There was much discussion and commentary upon the return of Retired General Constantino Chiwenga in the early hours of Saturday 23 November 2019.
The excitement generated by his return was understandable. He is one of Zimbabwe’s duo of Vice Presidents. He had spent 4 months in China where he was receiving specialist medical treatment. By all accounts, the man had literally escaped the claws of the Grim Reaper. Before the general's great escape engineered by the Chinese, he had tried South African and Indian help without success. he was literally at death's door,before the Chinese intervened with the elixir of life.
He is also the man who carried out an audacious coup two years ago, removing Mugabe and creating a gap for Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had fled into exile. This circumstance alone means Chiwenga is more than a deputy but a partner in an unwritten power-sharing arrangement.
To some observers of the Zimbabwean political scene, his inordinate absence had created disequilibrium in the balance of power. His return, which was without prior public notice - a circumstance which lent surprise and drama to the occasion, presumably restores that equilibrium.
But there are also speculative reasons for the excitement. This is based on an old but still enticing conspiracy theory that there exists some tension between the two men; that far from being partners united in cordiality, they are, in fact, rivals.
However, evidence of these so-called tensions, if it exists, is sporadic and anecdotal at best. For example, before last year’s ZANU PF annual conference some individuals and groups in ZANU PF supplied raw material for this theory when they started declaring Mnangagwa as the candidate for the 2023 elections. This was interpreted as a notice being served to Chiwenga, whom it has been said is angling to succeed Mnangagwa.
There is supposedly a gentleman's agreement that Mnangagwa is to serve only a single term, before handing over the baton to Chiwenga. Again, there is no real proof that such an agreement was ever made. this could well be a product of someone's fertile imagination. But it fits perfectly into the matrix of the conspiracy theorising and has been bandied around as fact.
The outcome of this conspiracy theory is that there is another coup brewing and apparently, Chiwenga will lead it. Some express a fear that this has created another dangerous myth of saviourhood; with Chiwenga repackaged as some sort of saviour from a dangerous and inept Mnangagwa.
This, of course, is a reminder of the human mind’s vast capacity for forgetfulness on account of immediate wishes. Such myopic desires stand in the way of reason. Just two years ago, Chiwenga was hailed as a hero after removing Mugabe in a coup. But the last two years have been an utter disaster and he is a co-author of that tragic story. So how on this good earth can he suddenly be cast as a saviour?
Collective wish for rupture
But I do not think the notion that he is a saviour is widely held. I think it is exaggerated by those who take a snotty view towards the excitement generated by Chiwenga’s return. Far from seeing Chiwenga as a saviour, what exists is a tacit wish for him to be a catalyst for implosion in ZANU PF. The ruling party has maintained a vice grip on power; controlling all institutions of the state to the extent that some people only see the possibility of change coming through self-generated implosion than from an external source. The excitement is an expression of a collective wish for rupture rather than a collective belief in Chiwenga as a saviour.
In fact, some may be motivated by a desire to instigate that breakdown by building narratives that amplify suspicions between the two men and their camps. That the two men have their followers cannot be doubted. "Tinhai dzirwe" (Drive them into a fight) is a not an uncommon phenomenon in politics; a variant of the divide and rule strategy.
However, the conspiracy theory may also exaggerate the tensions between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga. Indeed, it may also be based on inflation of Chiwenga’s power. Its authors assume that Chiwenga still wields control over the security apparatuses of the state or significant parts of it. But is this still the case?
In his absence, Mnangagwa has been rearranging the composition of security leadership. He has done so in a manner that gives him an advantage. Like all authoritarian rulers, he knows the threat that comes from the apparatus of violence and he has been retiring key seniors figures of the coup through “promotions” and “redeployments”. This recalibration of the security sector may have severely weakened Chiwenga.
The conspiracy theory also underplays the common purpose between the two men, which operates to musk whatever differences they might have.
Their common purpose is to maintain political power; to ward off an existential threat and to keep control of the channels of maximising personal wealth extraction. Both men are phenomenally wealthy. They will not do anything that will threaten that wealth. That is how, despite personal political ambitions and obvious signs of Mugabe’s waning powers over the years, the ZANU PF political and military elites continued to keep him in power even when it had become clear that it was counter-productive to the nation.
Instead, the rival factions co-existed and worked together because they had a common purpose. The fallout in 2017 happened because the two factions - Lacoste and G40 - were now posing an existential threat to each other. The proverbial Rubicon had been crossed and one had to be annihilated. It is not obvious that the situation has come to that between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga. Mnangagwa may be failing the nation, but if he can arrange for Chiwenga to cheat death in China, the two men can continue to co-exist in their current power-sharing pact.
Beijing's man in Harare
What is more significant in the circumstances is that one of Zimbabwe's key leaders literally owes his life to a foreign power. He has admitted that without China, he would be history. The impact of China’s role in saving Chiwenga from what looked like a certain death cannot be overstated. The Chinese do not forget their debts. Only this week they reminded the Zimbabwean government that they will not take kindly to what they perceive to be an understatement of their development aid.
Anyone whose life is saved by another is bound to be grateful. But Chiwenga is no ordinary man. As a co-Vice President, he is just a step away from being our next president. A death, removal or resignation of the incumbent puts him in pole position to be president of the country. And if that happens, China will truly have their man in Harare.
Even now, Beijing has a stake in one of the partners in the current power-sharing arrangement. It is not a surprise that the man waiting to receive him at the Robert Mugabe International Airport when he arrived aboard a Chinese jet was not anyone from the Zimbabwean government but the Deputy Ambassador of China, himself the personifaction of China in Zimbabwe. That, in the midst of al this drama and speculation, is a sobering thought.