Implications for Zimbabwe of a military successor to Mugabe

Jun 16, 2011

With President Robert Mugabe at 87 and said to be in failing health, things look set to come to a political head in Zimbabwe fairly soon. He and his party have feverishly insisted on an election soon, appearing to believe they currently are well positioned to win. But his opponents say all the factors that made the last election in 2008 so violent and controversial still exist, and that no election can be held until the electoral conditions are conducive to a free and fair poll, which they in turn believe they would win handily. While this debate about the next election is going on in the usual acrimonious Zimbabwean way, the possibility of a military successor to Mugabe has recently gained increasing currency.

In a free and fair election the Movement for Democratic Change under prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai stands a very realistic chance of routing president Robert Mugabe's long-ruling ZANU-PF. Mugabe squeezed through to another presidential term in 2008's election under very controversial circumstances that are not going to be easy to duplicate.

The economy has improved and stabilised since its lows of 2007/8 but the creation of the MDC/ZANU-PF government is credited for this more than any efforts of Mugabe's. Mugabe is clearly much older and less energetic, even if he is not ill as such. He has been in uninterrupted power for 31 years, so many Zimbabweans would simply be ready for change even if their standard of life had not plunged in recent years. Respect for Mugabe's liberation-era contributions no longer automatically translates into electoral support for him and his party, which has also been tarred by corruption scandals and whose rule is now associated with the same repression they once fought and overthrew.

A once-widely respected ruling clique with deep roots in the liberation struggle now faces the real prospect of being voted out of office, and for the first time finds that none of its previous gambits for fixing elections are so easily available. The world has changed in significant ways since 2008, with much less international tolerance for outrightly stolen elections.

The ZANU-PF ruling clique has always considered itself to have the 'right' to rule the Zimbabwe that 'we liberated.' Until recent elections this sense of ruling entitlement always also coincided with genuine popular support. That support has been dwindling with each election, and in 2008 they for the first time faced the possibility/reality that a majority of that previous support had been transferred to the new party in town, the MDC.

The ruling clique now faces the new dilemna of how to justify their ‘right’ to rule despite a loss of majority support. The strategy has been to embark on controversial but popular campaigns like the messy one for land reform, to intensify repression and to allege multiple international conspiracies against the ‘sovereignty’ of Zimbabwe. An important part of this has been to paint the MDC, now with a slim parliamentary majority, as 'puppets' of hostile forces working against the ideals and goals of independence championed by Mugabe and his colleagues.

The rulers have also become well-to-do from their long access to power, even as most of the rest of the country became increasingly impoverished. The fear of losing power to the MDC is therefore partly for those self-serving reasons. But there is also genuine revulsion at the idea of passing the baton to a party with which ZANU-PF has such deep ideological differences, and who are considered as 'sell-outs' to the whole idea of independence.

It is with this in mind that the trial balloon of an alternative way for Mugabe’s clique to effectively continue ruling by dressing up a military man as his successor is being floated. If the old man can stand the rigours of another election and have his victory somehow arranged, then ZANU-PF has five years to figure out a plan for a longer term hold on power. Power has been so concentrated in the person of Mugabe that there is no one other than him within ZANU-PF party who could at this late stage credibly stage a challenge to the MDC’s Tsvangirai in an election, hence the unseemly push for the old man to go through one more election.

Into this complicated mix for ZANU-PF has been thrown the factor of the glare of intense international scrutiny. Mugabe and ZANU-PF are already considered in many circles to be electoral cheaters by default as a result of 2008’s mess, and will be very hard-pressed to claim ‘sovereignty’ as a reason to avoid some sort of electoral monitoring or even supervision. The neighbouring countries that have previously always deferred to Mugabe and ZANU-PF and excused their dubious electoral tactics seem much less willing to look the other way.

It is into this scenario of dwindling options to hang on to power with even a shred of democratic legitimacy that ZANU-PF seems to going for their ‘nuclear option.’ That includes dispensing with the appearance of democratic legitimacy in favour of holding on to power at almost any cost, damn the consequences, by engineering a military successor to Mugabe as is being increasingly speculated. That might seem folly with the international pressure that would be brought to bear against a government that stayed on in power in this way, but ZANU-PF has almost come to pride itself on being against the world, or at least the ‘imperialists,’ who are hiding under every bed. An example was the wholesale expropriation of white-owned farms to international condemnation.

In the June 2 edition of The Zimbabwe Independent:

In a new twist to President Robert Mugabe’s unpredictable succession battle, a group of generals in the army disgruntled by Zanu PF’s failure to resolve the issue are reportedly pushing for Zimbabwe Defence Forces Commander Constantine Chiwenga to take over from the ageing leader battling with ill-health.

Impeccable sources told the Zimbabwe Independent that a coterie of commanders, working with Zanu PF politicians, want Chiwenga to retire from the army and enter the fray to succeed Mugabe.

Chiwenga…is said to be open to the idea of an active role in politics after quitting the army. Chiwenga has been studying in recent years and this has been seen as part of his preparation for a political career after his quitting the military. He is currently studying for a Master of Arts degree in International Relations at the University of Zimbabwe. 

Chiwenga would merely be exercising his right as a private citizen to stand for political office of course. But in reality there is no way that this would be interpreted as anything less than another way to deny Zimbabweans their choice in a free and fair election. It would be widely seen as a strategy to prolong the era of ‘Mugabeism’ for the benefit of ZANU-PF. That in turn would influence whether this strategy could be carried off, and if so, the quality of a Chiwenga presidency.

Chiwenga could not hope in a few months to carve out a personal political profile for himself to equal that which Tsvangirai has been building for years. And he certainly would find that when compared to the Mugabe he would be cast as a successor to, he would come up severely short in almost every way. His remaining hope to be taken seriously would be to be cast not according to any personal (currently largely unknown) political strengths, but simply as the chosen figurehead of the party, ZANU-PF.

But even this would be hard to pull off to a credible election win. It is no longer the case, as it was in the early post-independence elections, that the ZANU-PF candidate for anything automatically enjoyed a popular advantage. It would be an unknown (political) entity representing a long-entrenched, no longer so popular party. This is not a strong electoral basis for a ZANU-PF that is quite right to be electorally afraid of the MDC.

The best hope for a ZANU-PF revival against a resurgent MDC would be to at least give the appearance of having re-invented itself to rid itself of the old and the corrupt within its ranks. Though Chiwenga is still in his 50s and has not been publicly known to be a party activist, he is likely to be very much associated with the ‘old’ and Mugabeist ZANU-PF, and not in flattering ways, rather than to be perceived as the face of a reformist ZANU-PF. If the idea is to give ZANU-PF a lift in its chances against the MDC after Mugabe exits the political scene, Chiwenga would seem to be a very strange choice with which to try to do that at an election.

Which brings up the point that the appearance of an election that is ‘free and fair’ may not be important to Chiwenga and his supporters. Stopping the ascendancy of Tsvangirai and the MDC to power may be all that matters, regardless of how democratically (or not) that is seen to be done.

Chiwenga in recent years has openly come out to say he would not ‘salute’ Tsvangirai as head of state, alluding to the hardline view of the prime minister as a puppet of Western powers who want to ‘sell out the revolution’ that Chiwenga took part in and whose legacy it is said by some in ZANU-PF they would do anything to defend. It is not far-fetched to presume this includes making sure an election could not produce a Tsvangirai victory, or preventing him from taking office if it did. It has already been widely whispered that the army played an anti-Tsvangirai/MDC role in the election of 2008, and that in preparation for the next election, it has been mobilized in rural areas to begin the ‘campaign’ of intimidation on behalf of ZANU-PF.

Rather than an outright coup, therefore, the strategy seems to be to try to go through the motion of an election, but to have done the background work to ensure it produces the ‘correct’ result. This is one reason the regional body SADC is making it clear that it will only endorse an election process when it is confident that all such time-worn means of holding an election while undermining the process have been nipped in the bud. Neither Mugabe nor Chiwenga are likely to pay much heed to SADC’s expressed concerns. There is simply too much at stake for them to risk losing power through allowing the kind of open election they suspect they would lose.

A senior army official recently caused a stir by citing the strong ties forged between soldiers and civilian politicians in the liberation struggle, and rejecting the idea that the army must stay out of politics. It was merely the latest and most direct indication of the thinking of the ruling power structures in the face of the threat they perceive the MDC to be.

It is therefore almost a foregone conclusion that a presidential election pitting Chiwenga against Tsvangirai would almost by necessity ‘have to’ produce a ‘victory’ for the former.

Would ZANU-PF be able to live down a messy election 'victory'  the way they were able to do in 2008? The recent example of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast suggests that if the region comes out strongly against a dubiously claimed victor as ECOWAS did, and if foreign powers perceive interests for them to intervene or support one side, it is much harder to do so than was the case in 2008.

The Mugabe government has recently been growing military closer to China while strengthening already existing economic ties. It remains to be seen if this can be used to thwart the democratic will of the citizens and get away with it. The Chinese have invested heavily in their relationship with Mugabe, but it is not clear whether their much-criticised (in the West) policy of non-interference in the politics of countries it does business with would extend to propping up a government that had clearly stolen an election. The international opprobrium, not to mention the deepening of already strong resentment of the Chinese in Zimbabwe, might not be worth it for them.

For a ZANU-PF that finds its standard bearer old and infirm without a clear successor, Chiwenga would be an odd choice, even considering the urgency of the issue for the party. There are so many other politicians within the party who could give it a semblance of self-renewal and popular appeal in a way that Chiwenga simply cannot.

The on-going talks between the political parties on pre-election constitutional reform include (for the MDC) trying to institute a more professional, non-partisan military.This is obviously strongly resisted by a ZANU-PF that currently benefits from its strong ties to the armed forces. Short of the MDC somehow gaining full power, it is likely that for the foreseeable future the military and ZANU-PF will continue to invoke a liberation-era ethos of working together against an MDC seen as close to and under the control of ‘the enemy.’

For Zimbabwe, a Chiwenga candidacy and a Chiwenga presidency (it is assumed here that one would almost automatically lead to the other) would be a severe setback. There is a deep yearning for a new kind of politics in which the will of the people is respected in a way it has not been for many years now. A backdoor-engineered Chiwenga presidency would be the very antithesis of the moving forward that many Zimbabweans would like to see.

For ZANU-PF, being seen to be imposing a military president from within its ranks will not endear it to the population. And yet with a well-chosen fresh ‘change’ candidate and a lot of work, ZANU-PF probably retains enough basic support to give the MDC a run for its money. That is very unlikely to happen with Chiwenga as its declared candidate.

Fairly or unfairly, a declared Chiwenga victory over Tsvangirai will not be widely found believable outside Zimbabwe either. This would mean more of the international isolation that the country is just beginning to peak out of.

It is hard to think of any winners from a Chiwenga candidacy except for a small group amongst the ruling elite. Unfortunately that may be the only calculation that matters at the moment for them.


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