A decade ago, everyone thought Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front leader Robert Mugabe would step down as party leader at the national congress to pave way for a smooth takeover by his successor.
He could remain head of state, as he still had four more years in office. This would allow his successor to assert him or herself as leader of the party and virtually government while Mugabe continued to monitor the situation from behind the scenes.
But all hell broke loose just before the congress. Joice Mujuru was catapulted to vice-president through a clause that said one of the two party deputies must be a woman.
It also upset the ethnical balancing that had kept ZANU-PF vibrant with the three major ethnical groups in the country sharing the presidency.
There were reports of an internal coup and six provincial chairmen were suspended for siding with the coup. Mugabe stayed put, lost the 2008 elections, but was kept on board with the help of the militants from within the party.
The next congress, in 2009, was held during a period of uncertainty. Only a year earlier, ZANU-PF had suffered its first election defeat since independence. It was forced to join an inclusive government which was wobbling along and from which the Movement for Democratic Change had walked out a month earlier.
The party could not afford to be divided. As Simba Mudarikwa, now a government minister stated, ZANU-PF did what it knows best, unite before a common enemy.
The gamble paid off. Mugabe won the presidential elections with a 61 percent majority four years later. ZANU-PF won more than two-thirds of the seats in the lower house. And the party is going to its congress this year- more confident and facing the same scenario as in 2004.
Mugabe has another four years in office. His party, however, has a two-thirds majority in the lower house which it did not have in 2004. But more importantly Mugabe is 10 years older. And at 90, the question is: How much longer can he hold on?
For one, Mugabe no longer has a reason to hold on to power. He has delivered on the two key things that have dogged ZANU-PF since 1998- the land issue and empowerment.
Critics may see things differently and continue to spread the “black disaster” myth but the fact is that the land reform programme has been a success. It has been such a success that people are scrambling for a piece of land because those who got the land and utilised it have become rich and everyone wants to join the gravy train.
Those who are open-minded are also seeing the same for empowerment. They can see clearly that it will be a success, just like land reform. The prophets of doom will continue to spread their gospel that indigenisation will destroy the country. But as one writer rightly asked: How can empowerment impoverish someone?
Mugabe’s departure from active politics will strengthen the party and help the country develop. Too much time is being spent on the succession battle. Once that is resolved, Mugabe’s lieutenants can concentrate on developing the country and the party so that they can fight for the top post the next time.
One thing is certain. No one will serve more than 10 years like Mugabe has done. In fact, any of his successors will be lucky to serve more than one term.
If Mugabe hangs on, this might well be the end of ZANU-PF. Indeed, the party is stronger than Mugabe but it has lost support not because it has become unpopular, but because some people, especially the young voters feel that it is time there is a change in leadership.
The country can no longer continue to be run by people in their 70s and 80s. It needs new blood, new thinking, and new realisations that the majority of the population was born after the liberation war, and that too ought to be recognised.
If Mugabe steps down this year, he will regain his legacy as a liberation hero who delivered the land and the economy.
If he hangs on, he will be condemned as a dictator who sacrificed the party and his country for personal aggrandisement.
That is definitely not the way he would like to be remembered, especially since has already proved that he may not be as saintly as former South African President Nelson Mandela, but he did more for this country and the continent by delivering land to his people and giving Africa hope.
Forget what the world is saying. As one British academic said: “The governments of the rich world don’t like land reform. It requires state intervention which offends the god of free markets, and it hurts big farmers and the companies which supply them.”