I finished the below article the day before Zimbabwe’s army took control of the country, thereby thwarting Grace Mugabe’s chances of becoming the next leader. Grace (pictured), the wife of former president Robert Mugabe, had been positioning herself to take over from her husband — whenever his demise came.
The ink had barely dried before the tanks started rolling into Harare, the capital. Led by General Constantino Chiwenga, the army took control of strategic locations and held Robert Mugabe, leader since 1980, under house arrest. Mugabe’s political allies fled and hid.
A series of dramatic events would unfold over the coming week culminating in Mugabe’s former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, being sworn in as the nation’s new president.
I, for one, didn’t see it coming. Here’s the article I wrote on November 12th just before the army took matters into their own hands.
Good Grace! Mugabe’s wife takes poll position in leadership marathon
Grace Mugabe’s phenomenal rise up the ladder of Zimbabwe politics continues as another hurdle to her ambition is removed
When your right-hand man and your wife fight, it’s usually the latter who comes out on top. And this is how it played out in Zimbabwe on November 6th when Robert Mugabe, 93, sacked his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The characteristically bold move by Mr Mugabe might well give his wife, Grace, a clear run at the presidency.
Mr Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s liberation hero who has morphed into an archetype dictator, sacked his long-time ally Mr Mnangagwa for showing “traits of disloyalty”. Mr Mnangagwa, known as “the crocodile” for his tenacious politicking, was a favourite to succeed the fragile yet wily Mr Mugabe. Not anymore. He’s now said to be in South Africa, seeking refuge while planning a triumphant return to Zimbabwe at some point in the future. “I will be communicating with you soon and shall return to Zimbabwe to lead you,” said Mr Mnangagwa, 75, in a statement after his dismissal, appealing to his compatriots.
The Crocodile is said to be close with Zimbabwe’s army and security services; as well as being on good terms with the country’s liberation stalwarts who, led by Mr Mugabe, re-took the country in 1980 from the previous white nationalist regime. If this is the case, Mr Mnangagwa stands a fighting chance to take on the emerging Mugabe dynasty. Some observers, though, doubt how much sway he actually has over the military men. Time will tell. Next year’s election will likely offer a good answer. Will Mr Mugabe stay in power, as he wants to? Will his wife rise to become his deputy or will she go rogue and plot to bring down her decorated husband? Or, will the army and old guard, with or without Mnangagwa’s teeth, try to wrest control away from Mr Mugabe?
Coming back to the present. If this drama was a horse race between Mr Mnangagwa and Mrs Mugabe to take over Zimbabwe, the early lead has undoubtedly gone to Mrs Mugabe. And if her hubby lives to 100, or more, this marathon has plenty of life in it yet.
The tragedy, however, is the longer this drags out, the worse things will become for the vast bulk of Zimbabwe’s 16 million people. An already perilous economy, underpinned by a flimsy “bond note” currency, is likely to get worse. Leadership battles and political intrigue will continue to suck up energy that should go toward fixing a moribund nation. Ninety per cent of government revenues are consumed by the wages of civil servants. And as many as 95% of working people haggle to make a crust in the informal sector, therefore paying little or no tax. Life expectancy in 1986, six years after Mugabe took over from the white supremacists who led Rhodesia (Zimbabwe’s previous name) during colonial times, was 61 years, according to the World Bank. In 2012, it had dropped to 53.
Mrs Mugabe, 52, known as “Gucci Grace” for her legendary spending habits is unashamedly gunning for the role of deputy leader. “My husband is the president, and I’m the president’s wife,” Mrs Mugabe reportedly told a crowd last weekend. “I’m a woman, so why can’t I be the vice president? Am I not a child of Zimbabwe?”
The last question is not so easy to answer. Mrs Mugabe was born in South Africa, but few see this as a hurdle to her succession as president. The Zimbabwe Africa National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), Mr Mugabe’s ruling party, is scheduled to hold an extra-ordinary meeting in December. It’s expected that the party, with the leader’s encouragement, will elevate Mrs Mugabe into the vice-presidency.
This meeting could officially endorse the prospect of a Mugabe dynasty. But one suspects, with or without 93-year-old Mr Mugabe, this race has plenty of life in it yet. The big question that can only be answered with time, however, is how much power will Grace wield once her husband passes into history. Many observers suspect her star will fade when she’s lost her main sponsor.
As events unfold and as ordinary Zimbabweans continue to scratch out a living, it’s worthwhile remembering an old African proverb. When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.
Top photo: Grace Mugabe. AFP