The roots of Christianity run deep in Zimbabwean society. When Father Gonzales Da Silveira was murdered and thrown into the Msengezi River back in March 1561, he might not have imagined that the people whom he had sought to convert to Christianity would embrace the faith with the zeal and devotion that is apparent today. An ordinary conversation with the average Zimbabwean is likely to be laced with Biblical references, sometimes complete with quotations by chapter and verse. People might not own or read many books, but they have their Bible, often carefully dressed in secure apparel.
It is therefore hardly surprising that Zimbabwe’s on-going saga to succeed the ageing President Mugabe has drawn wisdom from the Bible, with two senior ZANU PF leaders making reference to passages of the Old Testament in order to advance a political point. The passages read ominously for one of the factions vying to replace the nonagenarian leader who has ruled Zimbabwe for 37 uninterrupted years.
First it was co-Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko, who made reference in an interview with a state weekly to the story of Adonijah, the haughty son of King David who dared to take the throne from his ageing father by unilateral means. This week, it was the First Lady, Grace Mugabe speaking at a meeting of the ZANU PF Women’s League which she leads. She too, made reference to the story of the impatient and bungling Adonijah. It is not by mere coincidence that two senior leaders who share similar factional interests drew wisdom from the same Biblical story in the context of ZANU PF’s succession battles.
Proverbs are palm wine …
The relevance of the Biblical story to the succession saga demands a brief summary. Zimbabweans, like most Africans, love to deploy figurative language in conversation. “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly,” writes the great Achebe in Things Fall Apart “and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten”. It is easy for the foreign eye to miss the nuance embedded in the figurative language unless they pay careful attention. The deployment of the biblical story of Adonijah has important meaning in the context of Zimbabwe’s succession saga.
In the biblical story, there was a battle for succession between Adonijah and Solomon, both sons of the ageing King David who had reigned for many years. When the frail King David became indisposed, Adonijah decided that the throne was his for the taking. He made arrangements including forming strategic alliances with the military generals and religious leaders. He went ahead and plotted his way to the throne without his father’s knowledge. In short, Adonijah had a faction – the Adonijah faction in the succession race. But he did not have everyone on his side. There was a second faction – the Solomon faction – which backed Solomon as successor to King David. The faction included King David’s wife, Bathsheba who was Solomon’s mother.
When members of the Solomon faction saw what was happening, Bathsheba was sent to intervene and advise the King of what was happening. She called upon the old King to make good an earlier promise that Solomon would be his successor. When he learnt what Adonijah was up to, the ailing King David took a decision and named Solomon as his successor. In the end, Adonijah who was already celebrating his rise, lost out and Solomon became King. The moral of the story is deceptively simple: The quiet one who had bided his time eventually got the throne. The haughty one who had felt entitled and rushed lost out in the end. But there is another point to the story: The person whom the King chooses will become King.
The story carries profound meaning in the context of the succession battles between the two factions fighting to succeed the ageing President Robert Mugabe. On the one hand, there is the Lacoste faction which prefers Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa as successor. The war veterans are backing this faction and recent events and public statements suggest strongly that some of the military generals back Mnangagwa’s ambitions and expect him to succeed Mugabe. In recent weeks, Defence Forces Commander General Constantino Chiwenga and Air Force Commander Air Marshall Perence Shiri have had harsh and undignified exchanges with Higher Education Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo, a key figure of the G40 faction. Moyo has not held back, publicly berating both generals following their public attacks. He has been the most vocal critic of Mnangagwa’s political ambition to succeed Mugabe.
Politics and the gun
It is telling that between Moyo and the generals, Mugabe has chosen to back Moyo by publicly condemning the generals for interfering in politics. “The military have no right to be interfering with the political processes, theirs is to support. The principle is that political shall lead the gun, and not the gun politics. Inonga yava coup”, Mugabe said this week hinting that military interference would be considered a coup, itself an ominous warning to the generals. Most observers are struck by Mugabe’s apparent double-standards in this case. Back in 2008, when the military backed his claim to the presidency after his defeat to Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe told the nation that the bullet leads the ballot, that the bullet was mightier than the pen. The generals had publicly backed him too in 2002 and he never protested at their political interference. Today, with some of the generals now on the other side, in his view allegedly plotting his removal, he sternly reminds them that the pen leads the gun. But that is vintage Mugabe: he does what he wants, when he wants. He was happy for the generals to trample upon the Constitution when they backed him all these years, but now he finds the Constitution convenient to remind them that they should keep away from politics.
Worryingly, Mugabe’s statements reveal an apparent conflict between him and some of his generals. Is it mere paranoia, bad advice or a reflection of impatience in the military? This is a cause for concern and demands the attention of external stakeholders with interests in peace and stability in the country. Zimbabwe’s succession saga has always had potential to blow up dangerously and this suggestion of a conflict between the generals and their Commander-in-Chief is ominous and must not be taken lightly.
Whose tortoise is it?
The intensity of the succession drama heats up when Sydney Sekeramayi’s name is added to the mix. At the start of June this year, Moyo gave a public lecture at SAPES, a Harare-based think-tank. In that lecture, he delivered a blistering critique of Mnangagwa and Lacoste and very significantly dropped Sekeramayi’s name into the succession race. It was a less than subtle endorsement of Sekeramayi not just as an alternative but as a more suitable successor to Mugabe. Sekeramayi’s name had been mentioned in the speculation-mill for some years but Moyo’s mention was the first in a public and open forum. G40 had dropped a name that could match Mnangagwa’s on several points – senior war veteran, experienced politician, loyalty to Mugabe, in government since independence. Like Mnangagwa he had played the water-carrier role effectively, doing the dirty work in the background allowing the master to shine on the national and global stages.
Sekeramayi himself did not make any serious effort to douse the fire after Moyo dropped his name in the succession saga. A desperate state media tried to do so on his behalf but these attempts were weak and ineffective. They lacked the authority of the man on whose behalf they were trying to speak. Mugabe did not berate Moyo for throwing in Sekeramayi’s name, even though he had a rally in Marondera soon afterwards. He has instead berated the generals who attacked Moyo. He is more annoyed with those who feel more entitled to succeed him. Those were tell-tale signs that it was all part of the plan. More recently, Moyo posted a cryptic tweet: “In Africa if you should encounter a tortoise in your backyard, you don't start foolishly kicking it about before finding out whose it is!” Those who were attacking him were wasting their time if they did not look carefully to see who was behind him. The tortoise belonged to someone else more powerful. And there is no one more powerful than Mugabe himself.
It is not hard to see who Adonijah and Solomon are in this context, for both Grace Mugabe and Mphoko. G40 has always accused Lacoste of getting ahead of themselves and pushing Mnangagwa for the presidency with an undeserved sense of entitlement. The celebrations that took place soon after Mnangagwa was appointed Vice President in December 2014 irked members of the G40 faction. At one rally, Josiah Hungwe referred to Mnangagwa as the Son of God. At another rally, Faber Chidarikire addressed Mnangagwa’s wife, Auxillia, as the Acting First Lady. When Mnangagwa was pictured with his supporters holding a mug with the inscription “I’m the Boss”, it might have seemed like an innocuous joke but taken together these circumstances may have been read as expressions of haughtiness and arrogance. For G40, Lacoste’s behaviour has been one of entitlement – believing like the biblical Adonijah that they were entitled to the presidency ahead of anyone else. It wasn’t helped by the likes of George Charamba, writing under his alias Nathaniel Manheru in The Herald when he claimed that “chine vene vacho chinhu ichi” – which was loosely translated to mean that the matter was for those entitled and the decision on succession belonged to them. Charamba was warning Moyo to keep away from the succession saga.
Grace Mugabe’s intervention this week is important because it is really the first time that she has made a public call on Mugabe to name a successor. However, it’s not the first time that such a call has been made. Just a few weeks ago, a government Minister, Retired Colonel Tshinga Dube reported that he had been cautioned by Mugabe after he had made a similar call for him to name a successor. Dube revealed that Mugabe had told him that it was not his role to name a successor but that of ZANU PF’s Congress. This has been Mugabe’s line for many years, repeatedly refusing to take up the call to name a successor. Even yesterday, after his wife’s call, Mugabe still insisted that it was for Congress to elect a leader. His wife has made exactly the same call that Dube made. "Kugocha kunoda kwaamai, kwemwana kunodzima moto" is an old Shona proverb which says when the child tries to roast he is accused of dousing the fire but when the mother does it, it is applauded as the right thing to do. Some things are only right when they are done by some people. While Mugabe repeated his line that it was not for him to name a successor, it is hard to imagine that his wife could have made such a big call without consulting him. Grace Mugabe must be genuinely concerned about her family’s future after Mugabe and the issue of naming a successor is important to her.
But why the change of strategy for Grace Mugabe after going for so long suggesting that Mugabe would never retire? She has previously declared that her husband would rule from a wheelbarrow if need be and even from the grave, suggesting that he is irreplaceable. Now, however, she calls on him to name a successor. One way to look at it is that this is an indirect, albeit unintended, statement of health of the president. The statement might be read to suggest panic in the presidential household over the president’s health condition. Apart from his doctors, she would be the best person who is privy to her husband’s health records and has the best knowledge of what the future holds. It could be an overdue realisation that Mugabe can no longer carry on and needs rest. He has had a punishing travel schedule in recent years and although he has looked fit for his age, the situation might be more difficult in private. Perhaps those around him recognise and appreciate the need for him to rest and enjoy his twilight years without the burdens of office. But without him at the helm, they also need someone who can guarantee them protection, hence the call to name a successor.
Another view is that Grace Mugabe’s call for Mugabe to name a successor might also be an expression of personal frustration. Perhaps she and others around him recognise that Mugabe must now rest but he himself has no desire to leave. His streak of stubbornness and single-minded ness is legendary. The call could be an expression in public of what she and others have been saying in private. This would be contrary to the common thinking that she is the young wife who has caused him to stay longer in office. I have struggled to believe this line of thinking. It suggests that Mugabe lacks agency and severely underestimates Mugabe’s own love of power and sense of entitlement to rule for life. Mugabe has never given any sign or inclination to retire. Indeed, on all occasions that he has been asked about retirement he has dismissed it. He has given the impression that he would continue as long as he is alive and his body can carry him. But Grace probably realises the folly of him ruling for life and as explained below, that they are better off with him naming a successor while he lives than to leave the matter until after his demise.
Successor must settle and establish
It obviously makes strategic sense for G40, Grace Mugabe and her family for Mugabe to name a successor now rather than for them to wait for the matter to be settled upon his demise because that scenario has more uncertainties and greater potential for instability. It has always been odd that, until Sekeremayi’s name was dropped recently, G40 has been content to oppose Mnangagwa’s ascendancy but without offering a clear alternative. Strategically, it did not make sense for G40 to want to wait for Mugabe’s demise because surely at that point Lacoste would have greater control. If that happened, many of them might have to leave the country for their own safety given the acrimony that has built up in recent years. G40 are better placed if Mugabe picks and promotes a successor who would protect their interests and the successor would have more time to settle and establish themselves as leader of the party and country while Mugabe is still alive. The candidate that Mugabe favours is more likely to win at an elective Congress because ZANU PF supporters tend to follow his lead. Perhaps Grace Mugabe’s public call for Mugabe to name a successor reflects this realisation and is designed to achieve this end.
Nevertheless, it is also important to remember that Mugabe is Machiavellian in his approach to power. Grace Mugabe’s public call for Mugabe to name a successor could all be part of Mugabe’s Machiavellian strategies. Mugabe is a master of deception. As Sun Tzu reminds us, all warfare is based on deception. Succession is war and Mugabe is part of it. He has long used deception and divide and rule to outwit his rivals. A leader who wants to smoke out rivals might sometimes offer them a bait. He might invite them to declare their ambitions. If they are not wary, they will easily reveal themselves. At that point he is able to identify his enemies within. Grace Mugabe’s call might be a signal that ZANU PF members may now debate the issue openly but in this way, it would be a way of identifying those who are growing impatient. He has also used to divide and rule strategies for a long time, playing one faction against the other – one moment a faction believing they are winning and the other making them feel vulnerable. This could all be part of the act, with Mugabe as the puppet-master.
However, over the last few months, it has become apparent that Mugabe is more inclined towards G40 than Lacoste. He has been with Mnangagwa for so long that if he really wanted him as his successor, he would have picked him long back. Instead, he seems to have frustrated him at every turn, making him believe he is the favoured one before thwarting his ambitions. While most thought Moyo and Kasukuwere were on their way out in recent months, Mugabe has tolerated and even protected them. Back in 2014, when Didymus Mutasa attacked Moyo and said he needed Gamatox to fumigate him, it was Mutasa who was expelled by Mugabe. Lacoste members do not seem to have come to terms with the fact that their boss is on the side of G40 and this has obscured their view of the situation. If they know, they have failed to devise strategies around it. The confidence exhibited by Moyo, Kasukuwere and others in G40 can only be because they were standing on solid ground and that ground comes with Grace Mugabe and by extension, her husband. They have successfully tied their interests together with the Mugabe family’s interests and in his old age he is more inclined to go with those who suggest that protection for his family.
Why has the toad jumped?
“When you see a toad jumping in broad daylight, it means something is after its life,” says Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart. What exactly has made the toad jump in broad daylight? What could be after its life? The fact that Grace Mugabe has for the first time made a public call upon her husband to name a successor suggests something big is brewing. She knows a lot more about her husband than anyone else. It could be she has finally come to terms with the reality that he is mortal like all other beings and that it is better to prepare for a future without him. To use old Shona wisdom, it is only a fool who remembers to run for the safety of the caves when the rains have already started. It remains to be seen whether her husband will take heed of her call.
When all is said and done, it seems she is merely adding to what Moyo started on 1 June when he began to prepare the nation for a successor different from what most had in mind all along. She sees herself up there in the presidency, though not quite as the leader yet. Hers is the Vice Presidency, hence the proposition to revive the women’s quota in the Vice Presidency. When I suggested some months ago that ZANU PF could amend their party constitution to add a third Vice President, some people laughed it off as a joke. But this might well be on its way. And with two thirds majority in Parliament, ZANU PF might even amend the national Constitution yet again to accommodate Grace Mugabe.
For the nation, it is far better for the succession saga to be settled, whichever way it goes, before Mugabe’s demise because the scenario of what is likely to happen upon his demise has potential for uncertainty, confusion, conflict and therefore, instability. Zimbabweans, an ever-prayerful people, will be petitioning the Heavens for a stable outcome. But right now, one man holds the keys. It won’t be long before we know the modern day Adonijah or Solomon. But it might not follow the Biblical script: the modern day Adonijah might just have one more trick up his sleeve. There's an immortal line from the Game of Thrones: "When you play the game of thrones you win or you die. There is no middle ground."
There is, in the middle of the dark cloud a glimmer of hope for Zimbabweans: it is that it might not be long before their leader calls time on his long reign. If it does happen, the nation might breathe a collective sigh of relief. But I’m not holding my breath … We will soon know why the toad jumped in broad daylight ...