FOR 13 years the biggest threat to President Robert Mugabe’s grip on power came from an opposition party that grew out of the country’s labour unions. Now he is facing an even bigger challenge from within his own party.
The ruling Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) is effectively breaking apart because of a power struggle between factions of the party with the one backing Mugabe including politicians who played no role in the liberation struggle that led to independence from the U.K. in 1980, five people familiar with the situation said.
The split deepened when Vice President Joice Mujuru was ousted at a December congress. Her followers plan to try and compete in by-elections in June and may take part in the 2018 general and presidential elections, three of the people said, asking not to be identified because public announcements haven’t been made.
“She has a lot of wealthy and influential people who would support her,” Charles Laurie, senior Africa analyst at U.K.- based Verisk Maplecroft, said in a telephone interview April 16. “They may have underestimated her ability” and her faction will probably form an opposition party, he said.
The dispute highlights the tension between long-time party stalwarts like Mujuru, who fought in the war, and newer leaders such as Saviour Kasukuwere, the 44-year-old environment minister, who have allied themselves to Mugabe, his wife Grace and his newly appointed Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The conflict comes as an economic crisis deepens, with government laws that demand that black Zimbabweans own as much 51% of businesses hindering foreign investment and government worker wages accounting for about 82% of the budget. Consumer demand is slumping, and 87 companies closed last year compared with 44 in 2013, according to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.
The country holds the world’s biggest platinum and chrome deposits after South Africa as well as reserves of gold, iron ore, coal and nickel.
“Given the prevailing economic hardships, the looming food crisis and declining inflows to the fiscus, the Politburo’s silence on these matters is deafening,” Mujuru told reporters in the capital, Harare, on April 9, a week after being expelled from Zanu-PF. The politburo is the party’s highest decision making body.
Mujuru, 59, fought in the liberation war under the nom de guerre of Teurai Ropa, which means spill blood in the Shona language, and was appointed to Mugabe’s first cabinet at the age of 25 in 1980 as Youth, Sport and Recreation Minister.
She is the widow of Solomon Mujuru, who was the country’s military commander until stepping down in 1995 and retiring to manage his diamond-mining and other business interests. He died in a house fire on his Beatrice farm, 53 kilometers (33 miles) southwest of Harare in August 2011.
A government inquiry in 2012 found nothing suspicious about the general’s death. His family continues to say the causes were unclear after a magistrate refused to order an exhumation of the body.
Appointed as Zimbabwe’s vice president in 2004, Mujuru has been viewed as a rival to Mnangagwa as a successor to 91-year-old Mugabe. Mnangagwa, 68, has served in several ministerial roles. He spent time in prison for blowing up a train during the independence war and rose through Zanu-PF’s ranks after his release.
Mujuru has won her constituency in every election since 1980. Mugabe had to use his right to appoint some members of parliament directly in 2000 and 2005 to keep Mnangagwa in his cabinet after he lost votes against candidates from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a party set up in 1999 by Morgan Tsvangirai, the former president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.
Mujuru’s supporters are banking on her liberation war pedigree and popularity to help them win the 2018 elections, two of he people said. As recently as last year, Mujuru’s supporters held nine of the country’s 10 state governor posts.
In October, Mugabe’s wife Grace began publicly attacking Mujuru at a political rally in Mazowe, 25 miles north of Harare, accusing her of involvement in a plot to oust or assassinate Zimbabwe’s president.
“It’s likely the First Lady’s attacks, using strong language, may have backfired by giving Mujuru more support,” Laurie said.
The Zanu-PF Congress, held every five years, appointed Grace chairwoman of the party’s Women’s League, giving her a seat on the Politburo.
Mujuru said April 9 at a press conference in Harare that she represents the “original” and “genuine” Zanu-PF and she does not recognise, or accept, her December dismissal as vice president or her April 2 expulsion from the party.
Mnangagwa has dismissed the protests of Mujuru, former party administration secretary Didymus Mutasa and ex-spokesman Rugare Gumbo. The state-controlled Herald newspaper on April 9 cited Mnangagwa as saying statements by Mujuru, Mutasa and Gumbo were “preposterous.”
“They’ve been fired,” he said. “There is only one Zanu-PF.”
While Zimbabwe’s economy has halved in size since 2000, when export income began to plummet as a result of the state- sponsored seizure of white-owned commercial farms, according to government estimates, Mugabe’s party is under little threat from opposition parties.
Weakened by division and the splitting of Tsvangirai’s party, which shared power after disputed elections in 2008, the MDC expelled 21 lawmakers from parliament March 27 for forming a rival party. The expulsion means by-elections, scheduled for June 10, could weaken the opposition further.
The expulsions “handed power to Zanu-PF on a plate,” Tendai Biti, a former finance minister and one of those ousted from the MDC, said in an April 14 interview April 14.
“The only real opposition to the ruling party is a splintering of Zanu-PF,” Gary van Staden, an analyst at Paarl, South Africa-based NKC Independent Economists, said in an April 13 note to clients. “That is where any hope of change must lie.”