End of the road: Emmerson Mnangagwa (Credit: Phillimon Bulawayo)
Writing on the wall
The writing was on the wall long before he was led to the political guillotine today.
The surprise was that it took so long for Robert Mugabe to sack his long-time lieutenant. And that Emmerson Mnangagwa himself did not walk away much earlier, when it was so obvious even to the most politically detached that the game was long finished. Instead, he hung on precariously, hoping for a reprieve or that Lady Fortuna would offer an opportunity. There was no reprieve and Lady Fortuna was never in a generous mood.
Some reports suggest Mnangagwa woke up to clear his office early this morning, reality having finally dawned upon him. But even if this is true, he was merely shutting the stable doors long after the horses had bolted. Events at the weekend had already shown that the relationship with his boss had broken down irretrievably. They had reached a point of no return. If he really wished to chow he was in control, he should have walked away long back. Instead, he allowed his boss to be in control.
The sacking of Mnangagwa marks another chapter in the dramatic race to succeed Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian leader. It is also a remarkable turn of fortunes for a man who, just three years ago, was regarded as front-runner in the succession race after taking over from Joice Mujuru. In a twist of irony, Mnangagwa’s fall has followed a script that is eerily similar to the collapse of Mujuru three years ago. Her misfortune at the time was his gift, but now she must be having the last laugh. The surprise is that while the plot was plain to everyone else, Mnangagwa and his allies did not seem to see what was going on. Or if they did, they simply had no plan against it.
For a man who has long been regarded as a shrewd strategist, Mnangagwa’s collapse has been conspicuous by the feebleness of his resistance. The scene in the Politburo was too little too late. Mugabe had already preempted it with his cabinet reshuffle. Mnangagwa should have known that Mugabe was giving him a chance just to tick the boxes, not because his defence would change his mind. As one ally after another fell by the wayside, Mnangagwa did not once come to their defence. Instead, on occasions, he was forced to disown them. Some argued that he was right to stay away because any attempt to defend allies would have exposed him. But this was a weak line of defence. It left his allies vulnerable to attack. It was plain to all and sundry that the target of all those suspensions and expulsions was himself. He could have put up a defence long before his expulsion.
Denial and delusion
The problem is that for too long Mnangagwa and his allies seemed to be either in denial or completely deluded. They simply refused to accept what was happening. They refused to see that it was Mugabe who was against him. Somehow, Mnangagwa’s supporters believed there was a secret grand plan somewhere that would save him. Mnangagwa’s silence in the face of abuse was interpreted as a sign of shrewdness. They did not accept that there was probably no plan at all. And as events have shown, there was no plan at all. In fact, astoundingly, up until the last day, they theorised and believed the lie that Mugabe was scared of sacking Mnangagwa. They also believed the lie that Mnangagwa was too big to be sacked. Someone peddled the theory that Mnangagwa had backing of the military and supporters believed this without question. Just hours before the sacking, a rumour circulated to the effect that a planned Mugabe press conference had been cancelled at the orders of the military. Others even said Mugabe had been stopped from sacking Mnangagwa by the military. Of course, all these were legends without foundation.
Perhaps the most important difference between Lacoste and G40 could be summed up in one word: Mugabe. G40 had Mugabe’s backing and this was thanks to the influence of Grace Mugabe who effectively shielded its key figures. Lacoste thought they were fighting G40 but they were actually up against Mugabe. It was a fight they were never going to win. Of course, G40 had Jonathan Moyo, the political scientist who has been its chief strategist and driver. While Grace Mugabe has led the assault, Moyo has been the architect of Mnangagwa’s downfall. For so long, using the medium of social media, Moyo embarked on a mission of demystification of the legend of the crocodile, upon which Mnangagwa had thrived for so long. He was relentless and persistent. On his side, Mnangagwa had a pack of hounds, but he lacked a strategist. They made noise, but they did not possess the nous for the big game.
What happens now?
Having lost the Vice Presidency, Mnangagwa has also lost the right to appear and speak in Parliament. Under the Constitution, when a person becomes a Vice President he ceases to be an MP. That’s why Mnangagwa gave up his seat in 2014 when he became Vice President. He bequeathed it to his wife, Auxillia, thus keeping it in the family. ZEC has since announced that there will be no more by-elections until the next elections. Just three weeks ago, he was not only Vice President but Leader of Government Business by virtue of holding the portfolio of Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister. He lost the latter in the reshuffle and now he is completely out of Parliament. It’s a heavy fall for a man who has been in the corridors of powers for the past 37 years.
It is hard to see how he can survive in ZANU PF after this. The provinces had already started passing resolutions calling for his sacking and expulsion. Now that he is without power, the rest will follow suit. His staunchest allies might follow him in solidarity but politicians are not known for their loyalty. Now that Mnangagwa is without power, he will find that it’s a very lonely place. Former allies will treat him like a man who has suddenly been afflicted with leprosy. Some will shamelessly try to worm their way into G40. They had long sensed that Mnangagwa was losing ground and they would have been shifting towards G40 in recent weeks. Even if he remains a card-carrying member of the party, he will be expelled before at the Extraordinary Congress in December.
But why did Mugabe make a move before the special congress and so soon after the cabinet reshuffle? He could have fired Mnangagwa three weeks ago at the reshuffle. It suggests that Mugabe was unsure and hesitant. This appears to be a panic sacking. His preference would have been to wait a little longer and make it appear like he was merely fulfilling congress’ decision. But, to use Achebe’s metaphor, it seems the toad was forced to jump in broad daylight because something was after its life. The groundswell of support that Mnangagwa seemed to be amassing through the sympathy vote appears to have been seen as a threat. The show of support in Bulawayo must have raised concern in the G40 ranks. It was never in in G40’s interests to prolong Mnangagwa’s stay in office any longer. He had to go. Mugabe must have been pressured into accepting that he could not risk keeping Mnangagwa any longer, let alone having him at the special congress. He was the proverbial stone in the shoe that had to be quickly removed. Now he is sacked, it is highly unlikely he will attend the special congress.
With Mujuru and Mnangagwa removed, one might think the Vice Presidency is cursed. Whoever takes it seems doomed to fail. But space has now been cleared for the rise of Grace Mugabe and get her closer to the top. The Youth League has already nominated Grace Mugabe and it will be a brave province that goes against that lead. Mugabe has the power to make the appointment, but this is being choreographed to enable him to say his hand is forced by the members. The provinces have no role in nominating a Vice President which is entirely at the discretion of the President. That they are passing this resolution is designed to make the job easier for Mugabe. With the 77-year old Mphoko as an ally, this puts Grace Mugabe well on course to succeed her husband. Thus a Grace Mugabe presidency which seemed highly unlikely just four years ago is now a distinct possibility.
Fight or flight?
Will the crocodile fight back immediately or retreat to the cave and rest? The man is 75 years old. His health has been poor following the alleged poisoning in August this year. His current political woes and the humiliation suffered at the hands of Grace Mugabe will only have added to the levels of stress. After more than more than fifty years in active politics, he might just accept that his dream of becoming President has come to an end. He might choose to go quietly and live out the rest of his days at his farm. If however, he still harbours dreams of a ZANU PF comeback, he might use that time as a political sabbatical. It will be a period of hibernation and in future, perhaps after Mugabe is gone, he might plot a comeback.
Far better perhaps and more productive is if he bucks the trend of Zimbabwean politics and accept that there is life after and beyond politics. For all his shortcomings, he has built a strong network of regional and international connections in his long political career. He commands some respect among his peers in the region. He has more years in him if he looks after himself well. He could establish a foundation and help nurture a younger generation of leaders, leaving a legacy beyond politics. He could join the likes of Thabo Mbeki as an elder statesman in the region. In return, his rivals may let bygones be bygones.
But given the bitter circumstances of his separation from ZANU PF, the possibility of a quiet departure is unlikely. He could choose to launch a strong offensive from outside. But if he could not fight from within, when he had access to state power and its instruments, it is hard to see how he could do so effectively from outside. His allies will probably tell him he could challenge his old boss in the 2018 elections. If he does decide to join opposition politics, he would have to work with the existing opposition parties. Going solo will not work. His chances will be more enhanced if he works with the opposition.
Besides, it still remains to be seen whether he has enough people to actually cause a significant split in ZANU PF. At present, there's much conjecture and little substance. There was much hype when Mujuru was sacked in 2014 and she formed her own party a year later. It doesn’t appear to have shaken ZANU PF a great deal and the one performance in a by-election was abysmal. Mnangagwa will have to assess his chances – he has been in ZANU PF long enough and if he doesn’t know anything else, surely he has a better understanding of his party.
For the opposition, despite his shortcomings, they might find him useful in their bid to beat ZANU PF. Authoritarian regimes have often fallen to opposition parties that have among them men and women who have formerly been part of the ruling party. They bring their experience and deep knowledge of the ruling party. They also have a strong incentive to beat their rivals who pushed them out. In Mnangagwa’s case, if he was truly a key player in Mugabe’s long stay in power, as legend says he was, he might also have the much-needed knowledge of ZANU PF’s rigging machinery than most who have previously left ZANU PF. But as with all other legends around Mnangagwa that have collapsed in recent times, we might find that he is as clueless as the rest of us.
Either way, it’s back to the drawing board for Mnangagwa. There is a cruel irony at the end of his long journey in ZANU PF: when he went to Mozambique in 1977 as Mugabe’s special assistant, it was because he had been invited by Mugabe. Now, exactly forty years later, he is on his way out, having been fired by the man who invited him. Clearly, he has never been his own man. Rather, throughout his adult life, he has served at the pleasure of Mugabe. He has been his water-carrier. His greatest failing is not that he was disloyal, but that he never grew out of the shadow of the man who invited him. All his political life he has played the role of handmaiden.
But perhaps the most befitting description is encapsulated in this African adage: a man who hangs around a beautiful girl without declaring his intentions ends up fetching water for guests at her wedding. For too long Emmerson Mnangagwa has been close to power. But he has hesitated. He has been shy. Now though, it seems he will be fetching water for guests at the wedding.