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Big Saturday Read: The month of long knives?

Grace Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa

October 2014

It was the moment it became clear that her days in office were numbered. Joice Mujuru had only been in office for just over a year since ZANU PF regained exclusive authority of government in 2013. For many punters, all bets were closed on who would succeed President Mugabe. All the money was on Joice Mujuru. Her powerful husband, Retired General Solomon Mujuru had met a tragic end three years earlier, but she was in pole position, well ahead of her rivals. But unbeknown to most, the godfather of ZANU PF, Robert Mugabe had other ideas. With him was a new partner in the political enterprise. Like the Shakespearean Lady Macbeth, Grace Mugabe urged him to plant the sword. Before the year was out, Mujuru was history in the world of ZANU PF politics.

The moment it became obvious arrived at Harare International Airport, soon to bear the name of Zimbabwe’s only leader since independence. Mugabe and his wife were returning from a trip to the Vatican, where they had gone to bear witness to the solemn occasion of the beatification of Pope Paul VI – one step from sainthood, in accordance with Catholic tradition. A practising Catholic educated by the Jesuits, Mugabe does not miss such occasions. As usual, Mugabe’s ministers and service chiefs made their customary line-up at the airport, waiting to pay homage to their godfather as he returned home. As the Acting President, Mujuru stood at the front of the queue. Mugabe shook hands with her as he got off the plane. Behind him was his wife, Grace. But as Mujuru extended her hand to greet her, Grace Mugabe remained stone-faced, hands clasped beneath her designer shawl. Against the command of custom and tradition, she did not reciprocate. It was cold, heartless and offensive to protocol, a scene that compelled even the hardest of hearts to sympathise with Mujuru.

It was embarrassing and humiliating for Mujuru but it also gave some insight into a deficiency of etiquette on the part of the scene’s author, qualities that would become more apparent with the passage of time. It was also a moment that confirmed to all and sundry that Mujuru had reached her Waterloo moment. She had no future in ZANU PF . Mugabe had played the soft but deceptive hand, pretending to her deputy that all was well. His wife, on the other hand, had dispensed with the niceties of protocol and elected to administer a spirit-breaking tackle in full glare of the cameras. Between Grace and Mujuru, Mugabe’s choice was obvious. He made no effort to defend or even placate Mujuru in the face of such embarrassment authored by his wife. Mujuru could have chosen to walk away after that moment. Yet in the face of all clear signs, indeed notwithstanding the extreme humiliation to which she had been subjected, Mujuru chose to hang on. It was the desperate effort of someone who was in denial.

October 2017

Three years on, another scene at the airport has been a big talking point. Mugabe this week returned from South Africa, where he had gone to attend a bi-lateral meeting with President Zuma. This time, he was without Grace Mugabe who stayed home, most likely encumbered by recent legal troubles south of the Limpopo. As they lined up to greet their boss, Mugabe appeared to have a tense and feisty engagement with one of his deputies, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who ironically succeeded Mujuru when she was sacked in 2014. Wagging his finger and issuing a dismissive and aggressive pat on Mnangagwa’s shoulder, Mugabe looked evidently incensed by something. Mnangagwa carried the posture of a schoolboy trying to explain something to a teacher who is nevertheless unwilling to give him time. He backed off and abruptly stood at attention, gathering his composure, as Mugabe walked away. It must have been an uncomfortable moment for Mnangagwa.

Later, as Mugabe prepared to get into his limousine, the terse conversation resumed, with Mnangagwa trying to offer an explanation while his co-Vice President looked on. The papers report that Mugabe was angry at Mnangagwa over comments he had made in Masvingo at a memorial service for the late Shuvai Mahofa, a veteran ZANU PF Minister who died in August. Just like the Mujuru scene three years ago, the airport incident looked ominous for Mnangagwa. Mugabe usually wants to portray a cool and calm demeanour, even when he is unhappy. On this occasion, that coolness appears to have given way to anger. It was a clear there was something very wrong between the master and his long-time lieutenant. It was a moment that symbolised Mnangagwa's diminishing fortunes in ZANU PF. If there was pressure and embarrassment at the airport, it was only compounded on Thursday evening when Grace Mugabe issued a withering attack upon Mnangagwa. If ever there was any doubt abut the broken relationship between the Mugabe family and Mnangagwa, it was extinguished that evening. Mnangagwa may yet survive and lead ZANU PF, but it will not because of Mugabe's doing. He has to do it all on his own, against the wishes of his old mentor.


Mnangagwa understood the gravity of the situation. A fire had started and it needed to be put down. Two days before, his co-Vice President, Mphoko, had issued a terse statement in which he lambasted Mnangagwa for his Masvingo statements. More gravely, Mphoko had accused him of undermining the authority of the President. It was an unprecedented public statement from one Vice President to another. By Thursday evening, Mnangagwa was responding to two events – the Mphoko statement and also what had happened at the airport. It was dressed as a response to Mphoko but it was also an explanation to Mugabe. In his statement, Mnangagwa did not hold back. He literally blasted Mphoko accusing him of lying and causing alarm and despondency. However, Mnangagwa hadn’t caught his breath when, at another event that evening, Grace Mugabe responded with a flurry of blows directed at him. Describing him as a “nobody” and insinuating, not for the first time, that he was a womaniser, Grace Mugabe’s attack upon Mnangagwa was wild and vicious.

It remains to be seen how, and if at all, Mnangagwa will respond to Grace Mugabe’s latest attack which shows that bridges between the pair have broken beyond repair. Does he have the courage to respond to Grace Mugabe in the same way that he responded to Mphoko? After all, by comparison, Mphoko’s statement was tame compared to the First Lady’s rampant and unrestrained rant at Mnangagwa. In his statement Mnangagwa had taken exception to Mphoko’s statement which he said was “littered with falsehoods, mischievous perceptions, malicious innuendoes written in a language and tone, which is contemptuous and disrespectful to my person and the office I occupy”. If this is what incensed Mnangagwa, one can only wonder what he will have to say about the language and tone used against him by Grace Mugabe. It was far worse, more contemptuous and more damning than anything Mphoko said in his statement. Yet Mnangagwa finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He cannot respond to Grace Mugabe without wounding and risking the wrath of the man towards whom he claims to have “unflinching loyalty”. A response in kind would not be received well by Mugabe. But if he does not respond, he will appear weak and incapable of defending his honour. His allies will lose confidence in him. But he must make a choice, a hard choice between defence and yielding.

When all is said and done, it is impossible to see how Mnangagwa and Grace Mugabe can ever build any relationship after this incident. She is treating him exactly the same way that she treated Mujuru – she is contemptuous, disrespectful and utterly dismissive of the Vice President. But, as ever, life serves a dish with an abundance of ironies. Back in 2014 when Grace Mugabe was humiliating Mujuru, Mnangagwa was one of her most prominent cheerleaders. Now, though, just three years later, it’s his turn and the attack is just as vicious. It was thus amusing to see Sydney Sekeramayi sitting at the top table as Grace Mugabe lambasted Mnangagwa on Thursday evening. Sekeramayi wore a sombre face and clapped nervously when Grace Mugabe dismissed Mnangagwa as a mere appointee of her husband. Sekeramayi has been touted as the G40 faction’s choice to succeed Mugabe ahead of Mnangagwa. But if he is an intelligent man, it must have dawned on Sekeramayi that those words could easily be directed at him, too. He is just a tool, like everyone else is, in the hands of the powerful couple.

As for Mnangagwa and his allies, the time for denial is surely over. He is not on Mugabe’s list of potential successors. The events of this week will only have deepened the mistrust and chasm between them. The only difference is that Mugabe himself is more deceptive, while his wife is more forthright and unrestrained. The problem is, like Mujuru before him, Mnangagwa and his allies are in denial. They continue to play the card of loyalty, hoping that there is still a chance. Those who advise them seem to confuse their own fantasies for reality. They let their fantasies stand in the way of facts. For many people, after working together for so long, being the loyal water-carrier for Mugabe, Mnangagwa seemed to be the obvious choice. Indeed, many within and outside Zimbabwe had invested a lot in that choice, especially after Mujuru was ousted in 2014. Astoundingly, there are still some who believe that to be true. The fact of the matter is that if Mnangagwa does not take active steps to take it, the presidency will not be handed over to him on a silver platter. He has to fight for it or lose it completely.

Poisoned food or food poisoning?

The tiff between the two Vice Presidents revolves around the issue of whether Mnangagwa was poisoned. Mnangagwa insists that he was poisoned. Mphoko accuses Mnangagwa of lying and undermining Mugabe on the grounds that he allegedly contradicted Mugabe’s statement on the poisoning. But is there a contradiction at all between Mugabe and Mnangagwa? To be sure, there is no obvious contradiction. In Gweru, while Mugabe confirmed that food poisoning had been ruled out by the doctors, he did not completely rule out poisoning. Food poisoning is only a type of poisoning. He said that investigations were still continuing to discover what exactly had happened to his subordinate. Therefore, when Mnangagwa confirms that he was poisoned, it is probably because he is now in possession of facts which confirm that he was poisoned, following the investigations. To that extent, there is no obvious contradiction between Mnangagwa and Mugabe, as made out by the former’s rivals. Mnangagwa himself could have been clearer rather than speaking in riddles as he did in Masvingo. Riddles are open to all sorts of interpretations, which is what his rivals capitalised on.

The problem for Mnangagwa is that the poisoning theory carries a lot of baggage that implicates the Mugabe family and their allies and whatever technical arguments he might proffer will fall flat in the court of politics. The moment he claims that he was poisoned, it immediately affects the Mugabes. This is why Grace Mugabe was quick to respond after Mnangagwa’s press statement on Thursday evening. In her speech she emphatically denied that she had any cause to harm Mnangagwa. She had no reason to make that denial because Mnangagwa had not accused her of poisoning. The problem for Mnangagwa is that this is the impression that the Mugabes have been given. It all started with the ice-cream theory, which implicated the Gushungo Dairies, a business owned by the Mugabes. Mnangagwa himself had to issue a statement declaring that he had not consumed ice cream from Gushungo Dairies. But that impression that his poisoning is linked to the ice cream he consumed has never been totally erased from public memory and it seems, from the Mugabes’ memory too.

Hence, when Mnangagwa insists that he was indeed poisoned, which may well be true but has nothing to do with the Mugabes, the latter still feel sensitive about it. It doesn’t help that Mnangagwa’s allies have also named political rivals like Sekeramayi of being involved in the poisoning. Mnangagwa’s rivals know the effect of the poisoning theory upon the Mugabes, which is why Mphoko was quick to make much out of what Mnangagwa had said at Mahofa’s memorial service. Perhaps Mnangagwa should have waited for his boss and apprised him of the results before making a public statement. His rivals saw a contradiction between his statements and Mugabe’s statements on the poisoning and made the most of it.

Tinhai dzirwe (Engineering conflict)

The accusation by Mphoko that Mnangagwa undermined the authority of the President is cunningly framed in legal nomenclature which communicates the message that Mnangagwa has broken the law and exposes him to criminal prosecution. It also relegates Mnangagwa to a common political nuisance as such accusations are normally reserved for opposition elements and civil society activists like Evan Mawarire, Pastor Mugadza, Morgan Tsvangirai and others in that political class. That such language is being used against Mnangagwa shows the contempt with which his rivals are treating him. But if he is indeed undermining the authority of the President, why not arrest him under section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act under which others similarly accused have been arrested? By using such language but failing to back it up with action, Mphoko and his allies are also exposing their own lack of authority over law enforcement agencies. Any other person accused of undermining the President’s authority would have been arrested. But not Mnangagwa, he seems to be far too powerful and immune to such treatment.

But why would Mphoko use such a strongly-worded press statement when as Acting President he had the authority to summon Mnangagwa to talk about it privately? In some ways, it exposes Mphoko as lacking confidence in his authority to summon Mnangagwa. However, it also suggests Mphoko and his allies were more interested in grandstanding and humiliating Mnangagwa while at the same time accentuating the conflict between him and Mugabe. They know that Mugabe was hurt by suggestions that he had a hand in his subordinate’s illness. That’s why he went to great lengths to explain and deny it. Framing it as undermining Mugabe would surely stoke up his anger, which object they evidently achieved. Mphoko and his allies are effectively saying to Mugabe: “Look how he is undermining you publicly, it’s time to act or you look weak”. It erodes whatever trust remains between the two men. Encouraging the conflict between Mugabe and Mnangagwa hastens the collapse of the latter’s fortunes. In that case Mphoko and allies are the proverbial “tinhai dzirwe” characters – those who engineer conflict and encourage others to fight. It is not in G40’s interest to delay the day of execution since Mugabe’s demise would leave them completely naked. There is perhaps some desperation to move things quicker seeing as it is that Mugabe is taking his time. On the other hand, lacking the courage to challenge his long time boss, Mnangagwa is betting on that demise happening sooner rather than later. This is presumably why he warned his rivals that the time of reckoning will be “kumagumo” (at the end). It was an ominous statement that signalled a fightback.

Is he fighting back?

It may be said that after a long time in denial, Mnangagwa has finally realised what most saw long ago, that he is not Mugabe’s preferred successor and that he must defend his turf or risk going the way Mujuru went three years ago. The problem of taking punches and not fighting back is that your allies begin to doubt you. One by one, his allies have either been sacked from ZANU PF or demoted from their posts. Mahofa’s memorial service was on home ground. He was among his allies and he was free to speak his mind and begin a case for the defence. Masvingo and Midlands provinces have been singled out for condemnation in recent weeks, not least by the Mugabes. He chose the province to make a stand. He should have anticipated that his statement would receive different interpretations, including mischievous ones. It can’t be a surprise that his rivals latched on to it to make an assault on his personality and agenda. If he did not anticipate it, then it was an act of political clumsiness on his part. Actually, it is more likely that he knew what he was doing. It is likely that he now has the evidence to prove that he was poisoned.

His press statement in which he viciously counter-attacked Mphoko showed a man who is not ready to back down. It demonstrated the resolve of a man who won’t go down without fighting. He accused Mphoko of lying. Just as Mphoko has accused him of committing a crime by undermining the authority of the President, Mnangagwa also framed his statement in legal terms, suggesting that Mphoko was guilty of causing alarm and despondency, also a crime under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. To this extent, Mnangagwa can’t be accused of doing a Mujuru – just taking punches without fighting back. But, as already pointed out, the big punches are coming from Mugabe and his wife. It’s all very well for his subordinates to growl from behind and for him to fight Mphoko, but the real fight is against his boss and his wife. That is where the real battle is.

His allies argue that as a clever lawyer, Mnangagwa can work his way out of the poisoning controversy. He will argue to his boss that while food poisoning was ruled out, poisoning itself wasn’t. He will argue that his statement that what happened to Mahofa also happened to him has been misinterpreted by his rivals. All this is already apparent from his press statement. But all this is unlikely to help his cause. If anything, it could undermine it further. Back in Bindura, when Mugabe spoke at length about how Professor Jonathan Moyo and Mnangagwa fell out after the Tsoholotsho saga in 2004, he commented on how Mnangagwa had used his legal skills to avoid being implicated. He had used his legal skills to escape punishment while his allies were punished under the party’s disciplinary system. This did not mean Mugabe was not aware of Mnangagwa’s interest in the Tsholotsho plot. Likewise, Mnangagwa may apply legal reasoning and use legal technicalities to absolve himself but it is unlikely to help him regain his boss’ trust. Mnangagwa’s path to power, if he still wants it, no longer lies in endearing himself to Mugabe but in taking positive action to assert his claim.

He still hopes for his day in the Politburo, when he will have a chance to respond to the damning dossier presented by Moyo and his G40 allies. A leaked document said to be the dossier appeared in the papers on Friday. Some suggest that it is fake. It better be, for Mnangagwa’s sake, because in its current state it looks too weak and is based on poor intelligence. A proper fightback will demand far more than press conferences and dossiers.

Too big to be sacked?

Over in Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May is under pressure to sack her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, whom critics allege is undermining her authority in the Brexit process by making mischievous interventions. It has become customary for journalists to ask May what she will do with Johnson and whether her reluctance to act means he is “unsackable”. Critics see her reluctance to sack her rabble-rousing subordinate as a sign of timidity. Likewise, questions have to be asked as to why Mugabe continues to keep a man in whom trust seems to have been eroded. Is it because Mnangagwa is unsackable? Is he scared of sacking Mnangagwa? Why cast aspersions on the man as he and his wife have done to date and yet still keep him as his Vice President? Indeed, he is regularly left in charge as Acting President when Mugabe is away on his numerous trips abroad.

For a long time, the legend has been that Mnangagwa is too big to be sacked. It is said that he is too powerful and knows too much for Mugabe to just let go. Others also say he has been the kingpin when it comes to election rigging and that it was he, along with the security generals who saved Mugabe’s presidency in 2008, when he lost to Tsvangirai in the first round of elections. However, it is also important to remember that much the same was said of Mujuru before she was unceremoniously dismissed in 2014. She departed, along with her allies, without as much as a whimper. Could Mnangagwa suffer the same fate? His allies are adamant that any equivalence drawn between Mnangagwa and Mujuru is false; that their man belongs to a completely different league. Perhaps they are right. But they too may just be carrying the burden of denialism. The way things are going, unless Mnangagwa shows some real teeth, he could easily go the Mujuru way.

It is more likely that while Mnangagwa’s fate has been sealed, Mugabe has never been one to make high-profile sackings. He prefers to act under the cover of some party process. Even Mujuru more recently, by the time he pronounced official judgment on her Cabinet post, her fate had already been sealed. Mugabe does not want the label of a hangman, when to all intents and purposes he controls the trap-door. He will engineer the demise and pronounce judgment when the deed is done. If Mnangagwa does survive till the December Conference, it will be because Mugabe prefers it to be a public spectacle. The ground for departure would have been prepared. But after Grace Mugabe’s rant on Thursday, even December may be too far.


October is traditionally a month of high temperatures. On the political front, the temperatures have certainly been rising. The economy is in the doldrums and there is no respite for the people of Zimbabwe. The ruling party is caught up in a messy dogfight as factions wrestle to succeed the ageing Mugabe. The fight between the two Vice Presidents is only the latest episode in a season of high drama. It is clear that Mugabe now leads a severely divided and dysfunctional government. Grace Mugabe’s verbal assault upon Mnangagwa shows she and her allies are now going for broke. For them, the political demise of Mnangagwa couldn’t come any sooner. It’s not long ago that she exhorted her husband to name a successor. They are desperate to finish the job. They can’t afford to have Mnangagwa getting another lease of life. Their problem is that Mugabe, the man who holds the key to their dreams does not seem to be in a hurry to administer the guillotine upon his long time water-carrier.

Mnangagwa’s strategy seems to be to hang on for dear life, hoping for an opening when the old godfather departs this universe. He lacks the courage to challenge his godfather, even though it has dawned on him that he will not hand the baton to him. And after so many years in ZANU PF, he is obviously finding it hard to walk away from what he and his allies believes is their own thing. He refuses to be chased out by those regards as political upstarts. He is still hoping for the one last chance to present his long dossier to the Politburo. If this were a boxing match, it’s at the stage where Mnangagwa needs nothing short of a knockout because he is too far behind on points. Perhaps Lady Fortuna will favour him. For now, though, he hangs on precariously. The month of October could turn out to be the month of long knives.


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