BSR: a congress to decide succession?


The latest twist to ZANU PF’s long-running succession saga is that the ruling party will hold an Extraordinary Congress in December. To seasoned watchers of Zimbabwean politics, this doesn’t come as a big surprise. The timing is, however, rather curious, coming, as it does, just months before the next general election due in 2018. According to the ZANU PF constitution, a congress is held every 5 years and the next one was due in 2019. That a special congress has been called at this time raises important questions as to what might have prompted it. To use an old metaphor made popular by Chinua Achebe, why has the toad jumped in broad daylight? According to the wisdom of Achebe’s Igbo ancestors, it is because something is after its life. This BSR asks what has prompted Mugabe to call for a special congress and what it could mean both for ZANU PF and Zimbabwean politics in general.

Whose special congress is it anyway?

To understand the motives for the special congress and its possible implications, it is important to identify its source. Formally, the special congress has been demanded by the provinces. In reality, however, the provinces were simply acting in response to a remote prompt, controlled by Mugabe, the ZANU PF godfather. It is Mugabe’s special congress. Congress has been brought forward by 2 years only because that is what Mugabe wants. It is because Mugabe has a plan. Lawyers are familiar with the principle that you don’t ask a witness a question whose answer you have not thought about. Likewise, Mugabe would not have called for a Congress unless he already has a plan for it. Any suggestion that the special congress has been imposed upon him would be a serious underestimation of Mugabe’s wily and calculating nature.

But why now? Mugabe does not need another congress to endorse him as the candidate for the 2018 elections. The 2014 Congress already gave him the green light and the last 2 conferences have reiterated the same resolution. This year’s conference which was scheduled for Gwanda would have confirmed the same resolution. So no, he has not called for a special congress because he is concerned about his candidature. It was already in the bag. There must be other reasons why Mugabe felt the need to convene congress. It is important to examine what congress can do, which could not be done by conference.

Why an extraordinary congress?

Mugabe has always insisted that he will not anoint a successor but that it is up to the party to select a leader. This is consistent with his perennial desire to be seen as a stickler to rules, a desire that is often inconsistent with actual practice. Since congress is the only body that can elect the party President, this that has given rise to the theory that Mugabe wants to retire and the special congress will be used to elect a new leader. However, this theory is not supported by the current evidence, all of which points to Mugabe remaining in power.

According to the ZANU PF constitution, Congress is the party’s supreme policy-making organ. It is the only organ that elects the party’s President. Until the 2014 Congress it used to have the power to elect the party’s Deputy Presidents. After that the President was given the authority to appoint the Vice Presidents. One of Congress’ most important powers is the authority to amend the constitution of the party. Normally, it meets every 5 years. However, a special congress, known as an Extraordinary Congress, may be convened “whenever it is deemed necessary” to do so. Such a congress does not deal with general issues. Instead, according to the ZANU PF constitution, it only deals with “only on those matters for which it has been specifically convened.” This is the legal framework in which the special congress in December has been called.

The purpose of the special congress, will therefore be obvious once the “matters for which it has been specifically convened” are certain. This will only be clear once the Secretary for Administration who is charged with the duty to issue the notice has done so in accordance with the party constitution.  It is that notice which will specify the specific matters for which the Extraordinary Congress has been called. However, Ignatius Chombo, the current Secretary for Administration is only likely to be the messenger, the author of the notice being Mugabe himself. In other words, whatever Chombo sends to the provinces will be what Mugabe wants discussed at the special congress. And no-one in ZANU PF will have the courage to challenge it.

Even so, however, much will depend on how the notice will be worded. It might be couched in language that is broad enough to include an indeterminate number of issues. Take for example, a statement from Bulawayo Province, as reported in The Chronicle newspaper. The Provincial Chairperson Dennis Ndlovu was quoted as saying that apart from reaffirming Mugabe’s candidature, the special congress will “assist the party to realign itself and allow for self-fumigation”. This is so broad that it covers virtually anything under the sun. The Midlands Province, on the other hand, has been very specific that apart from reaffirming Mugabe’s candidature, they want the special congress to deal with issues relating to the biometric voter registration and polling station-based voting system and, making it clear that no other issues will be discussed. The Youth League has called for a special congress to reaffirm Mugabe’s candidature and to amend the constitution to fulfil the Victoria Falls’ conference resolution to restore the women’s quota to the presidium of the party.

What is evident from a survey of the resolutions from all provinces and party organs is that while they are unanimous in one respect: the reaffirmation of Mugabe as ZANU PF’s candidate in the 2018 elections, it is also evident that there are variations on the other matters to be dealt with by the extraordinary congress. Therefore, one thing that is already certain well before the special congress is held is that Mugabe will retain his post as President of ZANU PF. There will be no leadership challenge or contest at the special congress. That matter will not be on the agenda. It also extinguishes any thoughts that Mugabe might be stepping down at the special congress. He is determined to stay on and his usual justification will be that the people say so. The congress will simply reaffirm the legitimacy of his claim to carry on as leader of the party.

But, as we have already observed, Mugabe’s candidature in 2018 was never in doubt. The one thing that the two competing factions in his party have been unanimous on is that they all back his candidature, even if this is not an honest reflection of their own ambitions. Their contest has been around who loves Mugabe more. None of them has the courage to challenge him. Mugabe would surely not have convened the special congress to get a reaffirmation of his candidature when it is a fait accompli and he could have achieved the same through the Gwanda conference. This means we must look elsewhere for the real motives behind this special congress. The answer, in my opinion, lies in the other function that is only reserved for Congress, namely, the authority to amend the party constitution. The constitutional amendment is a means to an end, which in this case, is dealing with succession through a rearrangement of the party’s leadership structure.

Managing the future

Mugabe is not the type that retires voluntarily. His wish is to remain in office for life. He has no intention of throwing in the towel just yet, not with his party backing him to the hilt and his internal rivals lacking the courage to challenge him. As long as he is able to carry his body around, Mugabe will not be going anyway far from power. But even he must be conscious of his own mortality and that at some point his body will give way. Although he is not ready to leave the stage, he might be considering special arrangements to manage the leadership burden going forward. This is where the important function of congress with its authority to amend the constitution comes in. Hence, we must consider potential changes to the ZANU PF constitution, which might also have implications at the national level.

Eagle-eyed lawyers will point out that ZANU PF will struggle to make constitutional amendments since there is no time to meet the timelines required under the party’s constitution. But seasoned observers also know that such technical niceties have never stopped Mugabe from imposing his will. Such technical requirements were given short shrift when the agenda to get rid of Joice Mujuru needed to be fulfilled in 2014. The time limitations were simply ignored to ensure that Mugabe’s will was done. It will happen again this time around to accommodate his wishes. Congress will simply approve it unanimously. Whoever challenges the legality of the procedures will be told that the party is a private association which has the power to determine how it manages its affairs. Lawsuits will be futile, as Didymus Mutasa, Rugare Gumbo and others discovered in 2015 after they were unprocedurally expelled from ZANU PF.

Probably, the most important change to the Constitution will be the revival of the women’s quota in ZANU PF’s presidium. That provision, which was introduced at the 2004 Congress to facilitate the elevation of Joice Mujuru ahead of Mnangagwa was expunged at the 2014 Congress, ironically in a dramatic reversal of fortunes, to elevate Mnangagwa ahead of Mujuru. It gave Mnangagwa and his allies the impression that he was now the favourite to succeed Mugabe. They forgot that the same weapon that had been used to remove Mujuru could be used against him. In 2014, it was an easy process of replacing one Vice President with another and by the time the Congress arrived Mujuru’s fate had already been sealed. Mugabe didn’t have to deal with the problem of how to accommodate a new Vice President where 2 already existed. On this occasion however, Mugabe has 2 Vice Presidents in situ and if ZANU PF amends to the constitution to accommodate a female Vice President, he has to work out a way of how he will accommodate her without disappointing the others.

For reasons examined later in this BSR, I do not think Mugabe is ready to remove Mnangagwa, at least not before the elections due in 2018. There is a strong possibility therefore, first suggested in an earlier BSR, that ZANU PF could move to have 3 Vice Presidents. This is a safe arrangement which ensures that the current VPs retain their posts and everyone will be happy. As to the identity of the female candidate, it’s hard to see anyone beyond Grace Mugabe herself on this occasion. Her rise to the helm of the Women’s League in 2014 was part of her political apprenticeship in preparation for higher office. There is an argument that giving her the Vice Presidency would be too crude, even for Mugabe. According to this line of thought, the female Vice Presidency slot might be handed to another woman. Grace would focus on her role at the Women’s League.

But this argument overlooks the fact that the Mugabes have long passed the threshold of crudeness. Grace Mugabe has shown in recent years that nothing is beyond her. She has publicly dressed down two Vice Presidents, Ministers and senior government officials. Crude is no constraint upon her. If she wants to be Vice President, she won’t stop on account of any fears that it might look crude. Furthermore, it’s hard to see which of the current women in ZANU PF Grace Mugabe would approve to get ahead of her. Sandi Moyo and Sarah Mahoka, former allies were demoted the moment they appeared to threaten her pre-eminence. Besides, Grace Mugabe might have lost the appetite to continue outsourcing power to other people. She claims to have engineered Joice Mujuru’s rise to the Vice Presidency in 2004, ahead of Mnangagwa. In 2014, she was a key architect in Mujuru’s downfall, which opened the way for Mnangagwa’s rise. In both cases, she has fought toinstall proxies, who have turned out to be disappointments. Would she do it again, for a third time, plotting Mnangagwa’s downfall only to hand over the title to another woman? She might decide that it’s time to take it.

Sack Mnangagwa?

Let me now return to the question of Mnangagwa’s situation and the special congress. Most believe the Special Congress is designed to fire Mnangagwa. This is because Mnangagwa’s fortunes have dipped dramatically since his rise to the Vice Presidency in 2014. Mugabe used the latest Cabinet Reshuffle in October 2017 to further clip Mnangagwa’s wings. Even then, Mugabe kept him in Cabinet, when most people thought he would be sacked. Mugabe’s approach to Mnangagwa is complicated by a long and close relationship the two men have shared from their time in the war trenches to the past 37 years in the corridors of power. In all this, Mnangagwa has been an ever-present lieutenant, the water-carrier who has dutifully performed the ugly work for his master, a point that he has been at pains to emphasise in recent weeks. There are two important signs from the cabinet reshuffle which give us an insight into Mugabe’s approach towards Mnangagwa.

First, it is noteworthy that Mugabe moved to do his reshuffle just days before Mnangagwa was due to give his rebuttal of Professor Jonathan Moyo’s serious accusations regarding his alleged successionist agenda. Could Mugabe not have waited for his subordinate’s side before carrying out a drastic reshuffle which left him weaker and more vulnerable after he removed or demoted Mnangagwa’s allies? Mugabe’s reshuffle seems to have been timed to pre-empt Mnangagwa’s defence. By the time Mnangagwa’s rebuttal came, the deed had already been done. Mugabe had no reason to rush his reshuffle ahead of Mnangagwa’s long awaited defence. Naturally, Mugabe had advance knowledge of Mnangagwa’s defence and he moved to neutralise it with the reshuffle before Mnangagwa delivered it.

Second, that Mugabe retained Mnangagwa in his cabinet notwithstanding his alleged transgressions shows that Mugabe subscribes to the old adage that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer. At best he demotes them, but he keeps them within close range. In this respect, both Moyo and Mnangagwa share something in common. Mugabe is hopeless on the economic front but he is an astute and cunning gladiator on the political front with a knack for charming and neutralising enemies. His approach to Mnangagwa and Moyo is not different. He knows both men are ambitious and that they present a potentially serious challenge to him. He knows Moyo has been critical f him and that Mnanngagwa has ambitions to replace him, nothwithstanding his protestations to the contrary. But Mugabe also knows both men are more useful by his side than on the other side. That way, he retains a close eye upon them while keeping them contained. Government is a gravy train and no one wants to be left out. Even if they are demoted, they will still be grateful to still be in government. Mnangagwa’s supporters believe Mugabe could not sack him because he’s too powerful. What they forget is Mugabe’s interest is to contain him, just as he does in relation to Moyo. It is the chikukuvatavata strategy that Mugabe uses against rivals – making you feel comfortable and useful, unaware of the hazards that lie ahead.

If Mugabe intends to use the special congress to fire Mnangagwa, it would be out of character because it is far too predictable and obvious. Mugabe is more deceptive. The most predictable thing is that he will sack Mnangagwa in December, but because it is too obvious, I doubt that is his plan. It would be odd because it would mean Mugabe takes Mnangagwa for a fool who would willingly walk into an obvious trap without any form of resistance between now and congress. The more likely route is that Mugabe intends to keep Mnangagwa on the edge but will ultimately retain him, just as he did at the recent cabinet reshuffle. The 2018 election is not far off and Mugabe will want to feign unity at the special congress. He knows that Mnangagwa will remain submissive as long as he remains part of the system. Nevertheless, the special congress will be used to further dismantle any pillars of support that Mnangagwa still retains within the party, while strengthening a rival. The special congress will give Mugabe the opportunity to reorganise the Central Committee and the Politburo. There, key allies of Mnangagwa will be dropped and new actors like the new Justice Minister and former Director General of the CIO, Happyton Bonyongwe will be appointed to take on key roles. Those who have fallen out of favour will be dropped.

The cabinet reshuffle showed that he is also ready to bring back into the fold those who have repented after previous punishments. The likes of Webster Shamhu will be rewarded and brought back into the Central Committee and Politburo. In a way, after the cabinet reshuffle, the special congress will be Mugabe’s opportunity to reshuffle the party leadership. Even if Mnangagwa retains his place, he will be a very lonely figure in the corridors of power. But without the courage to walk away and defy his master, he will be well and truly contained.

Prospects for Zimbabwe?

Conspicuous in the ZANU PF succession race is the incessant trading of personal insults between key figures and ideological bankruptcy. Apart from fighting to show who loves Mugabe more, none of the factions has shown any ideological orientation that would represent a radical shift from what Mugabe’s rule currently represents. The sight of Mnangagwa and Moyo fighting, not over policy or ideological content, but over the title of loyalty to Mugabe has to be one of the lowest points of the long-running succession saga. These are the learned men of the establishment who should be providing intellectual direction to the ruling party at a time when the country is in dire-straits, but the best they can offer is evidence of who between them loves or hates Mugabe more.

But they are, after all, ZANU PF factions and they represent the old order, both in age and ideas.  The most pressing issue in Zimbabwe is an economy that is comatose. You would expect a ruling party’s emergency congress to be concerned with this matter that is of interest to the ordinary people. But that matter does not excite them at all. It does not command their attention. Zimbabwe’s salvation lies far beyond the ZANU PF factions and the special congress.  The succession drama will continue to provide some entertainment, but its outcome will have no impact whatsoever upon the national crisis. There are no new ideas promised. There is nothing in the provincial resolutions relating to the national crisis. The national crisis is beyond ZANU PF’s capabilities, either in its united or factionalised state.

For Mugabe, the timing of the extraordinary congress is a huge gamble. He could have waited until after the 2018 elections. It’s a big gamble because if he makes significant changes to the party leadership it has the potential to cause deeper divisions within the party, which he doesn’t need going into an election. But if he plays the safe route, it could also be the moment that current differences are buried, at least temporarily as he rallies the troops for one last shot. This is why I do not think he will make radical changes but rather than after isolating Mnangagwa, he will nonetheless strike a reconciliatory tone, urging unity and togetherness among his troops. It’s his congress and he will want everyone pulling in the same direction.

Meanwhile, the voter registration process is on-going. That, as has been said before, presents ordinary Zimbabweans with their own opportunity to reshuffle the government. But first, ordinary Zimbabweans, young and old, must register in their numbers.