After the bruising fight that nearly split the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front in the run-up to the congress, the poisoning attempt on Emmerson Mnangagwa a day before he was appointed vice-president, and the car accident involving Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko a day after his swearing in, one would have thought President Robert Mugabe would have delayed his annual leave to let things settle down. But two days after swearing in his two-deputies, he was off on his annual vacation, leaving two novices, one without any legislative experience at all, in charge.
Up until then, transitions had been very smooth. First his trusted lieutenant of eight years Simon Muzenda was joined by Joshua Nkomo. When Nkomo died, more than a decade later, Muzenda was joined by Joseph Msika. Joseph was already five years in office when he was joined by Joice Mujuru who replaced Muzenda. Five years later, Mujuru was joined by John Nkomo. Now two novices were joining Mugabe and Mnangagwa was left to run the show two days later.
A lot of people have been surprised but Mnangagwa had literally been running the show since the Goromonzi party conference of 2006 when his archrival Solomon Mujuru refused to endorse Mugabe as the 2008 presidential candidate and called for a special congress within a year.
Mnangagwa, who had been sidelined after the 2004 congress over allegations that he was involved in the abortive attempt to stop Joice Mujuru from becoming vice-president and was demoted from Speaker to Minister of Rural Housing and Social Amenities, grabbed the opportunity provided by Solomon Mujuru to demonstrate to Mugabe that he was not the enemy.
Three months after the conference, Mnangagwa was back on track when the party central committee declared Mugabe the presidential candidate without any debate after outfoxing Mujuru. Mujuru was so desperate that his hatchet man, David Butau, went to appeal to United States ambassador Christopher Dell for help.
Butau told a United States embassy official on 31 May 2007 that if the Mujuru camp failed to force Mugabe out with the next four to five months, then it would be too late to remove him at the extra-ordinary congress, which Mujuru had called. Indeed, Mujuru failed to remove Mugabe at the congress and reports say Mnangagwa had used his diamond ace by exposing Mujuru’s illegal diamond activities at the River Ranch Diamond Mine.
Mugabe was livid because at the Goromonzi conference he had denounced such alliances when he learnt that his lieutenants, including Mujuru, were involved with African Consolidated Resources, a British-registered company that had been given the rights to the Marange diamonds.
“Tose tinoda mari, sonke siyathanda imali ehe. But there are proper ways of getting it and improper ways of getting it,” Mugabe told the Goromonzi conference. “(But) If you are going to be harnessed by European companies which are already in it, which we are fighting against, then we will be fighting against you as well, ndozvamunoda here izvozvo?” he asked.
The game was up for Mujuru after the extra-ordinary congress and even the Simba Makoni project was doomed. Mnangagwa was also appointed Mugabe’s chief election agent in the 2008 presidential elections but he too needed his own mandate.
Mnangagwa had survived on Mugabe’s patronage for seven years after being kicked off his Kwekwe parliamentary seat by then little known trade unionist Blessing Chebundo in 2000 and 2005. But he got the mandate when he contested the rural-urban constituency of Chirumanzu-Zibagwe. Now he had to save Mugabe after being beaten by Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round.
Mugabe demonstrated how powerful Mnangagwa had become when he sent him to represent the country at the Southern African Development Community special summit on Zimbabwe in April 2008 which was to discuss Zimbabwe’s disputed elections. Mugabe had two vice-presidents at the time, Joice Mujuru and Joseph Msika, but he delegated Mnangagwa.
Even the United States embassy acknowledged how powerful Mnangagwa had become. Ambassador James McGee wrote on 22 May 2008: “By most accounts, President Robert Mugabe was prepared to step down after his defeat in the March 29 elections became clear. He was persuaded not to do so by a number of high-ranking ZANU-PF officials concerned for their own futures…..
“Within the ZANU-PF officials running the country, there are undoubtedly factions, but they are held together for now by the common goal of winning the election. Gono, for example, favored a government of national unity rather than a runoff election. He is not liked by most other ZANU-PF officials. Nevertheless, he is indispensable to keeping the financial ship afloat.
“The military is not believed to be close to Mnangagwa, Goche, and Chinamasa, but for now they are working together, with Mnangagwa assuming a virtual presidency role as a member of the JOC. Mugabe does not sit with the JOC but is briefed on a regular basis.
“While he is not making day to day decisions, policy decisions cannot be made without his assent, and we believe he knows the broad outlines of what is occurring in the country, if not the details.
“Solomon Mujuru is sitting out ZANU-PF politics for the time being. He initially made an effort to sideline Mugabe at the ZANU-PF Congress in December. After failing he covertly backed Simba Makoni’s presidential candidacy and considered publicly coming out for Makoni. When Makoni faltered, Mujuru decided to remain behind the scenes.”
The gamble paid off. Mnangagwa was appointed to the powerful post of Defence Minister. Though he was reshuffled as Minister of Justice after last year’s elections, a move seen by many as a demotion, sight was lost of the fact that the Justice Ministry also made his Leader of the House- a portfolio that enabled him to answer questions on any ministry if the responsible minister was not in the House.
Just a year later, he is now acting President. The question is: Can Mugabe now take a back seat, remaining president but allowing Mnangagwa and Phelekezela Mphoko to run the show?
Both the political and economic situations the country is facing demand that.