Politicians, like boxers, don’t seem to know when to call it quits. They are always hunting for that one last moment of glory, however impossible it seems. Former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is back in the news, this time putting what remains of his political weight behind Zimbabwe’s newest opposition party, the National Patriotic Front.
The NPF is led by Retired Brigadier General Ambrose Mutinhiri, a war veteran and former ZANU PF MP, who last week handed in his resignation from the party and withdrew as a Member of Parliament. He cited his disapproval of the coup that removed Mugabe from power and replaced him with his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa last November. Some argue that Mutinhiri, one of the most senior war veterans was disaffected and bitter at being overlooked ahead of his subordinates.
Why has Mugabe, who celebrated his 94 birthday last month, decided to get back into the political fray? Some think it is unwise of Mugabe to risk the generous retirement package, which he got from the new administration by challenging Mnangagwa as he is doing. Many have long written him off as a political force and think he is delusional to think he still has any political clout. Wasn’t it better for the veteran politician to retire and enjoy his sunset years? Others think he is a victim of poor advice and bad encouragement by those around him.
However, it is probably a sense of insecurity over his family’s future that is driving him back into the arena of active politics. The state daily, The Herald carried a long report on Monday in which it quoted an anonymous source who hinted that the new administration was moving against the vast business empire that Mugabe built during his 37 years in power. The report indicated that the government would ask him to keep only one of the 21 farms that Mugabe allegedly grabbed over the years. The report also called him a hypocrite who had preached against leasing farms to white farmers yet that is precisely what he had done during his time in power.
The Herald reported also hinted that the Mugabes are among the culprits who had externalized funds from Zimbabwe but have so far refused to heed the amnesty, which was extended by Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa has promised to name and shame the so-called externalisers on March 19 if they refuse to comply with the amnesty. Mugabe also recently claimed that his wife was being harassed by the new administration. The head of the University of Zimbabwe, Levi Nyagura was recently arrested and charged with criminal abuse of office over a doctoral degree that was awarded to Mugabe’s wife, Grace in 2014. Mugabe sees this arrest as a targeted at him and his wife. The move into opposition politics is designed to pre-empt any legal action against the Mugabes.
When Mugabe met the head of the African Union, he demanded that the new administration should give him his benefits, which suggested that government rhetoric over his pension was inconsistent with actual reality. The Herald report suggested a vindictive streak on the part of the new administration when it hinted that Mugabe was being ungrateful by challenging a government that was looking after him. If this is the view of the new establishment, it is petty because the pension is not a favour but a constitutional entitlement.
Some have suggested that the retirement package was far too generous and it could now be reduced as punishment. But this is precisely the picture that Mugabe would be happy to create – that he is being persecuted for his political views. If the Mnangagwa administration falls for it, they could alienate more of those in their party who are sympathetic to Mugabe but had come to terms with his removal. Mnangagwa revealed a weakness when he felt compelled to report to the African Union that Mugabe was being looked after. It showed that he was sensitive to Mugabe's mistreatment because the veteran politician still has many admirers on the continent. Any suggestion of persecution is not in Mnangagwa's interests as it will only taint the reputation that he has painstakingly constructed since the coup.
However, Mugabe feels threatened and this is why he has decided to throw the kitchen sink at his successor by backing an opposition party. The move into opposition politics is therefore an act of self-preservation. The toad has jumped in broad daylight because something is after its life. Whatever the government does to the Mugabes now, it will be presented as political harassment merely because Mugabe has taken a political side. By associating himself with an opposition political party, Mugabe is setting himself up as a victim of political persecution.
But how would it be for self-preservation when there is no prospect that the new political party would prevail in the next election which is just a few months away? Surely, even in his wildest dreams, Mugabe does not believe that the new party will win the election?
Mugabe probably understands that, but the aim may be more limited to disrupting Mnangagwa’s march to legitimacy rather than winning the election. Mugabe had many faults as a leader but there is a section of ZANU PF which genuinely believed in him, whatever those shortcomings. These people have remained quietly dissatisfied with the manner in which he was deposed. The authors of the coup were conscious of this disaffection in their security quarter hence the stern warning against any resistance when the coup was announced on 15 November. The post-Coup purges from the police and intelligence services also confirmed the existence of this pro-Mugabe element and a section which was generally against the coup for professional reasons. Mugabe may be looking to rouse this section to the new party’s cause, away from Mnangagwa.
Mugabe may also be banking on the ethnic factor, which seems to be an important feature of this election compared to previous ones. Part of this is that ethnicity became an important theme in the bitter race to succeed Mugabe. Mugabe accused Mnangagwa of pursuing a narrow ethnic agenda. A view had also been promoted that since the Zezuru ethnic group had dominated power for so long, it was time for a Karanga presidency. This is ugly but it would be foolhardy to ignore its existence. Furthermore, there have been murmurs in the post-coup period that the Zezuru have indeed been largely sidelined in the new administration. This is why there is a view that the vote in the Mashonaland provinces, traditionally ZANU PF strongholds can no longer be taken for granted. Mugabe may be pinning his hopes on this, believing that the new party will have better traction than ZANU PF in these provinces. Anything to deny his old protégé an easy victory by dividing the traditional ZANU PF vote would be a triumph for him.
There is, of course, a raw sense of bitterness at the manner in which he was removed from power which remains a strong motivating factor for wading into opposition politics. Mugabe is a vengeful character and he wants some revenge against his former lieutenant. In recent weeks, he has complained bitterly over the coup. He has described the new establishment as a military government which usurped power unconstitutionally. The coup took him by surprise and left him a bitter and broken man. In public, his successor has tried to be magnanimous and generous, but clearly Mugabe does not believe that is good enough to pacify him. He wants to fight one more time. Mnangagwa may feel that he has enough dirt on Mugabe that when it's revealed no one will have sympathy for him anyway. But Mugabe may feel that at 94, he has nothing to lose and he is prepared to fight to the death.
But history is replete with warriors who, believing too much in their own power, have failed to recognize the moment to stop. This is so evident in the field of boxing. Even when everyone can see that it’s time to hang the gloves, many a boxer has fallen for the lure of that one last shot at the title. More often than not, it ends in tears and broken hearts. In fact, it is often a pitiful sight, seeing the washed–out warrior getting totally outclassed and punished the younger man. Like a veteran boxer, Mugabe thinks he still has one more fight in him. But this may be a bout too far for the veteran politician. There will be no last hurrah here.
The Herald has already launched the punches. On Monday morning, the state daily was calling him Cde Mugabe. But the end of the day he had been reduced to Mr Mugabe. In ZANU PF language, it simply says, you're no longer one of us; you are fair game. It looks like he will be punched mercilessly, ironically, by the beast that he created and nurtured for 37 years. It won't end well ...