Zimbabwe on the edge

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HARARE – Amid the country’s deepening political crisis, owing to worsening infighting within Zanu PF, analysts said yesterday that Monday’s unprecedented move by the military to warn President Robert Mugabe and his warring ruling party — that they would step in to stop its mindless bloodletting — showed that the country could be reaching “a point of no return”.

The fear of a looming, full-bloodied political crisis came as tension filled the streets of many urban areas yesterday, with an unusually heavy presence of security forces being spotted on major roads leading into Harare.

This follows Monday’s ominous warning by angry military commanders — led by their boss Constantino Chiwenga — that they were no longer prepared to allow any more anarchy within the brawling ruling Zanu PF.

At the same time, the Zanu PF youth league appeared to pour petrol into the raging fire yesterday when it attacked Chiwenga as a general who had gone rogue.

“Therefore, we will not sit idly and fold our hands whilst cheap pot-shots and threats are made against the legitimate and popularly elected leader of the revolutionary party … and Zimbabwe,” youth leader Kudzanai Chipanga said at a press conference in Harare.

Speaking to the Daily News yesterday, respected University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure said Monday’s unexpected move by the military was “very significant” and possibly a sign that the country had now crossed the “red line”.

“This is a historical development and we have to go back to the days of the liberation struggle for parallels. This is more so because the special relationship between the ruling party on one hand and the army and civilians on the other, that started during the liberation struggle has obtained until now.

“We are now seeing a contestation between the two … and this redefines the once harmonious relationship between them. These are indeed extraordinary times and the political red line has been crossed. There is a redefinition of relations and they (military commanders) are stating that they have a stake in the ruling party.

“That statement also suggests that the military is prepared for the worst and thus it now also depends on which path Mugabe will take going forward,” Masunungure said.

Political analyst and former civic leader McDonald Lewanika also said Chiwenga’s statement was “significant and has the potential to cause chaos in the country”.

“The path that Zimbabwe is now set on is treacherous and a lot will depend on the extent to which the CDF (Commander of the Defence Forces, Chiwenga) follows through on his warnings should his demands not be met.

“I think that the intervention by the CDF, while regrettable, is a game-changer and a lot will depend on the extent to which his threats are taken seriously.

“Already, the Zanu PF youth league has rubbished the statement, but the reality is that given the military’s role in Zanu PF, the CDF’s actions call for a pause and possible alterations to plans that had gotten into full swing to turn the December congress into an inauguration of Mugabe’s preferred successor,” Lewanika said.

Speaking in his unprecedented public reprimand of Mugabe and Zanu PF on Monday, Chiwenga warned the former liberation movement against firing struggle stalwarts from within its ranks.

“The current purging of which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background must stop forthwith,” the visibly angry general thundered at a media conference in the capital.

His open and scathing criticism of the ruling party’s leadership came after former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa was fired from both the government and the party last week, for allegedly showing “traits of disloyalty”.

“It is pertinent to restate that the Zimbabwe Defence Forces remain the major stockholder in respect to the gains of the liberation struggle and when these are threatened we are obliged to take corrective measures,” Chiwenga said whilst flanked by the commander of the Zimbabwe National Army, General Phillip Valerio Sibanda, the acting commander of the Air Force of Zimbabwe, as well as several major generals and brigadier generals.

Piers Pigou, a senior consultant with the International Crisis Group, told the Daily News that the statement by the military was “the strongest sign yet” that Zimbabwe had entered “unchartered waters”.

“Chiwenga’s statement ups the ante and is a direct challenge to Mugabe … In other words, consciously or unconsciously, Chiwenga appears to be accusing Mugabe of promoting, or at least protecting counter-revolutionary elements. This is a significant escalation of rhetoric that now goes beyond simple posturing,” he said.

“Whilst there is every reason to be concerned about the security sector acting outside constitutional parameters … Zanu PF's penchant for selective engagement with the rule book may well have come back to bite them,” he added.

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On his part, professor of World Politics at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London in the United Kingdom, Stephen Chan, said the stage was delicately set for “a showdown” between Mugabe and the military — and the next few days could “reconfigure the country’s political outlook forever”.

“It sets the stage for a showdown. Mugabe may have to contemplate two options: inviting Mnangagwa back into the government, or facing down the generals,” Chan said.

Zanu PF has for the past five years been devouring itself through its internecine infighting, which first led to the expulsion of former vice president Joice Mujuru in the run-up to the party’s hotly-disputed congress in 2014.

Mujuru — together with party stalwarts who included Cabinet ministers Didymus Mutasa and Rugare Gumbo —  were hounded out of the former liberation movement on untested allegations of plotting to topple Mugabe from power.

At the beginning of 2015, the infighting escalated further, as a faction of young Turks going by the moniker Generation 40 (G40) launched a vicious and ultimately successful assault on Mnangagwa, as it went full steam to derail his ambitions to succeed Mugabe.

Mnangagwa, until his surprise sacking last week, had been Mugabe’s aide for more than five decades and many people were for long seeing him as a shoo-in to succeed the Zanu PF leader.

However, and particularly since the beginning of this year, it had become evident that the relationship between the two men had become increasingly strained and untenable. With Zanu PF divided in the middle over the party’s unresolved succession riddle, the tribal and factional feuds took an ominous turn in August when Mnangagwa fell sick during an interface rally in Gwanda — which his backers said was allegedly a poison attack by his G40 enemies.

The Midlands godfather was later airlifted to South Africa where he received emergency surgery.  He subsequently issued a statement denying that his illness was caused by ice cream from the First Family’s Gushungo Dairies, although he consistently suggested that he had indeed been poisoned.

In the past few weeks, powerful first lady Grace cranked up the heat on Mnangagwa, accusing him of fanning the ruling party’s rampant factionalism, being a coward and also occupying a position that should have been reserved for a woman.

After firing Mnangagwa, who has since gone into self-imposed exile, Zanu PF provinces have now also since gone on to recommend the expulsion of more than 100 senior officials said to have been backing him.

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