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Mugabe’s cabinet reshuffle: Much ado about succession


Time to change? President Mugabe and his wife Grace check the time (Photo credit: Reuters)

President Mugabe has announced that there will be a cabinet reshuffle early this week. The announcement has generated a lot of excitement and speculation among Zimbabweans, coming as it does, when the succession race has gained extra heat in recent weeks. For most observers, the reshuffle is both affected by and will have important implications for the race to succeed Mugabe. It is important therefore to assess how this reshuffle might pan out and the factors that are likely to influence its course.

Managing factions

While Mugabe has claimed that the reshuffle will be based on the performance of his ministers to date, it is really more to do with two things: succession and elections. If it were about performance, then the entire cabinet including himself would be out of jobs for the simple reason that they have not performed at all, as evidenced by the state of the economy. It’s a much-used cliché but there’s none better than that the reshuffle is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, in Zimbabwe’s case to the tune of singing and cheering ZANU PF supporters.

Rather than result in any seismic shifts, Mugabe’s style has generally been to use reshuffles to manage competing factions. It’s a tool that he uses to balance out the factions. When one appears to be gaining more ground over the other he steps in. He likes to assume the role of an honest broker, even though he is the chief engineer of factional conflicts which are part of his divide and rule strategy. In that way, he checks the power of the stronger faction while winning the gratitude of the rescued faction. If he takes any drastic action this week to completely annihilate one of the factions, it would be out of character and a rare exception in the Mugabe rulebook.

Most people think the reshuffle will mark Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s nadir and that Mugabe will sack him. His supporters are adamant that such a thing won’t happen. Mnangagwa has been on the receiving end of criticism, not least from Mugabe himself and his wife, Grace who has been the most vitriolic in her attacks. The latest of such verbal assaults came last Thursday evening, just after Mnangagwa had tried to put a case for the defence. But contrary to common belief, the wily and cunning Mugabe may choose to delay the day of execution. He prefers a slow death and he might appear to give Mnangagwa a stay of execution while in the meantime, targeting his allies. The strategy will be to weaken Mnangagwa by collapsing his key pillars, isolating him from his allies. That approach would also serve the purpose of sending a stern message to other allies. Politicians are selfish creatures – once they see that their future is imperilled, they will quickly jump ship. When power is gone, friends are few and far between.

Preparing for December

Mugabe’s will do his reshuffle with an eye at the ZANU PF conference in December. As argued in the last BSR, Mugabe likes to avoid the impression of being the hangman. He wants Mnangagwa’s demise to be administered by the organs of the party, even though by the time it happens it would be a fait accompli. He will argue that it is not his own doing, but that of the party. The cabinet reshuffle will be used to prepare ground for the conference by ensuring that those appointed or retained are grateful for his benevolence. The payback will be to make sure they do his bidding.

Myth of indispensability

However, because there is a general expectation that Mnangagwa will be sacked, Mugabe’s stay of execution will be seen by Mnangagwa’s allies and other observers as a weakness on his part and a reaffirmation of the myth of Mnangagwa’s indispensability. Mnangagwa’s allies believe he is too big to be sacked and that Mugabe is scared of firing him. Given the pressure to which Mnangagwa has been subjected of late and Grace Mugabe’s recent heavy assault, it would look like an anti-climax for G40 and a victory for Mnangagwa if he survives the sack. Anything short of sacking will embolden rather than weaken Mnangagwa and his allies. The court of public opinion will also be persuaded that Mnangagwa is indeed too big to be sacked. His allies will also get more confidence that there is still a gap. It is not an outcome that would please G40. If anything, they would find it frustrating.

Loss of justice

If Mugabe does not sack him, the worst that could happen to Mnangagwa is that he will lose the important Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs which he has held since 2013. In that role, he has controlled the pace of compliance with the Constitution and electoral reforms. Without the justice portfolio, Mnangagwa’s influence in the administration of justice will be whittled down. He already lost the battle to replace the Chief Justice and the new battleground is the appointment of the Deputy Chief Justice. Most observers thought this is where Mnangagwa would have influenced the ascendancy of Justice George Chiweshe, said to be his favoured candidate for the Chief Justice role before Malaba ran away with it. The next best is the DCJ. But can he get it? If he loses the justice portfolio he will lose the power to make recommendations to Mugabe, to whom, ironically, he gave power to make unilateral appointments after engineering a controversial change in the country’s Constitution.

Next year’s election also presents an added factor which makes the Justice Ministry critical to the political dynamics. It is the ministry that has a direct relationship with and in practical terms oversees the operations of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which runs elections. It confers political authority over ZEC. Mugabe would want someone that he can trust to do the job for him. If recent reports are accurate, he has already left Mnangagwa out of the ZANU PF Election Directorate. It is possible that justice could go to new hands - hands that Mugabe can fully trust.

Security apparatus

One area that could be indirectly affected by the reshuffle is that security apparatus. He could use the reshuffle to reconfigure the entire security apparatus, which has been firmly in place for more than a decade. The coercive instruments of the state have always played an important role in Mugabe’s politics, particularly in elections. The close relationship between defence supremo, General Constantino Chiwenga and Mnangagwa must be a concern to him. He might use the reshuffle to “promote” some of the generals into Cabinet or other civilian roles such as ambassadors in foreign countries. It is not unusual for Mugabe to “demote through promotion”, a strategy where someone in an influential position is elevated to another, seemingly higher but less influential role. It has happened to a number of editors at Zimpapers when they have fallen out of favour with the regime.

After promoting some of the current generals, he would use the opportunity to promote new generals into positions of authority, thereby creating a new security structure that is more amenable to his plans. There are generals in lower tiers who have been waiting too long for promotion and they would naturally relish the opportunity. This will neutralise whatever power Mnangagwa allegedly has in the security apparatus, further isolating him. This particular cat got out of the bag last week when Grace Mugabe warned of a “coup”. “We will not bow to that pressure,” she said, “They say there will be a coup, but no-one will recognise you. The African Union will not recognise you, the SADC will not.” These were ominous words, designed for pre-emption. Mugabe may use the reshuffle to prepare against such threats by changing the configuration and complexion of the security apparatus.

Youths

Two other key areas of interest, with an eye on the December conference and the next election are the youths and women. There has been a shift in emphasis from war veterans given the relationship breakdown between Mugabe and the war veterans’ leadership, which favours Mnangagwa for succession. This has seen Mugabe relying more and more on the youths and women, lavishing them with praise and gifts. The Million Man March and the Presidential Youth Interface rallies have generally been successful in demonstrating the mobilisation potential of the youths. Some in the youth leadership, such as Kudzi Chipanga, may gain promotions, most likely to deputy ministerial roles, which are an expensive waste but they will have a taste of the gravy train. It will give them an incentive to fight harder for Mugabe or his choice of successor at the next election. The current war veterans’ Minister, Retired Colonel Tshinga Dube could easily suffer Mutsvangwa’s fate if Mugabe thinks he has not been able to control and bring finality to problems in that constituency. The favoured faction of the war veterans’ led by Mandiitawepi Chimene could be rewarded.

Women

Likewise, given Grace Mugabe’s role in the Women’s League and her obvious influence upon Mugabe, there could be more promotions favouring women. More critically, the reshuffle will prepare ground for the elevation of a woman to the Vice Presidency, with Grace Mugabe herself as a serious contender come December. That elevation could see one of the current Vice Presidents losing out or Mugabe will simply go for a safe option and appoint three deputies at party level. If Grace Mugabe is given a ministerial portfolio in this reshuffle, it will be to ensure protection from prosecution after her exposure in South Africa following her alleged assault of a young lady who was in the company of her sons. Having to rely on diplomatic immunity on account of her position as First Lady proved very slippery. A ministerial role will be a safer bet in future.

Family

Mugabe could use the reshuffle to elevate members of his family into government. Mugabe’s son in law, Simba Chikore currently apprenticing at Air Zimbabwe following a surprise appointment, or his wife, Bona might be called up to enhance the family’s presence in the regime. Mugabe is very fond of his daughter and in the absence of political capital to succeed him, he might just see this as an opportunity to give her a taste of power, preparing her for the future. The only handicap in respect of the youths and young family members is that to be a Minister, one has to be an MP and ZEC has recently declared that there will be no by-elections. The only chance to get into Parliament is if Mugabe sacks some of the five appointed MPs. And ZEC being ZEC, it could simply bend in line with Mugabe’s wishes and change its decision. Besides, Mugabe being Mugabe, he can simply appoint them regardless of the fact that they are not MPs, arguing it will be sorted later. Other members of the bigger family in other echelons of the state might also be elevated.

I'm the boss

For Mugabe, the reshuffle is an opportunity to assert and demonstrate who is in control. It is a reminder, in these uncertain times where some have begun to doubt him, that he is the godfather - the one who appoints and, as Professor Jonathan Moyo famously remarked in 2004 after he was fired, he can also disappoint. You don’t keep power for 37 years if you are not a control freak. Mugabe is responding and saying, “I’m the boss”. As one of the protagonists in Game of Thrones says, “The only way to keep small folk loyal is to make certain that they fear you more than they fear the enemy”. It is a principle that Mugabe knows too well and implements with clinical precision. It does not matter whether its G40 or Lacoste – every one of them right now is unsure and petrified.

Propaganda

Of all the ministries, one that will be closely watched in the information and publicity ministry. It is one of the critical portfolios going into an election year. It is through that ministry that Mugabe controls the public media. It has been the scene of critical battles between the factions. After Moyo was jettisoned in the 2015 reshuffle, Permanent Secretary George Charamba assumed greater influence in the public media. The influence was felt by G40, which prompted Grace Mugabe to publicly chastise Charamba at a political rally. Thereafter, the public media applied brakes on its G40 assault. Still however, it can't really be said G40 control it. There remain residual elements that are sympathetic to Lacoste, but have been quiet only because of Grace Mugabe's attack upon Charamba. One thing for sure is that it would be a huge setback, if not catastrophic for Mnangagwa and Lacoste if it were to go back into the hands of G40 and in particular Moyo who would certainly use it with devastating effect. If Mugabe wants to strengthen G40, he will give them the propaganda machine but if he wants to contain them, he will leave things as they are.

Conclusion

He might not sack Mnangagwa on this occasion, but he will have reminded him and everyone else that he is the centre of authority and that ultimately, their political lives are in his hands. Even if Mugabe does not dismiss Mnangagwa this week, his actions could well constitute what employment lawyers refer to as constructive dismissal, where you nominally have a job but really everything points to the fact that you are no longer wanted. But, Mnangagwa is not alone in that predicament of uncertainty. As it is, traditional healers, prophets and Madzibaba of the Apostolic Faith sects are working extra shifts as Ministers seek divine and spiritual intervention to save their seats on the gravy train.

While Mugabe says the reshuffle is about performance, it is really about succession and preparing ground for next year’s elections. If it were based on performance, they would do the honourable thing and resign en masse, including Mugabe himself. As it is, Zimbabwean voters have to wait until next year before they have an opportunity to reshuffle the whole government. But first, they must register to vote in the numbers. This important fact can be easily forgotten in the drama and excitement over a self-serving cabinet reshuffle.

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