What Zimbabwe lacks in a functional and sizable economy, it more than makes up for in palace intrigue. The country's potential presidential succession was jolted Nov. 6 when longtime President Robert Mugabe sacked his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who then fled into exile. Mugabe's decision comes five weeks before the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) is scheduled to hold an extraordinary party congress Dec. 12-17 to "harmonize" party divisions. Mnangagwa's exit changes the trajectory of Zimbabwe's political transition as the country moves inexorably beyond the only post-independence president it has known.
Machinations in the Line of Succession
Mnangagwa was long considered the most likely successor to the 93-year-old Mugabe. A former defense minister and minister of state security, Mnangagwa, 75, reportedly had the backing of various power players inside the country's security establishment — support that is critically important to maintaining the party's stranglehold on the country. Mnangagwa's advantages over other potential successors, including the president's wife, Grace Mugabe, was likely his downfall because it painted the largest target on his back.
Recent events placed Mnangagwa, popularly known as "the Crocodile," on the defensive. In August, for example, he was medically evacuated to South Africa after falling ill at a rally, leading to several reports suggesting that he had been poisoned. Though the claims couldn't be verified, Mnangagwa said several weeks after the incident that foul play was involved. (Dirty tricks, including assassinations, have long been a mainstay in Zimbabwean politics). Then, on Oct. 9, Mugabe reshuffled his Cabinet, stripping Mnangagwa of his justice ministry portfolio and making him head of the less important Tourism Ministry. At the same time, Mugabe removed Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, considered a Mnangagwa ally, from his important post.
Cutting Mnangagwa down a size fits into Mugabe's strategy. The aged leader has made it clear that he plans to stay in office until death catches up with him. In pursuit of this goal, and to maintain his ability to wield power, Mugabe pits would-be successors against each other. When they are then deemed expendable, as former ZANU-PF official Joice Mujuru was in 2014 after the death of her powerful husband in 2011, Mugabe expels them from the party to make room for members willing to more fully back his rule. However, Mugabe's health is fading, with his medical trips abroad (most often to Singapore) multiplying in kind. As jockeying for the 2018 elections slowly increases, power players within ZANU-PF — most crucially his wife — likely have pushed Mugabe to design a succession plan that provides for them when he is no longer around to protect them.
Between the Present and the Inevitable
Eventually, Mugabe will die. Between now and then, there are a few scenarios that could play out. While clinging to power, it is likely he will continue to try to balance various factions against each other. This balancing act could result in a "faithful" Mugabe loyalist being named vice president. One possibility is the current defense minister, Sydney Sekeramayi. Viewed as a colorless and uncontroversial choice who could be controlled by others, Sekeramayi, or someone like him, could either stay as vice president in this scenario or eventually become president, allowing Grace Mugabe, 52, to become a deputy at some point. This scenario would almost certainly preserve the status quo as much as possible in a post-Mugabe era and would allow Grace Mugabe to continue to enjoy the spoils of power while promoting other ZANU-PF stalwarts. Such an outcome would likely mean that overtures to Western countries and institutions like the International Monetary Fund would not be forthcoming as the party — and therefore the country — hobbles onward.
Any attempt by Mugabe to elevate his wife to vice president would cause a backlash from other factions within ZANU-PF. As with other liberation-era parties in Africa, such as those in Angola or South Africa, party loyalists generally loathe the idea of promoting family dynasties within their supposedly meritocratic party structures. Consequently, this move, especially if it is designed to make Grace Mugabe the next president, could open fissures within the ruling party as other figures and their factions — believing it was "their" time to lead — try to disrupt the succession. This dynamic would almost certainly come in the wake of Mugabe's death and at a time when ZANU-PF would need to unite against internal pressures from Zimbabwean civil society and political opponents, and against external pressures from Western powers and organizations wanting to turn the page on Mugabe's legacy. As with other liberation-era parties, cracks can create opportunities that opposition parties can exploit, and a weakened ZANU-PF would be less likely to ensure guaranteed election wins and the continuation of ruling party spoils for its groups of supporters.
A less likely scenario — but one with high risk for ZANU-PF — is if Mnangagwa decides to call in all the backing he can muster from his supposedly strong supporters within the security services. This possibility could include either an attempt to overthrow Mugabe, or Mnangagwa could bide his time and wait for the president to pass the torch to someone like his wife before striking. Any plot against Mugabe would be extremely difficult to pull off; Mugabe has been disrupting plots against his rule for decades and his cadres will be waiting for such a move in the months ahead. While Mnangagwa is perhaps more powerful than others Mugabe has thrown under the bus, the actual mechanisms of successfully carrying out a coup in an authoritarian state are very complicated, especially from exile abroad. Such a move could fracture the party, creating significant instability while the various factions fight for control in a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.
The ousting of Mnangagwa was a big move in Zimbabwe's presidential succession game. Even as he nears his 94th birthday in fading health, Mugabe's ability to best his rivals continues to underscore why he still wields power over his crumbling country. While the ZANU-PF system under Mugabe has weathered incredible financial storms, the ability of a successor to do the same — and successfully fight off much needed but potentially destabilizing reforms — remains to be seen.