithana, then secretary-general of Namibia’s Swapo, told reporters after meeting Zimbabwe’s Vice President Joice Mujuru that liberation parties must be wary of all these calls for Mugabe to step down. 

“Western imperialists are looking at a formula to eliminate former liberation movements from power,” she said.   

Mujuru, who is finding her path to leadership blocked by Mugabe, stood there, occasionally giving the mandatory diplomatic nod. Deep down, she must have been grimacing. 

Taking long view
Liberation parties across the region, from Chama Chama Mapinduzi (CCM) in Tanzania, Frelimo in Mozambique and Namibia’s Swapo, have survived in power by changing and adapting. Not only have these parties switched the old guard for younger leadership, they have also shed the socialism of their founders for democracy and free economies. 

In Zimbabwe though, Mugabe has survived by doing the exact opposite; simply taking the long view to change. 

It is a bulwark strategy seemingly popular with a variety of total-man liberation movements, from Yoweri Museveni at Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) to the MPLA under Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. 

Mugabe believes that his party will collapse if he ever stepped down, and that none of his lieutenants has the bottle to resist Western pressure and fob off the local if fractured opposition. 

“Yes, I have looked at them (possible successors),” he told an interviewer on his 90th birthday in February. “I have not come to any conclusion as to which one, really, should be (successor).” 

Playing off the ambitious
He trusts none of his own leadership, accusing them of being too hungry for power.  In 2004, Mugabe eased Mujuru’s path into the Vice President’s office by simply expelling officials who had backed her rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa. When Mugabe stood at a podium in front of party supporters and told Mujuru to aim higher, it all seemed signed and sealed for her. 

But Mugabe has thrived by pitting ambitious officials against the other. Soon, Mnangagwa was back in his good graces, with Mugabe giving him the charge of running Zanu-PF’s election campaigns. Mnangagwa did his task – keeping Mugabe in power. 

Yet, Mugabe still thinks little of both of them. Asked by state television whether he will allow people to debate succession, he retorted: “But why should it be discussed when it’s not due? Is it due? I’m still there.”  

Zanu-PF officials have grown weary of being asked when the party will take a leaf from its regional sister parties and change direction. When faced with that question recently, Zanu-PF’s administration secretary and the party’s fourth in command, lashed out. “Such news will lead us to arrest journalists,” he fumed.   

Imperialists and their minions
Mugabe’s peers, the likes of Sam Nujoma and Kenneth Kaunda, have long since exited the stage. But Mugabe feels he is not yet ready for a life of ribbon-cutting and health conferences. He still has pesky imperialists and all their minions to swat away. “There is still a lot to do,” he has often said.   

Like much of southern Africa, the ruling party in Zimbabwe maintains power by blurring the line between party and state. Zanu-PF permeates through all levels of government, and has a direct influence over all government activities. Zanu-PF’s own grassroots mobilisation is strong; it is part of every-day life in the countryside, where the majority of loyal voters are. 

Zanu-PF has organised party structures that go down to “cell” level, which can be groups of only a dozen homes in a village. In rural areas, where land is sacred, one needs to be an active member of the party if they are to be allowed to stay on their farm, or to get the seed and fertiliser that Zanu-PF doles out at the start of each farming season.  

However, while Mugabe has ensured his party stays in power for so long, he has failed to prepare it to survive after him.   

Demand bigger slice
The new Constitution says that the first vice president, currently Mujuru, would finish off the president’s term should he quit or die.  But Zanu-PF, eager to manage its succession conundrum, slotted in special provisions that would see the vice president only holding the seat for 90-days until the ruling party decides on a replacement. 

This will likely lead to conflict, as no clear frontrunner has emerged, thanks to Mugabe deliberately snuffing out all ambitions to succeed him.  With such uncertainty, there is every possibility of the army – where lines between brass and party are also blurred – stepping into the breach. 

According to analyst Charles Mangongera, military elites were “undoubtedly going to demand a bigger slice of the national resource pie” once Mugabe goes.   Mugabe enjoys all that confusion around his succession. It serves him well; external enemies are kept guessing, and ambitious underlings are kept on a leash.   

And, at the end of every year, at each Zanu-PF conference, he can smile as leaders of sister parties file past him, praising him for not allowing his party to progress as much as theirs have.

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