Imagining Zimbabwe’s Future Without Mugabe


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ZIMBABWE – In the last article, we observed how President Robert Mugabe cemented his place at the top of the Zanu PF command structure during the last phase of the liberation war. It was in this position that he went on to claim a remarkable victory in the seminal elections of 1980, a result which left adversaries astounded. By that democratic circumstance, Mugabe became the first black Prime Minister of newly independent Zimbabwe.

With the party firmly under his command, and the historic premiership in hand, Mugabe set out to consolidate control of the state and its institutions. His face might never have decorated the national currency when Zimbabwe could still afford one, but by the second decade of his rule, the state and virtually all its institutions bore a vivid imprint of his personality.

This has led to an absurd situation where a simple expression, even a mere suspicion, of ambition to become President, is treated in Zanu PF circles as tantamount to an act of gross disloyalty and betrayal, punishable at the very least, by suspension. This was the harsh experience of former Vice President Joice Mujuru and her allies at the end of 2014. And to this day, the purge continues, with Andrew Langa, former Sports Minister, being the latest to be shown the proverbial door.

But how did it all come to this point? How did Mugabe become the embodiment of both party and country? How did he attain the status in his party where he is seemingly infallible, without blemish and beyond reproach? This is the subject of this part of the article. The status quo is by no means an accidental circumstance, as this article demonstrates. The length of the article is demanded by the subject it tackles.

1984 Congress

When in 1984, Zanu PF convened its first congress after independence, Mugabe sailed through without challenge, but it gave him the platform to forge a system of patronage that has served him so well, both at party and state level. All 15 seats in the new Politburo were up for election but electoral democracy being the untamed creature that it can be, it threatened the political careers of many of the top leaders whose positions came under challenge. It was this congress that set the tone for the notion of “guided democracy” in terms of which the leadership directs the electorate and the outcome of elections. The will of the leaders gets priority ahead of the wishes of the general public.

At the 1984 congress, the democratic processes of nomination and election of members of the Politburo were set to upset the balance of power, with party bigwigs in danger of losing their positions until Mugabe intervened and saved them. His Deputy President, Simon Muzenda, for example, was in danger of losing his position to another veteran politician, Maurice Nyagumbo who had received more nominations from the provinces. It is said that Nyagumbo had to be persuaded by Mugabe to step aside for Muzenda.

While this ‘guided democracy’ helped those whose leadership status was imperilled, by far the biggest beneficiary was Mugabe himself. As patron to the vulnerable leaders, as compensation for his act of benevolence he received their undying favour and loyalty. But the 1984 congress had other gifts for the leader. To prevent future episodes of similar discomfort, congress gave Mugabe sweeping powers to appoint members of the Politburo. The power to appoint or remove the appointed is fundamental in the dynamics of controlling an organisation.

One of the key mandates of the 1984 congress was to transform Zimbabwe into a one-party state, in line with the socialist ideology which they were purportedly pursuing. This would entail the establishment of Zanu PF as the only political party in the country and therefore, a ban on all opposition parties. In the end, this plan was aborted in 1990, but not before efforts were made to bring it to life.

Writing for the New Statesman, a British left-leaning news journal, in the wake of the 1984 Congress, David Caute said, “what lies ahead for Zimbabwe is not socialism but presidential power”. Alex Callinicos, writing in the Socialist Review, also regarding the 1984 congress, similarly intoned, “So Zimbabwe looks headed to join the long line of bourgeois regimes, especially in Africa, where power is concentrated in the hands of a President, who heads a single mass party”. As it turned out, their predictions were absolutely spot on.

Unity Accord and the demise of Zapu

As Zanu PF was conferring more power and control to Mugabe at the 1984 congress, placing him at the centre of everything at party level, there were parallel developments at the national level. The political threat posed by long-time rival Joshua Nkomo in the Matebelenand regions attracted an orgy of violence authored by government. The emblem of its disproportionate response to the dissident activities in the region was the infamous deployment of the Fifth Brigade, a crack military unit trained in the darkest of arts by North Koreans, whose brutal operations left an open and ugly wound that is yet to heal.

Writing in his autobiography, The Story of My Life, Nkomo recalls the words of his then rival, Mugabe, who said of him and his party:

“Zapu and its leader Joshua Nkomo are like a cobra in a house. The only way to deal effectively with a snake is to strike and destroy its head.”

Gukurahundi, the rain that washes away the chaff, is the name that was given to the Fifth Brigade’s brutal operation, which the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace says left around 20,000 civilians dead. Still, these massacres did not cause the people of Matabeleland to shift their loyalties from Nkomo in preference for Mugabe. Indeed, one of Mugabe’s primary henchmen in Matabeleland, Enos Nkala, had to flee the region in the 1985 elections, knowing that he was certain to lose. But when he sought political sanctuary on the shores of Lake Kariba, where he hoped to find accommodation among voters of the northern town, he discovered they were not prepared to welcome him, either.

In the end, as he was drowning, it was Mugabe, ever the super-hero to comrades in distress, who came to the rescue, offering him a life-jacket. Mugabe got Nkala a seat in the Senate and, from there, appointed him to the powerful post of Minister of Home Affairs and later, Defence. Once there, as if paying homage to his rescuer, Nkala became the chief cheerleader of the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland, tormenting Nkomo and his supporters. Over the years, Mugabe has perfected the art of rescuing political rejects, a card that works so well for him as it guarantees patronage and loyalty from the rescued.

In the end however, with the suffering in Matebeleland only getting worse, Nkomo and Zapu were left with little choice. Weary and broken, they staggered to the negotiating table, where they capitulated and joined Mugabe and Zanu PF. The Unity Accord, now celebrated nationally as Unity Day, was signed on 22nd December 1987, and with it signalled the demise of Zapu and laid the foundation for the one-party state that the 1984 Zanu congress had mandated. Mugabe was the President of the new united party, with Nkomo and Muzenda as his deputies.

In the bigger picture, the Unity Accord represented a revival and consummation of the old Patriotic Front idea, first suggested by President Nyerere in 1976, except that now Mugabe had managed to avoid a scenario where he might have been required by the pull of seniority to deputise Nkomo. As Prime Minister and in control of the state, there would be only one leader and that would be him.

But there was another development around the same time, which reinforced Mugabe’s place at the centre of the state, having already consolidated his position in the new united political party.

Executive Presidency

It was that on 31 December 1987, he became the country’s first Executive President, with greater powers of government now concentrated in this new office. Prior to this development, there were greater checks and balances under a governmental arrangement designed around the Westminster Model. The Prime Minister was answerable to Parliament and even attended a Prime Minister’s Question Time to respond to the opposition. But all that went away under the new arrangement. Gone was the ceremonial President, who was Head of State and the new Executive President became the Head of State, Head of Government and Commander of the Defence Forces. Here, I examine examples of over-concentration of power in the President’s office:

Power to make law

In 1990, a new law, called the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act, gave Mugabe the power to make law without Parliament. This new law, giving him power to make temporary laws, effectively legalised rule by presidential decree. The President could make law, and he did, whenever it suited him and his party, especially during election periods, with the implication of changing rules of the game. It was the perfect illustration of the scenario where one is both a player and referee simultaneously. More importantly, it also undermined the principle of separation of powers by giving vast legislative authority to the President, which ought to be exercised by Parliament.

Appointing Legislators

Another form of interference with the legislature was the power to appoint legislators, which Mugabe acquired in 1989. By a constitutional amendment, Mugabe got new powers to appoint up to 30 Members of Parliament, effectively giving him the power to influence the composition of Parliament and therefore control the balance of power well before an election had been held. He had the power to appoint 12 non-constituency MPs into the House of Assembly, 8 Provincial Governors and 10 Chiefs bringing the total to 30 parliamentarians who were appointed by one man – hardly a reflection of the principle of one-man-one-vote championed during the liberation struggle.

This law had at least two effects on Mugabe’s power: firstly, it meant all appointed MPs were completely beholden to him. It facilitated politics of patronage and was an avenue through which loyalists who might have lost in elections, were rescued by the President. Second, it meant that however well the opposition did in an election, they would never get a two-thirds majority and their victory would always be diluted by the President’s power to appoint MPs.

This was facilitated by an additional amendment which made a distinction between the presidential term and the term of Parliament. The Presidential term was 6 years, while the term of Parliament was 5 years. This might seem innocuous at first sight, but it had sinister implications. It meant that henceforth, parliamentary elections would always be held before the presidential elections. This gave Mugabe the power to oversee and control parliamentary elections. It also meant Mugabe’s vote carried extraordinary and disproportionate weight as it allowed him to appoint 30 MPs in that election enabling him to influence the composition of a newly-elected Parliament.

It also meant that he had the power to overturn an opposition victory through the 30 guaranteed appointments to Parliament. Indeed, in the historic 2000 elections, where the then new opposition party, the MDC won more seats than any other opposition party before, the balance of power was weighted in favour of Zanu PF since Mugabe had the power to appoint those 30 MPs.

Powers of appointment

We have already observed how the power to appoint members of the Politburo gave Mugabe greater control within Zanu PF – something that has been enhanced after the 2014 congress which gave him the power to appoint Vice Presidents where previously they were elected. This was also reflected in the extensive powers to make key appointments to virtually all institutions of the state, with very limited, if any, checks and balances. This included, defence chiefs, judges of the superior courts, the head of the central bank, Attorney General, heads of the civil service, heads of constitutional commissions, and indirectly, heads of state companies and enterprises, etc.

It goes without saying that the appointing authority has power over the appointed, particularly because it also includes the power to remove. This gave Mugabe the power to shape the state in the image of the party. It allowed him to control state institutions and to command loyalty in virtually all sectors of the state. It also allowed him to feed the system of patronage, with loyalists getting appointments in strategic areas of the state. Retiring members of the military and other security services were redeployed into civilian institutions, including state-owned companies and parastatals.

The combined effect of the 1984 congress, the 1987 Unity Accord and the 1987 amendments to the national constitution was to leave Mugabe with absolute control of both the party and government. Indeed, for a time, Zimbabwe was actually a de facto one-party state.

Presidential insult laws

With the passage of time, afflicted by paranoia and worried about increasing criticism, the system has become tetchy and more protective of the President. In recent years, several people have been arrested and charged with the offence of insulting the President. But most of these cases collapse in court.

As one senior official of the opposition MDC-T, Douglas Mwonzora discovered a few years ago, it can be a criminal offence to insult a portrait of the President. His case is pending before the Constitutional Court, in which he is challenging the constitutionality of the presidential insults law. The charge is that he insulted the President after he allegedly “spoke” to a portrait of Mugabe which was on the wall of a court-room.

Prohibition of dissent

Over the years, Mugabe has managed to build a loyal following, in most cases resembling a band of sycophants who lavish him with praise. Webster Shamhu, a former political commissar of Zanu PF had a lavish, if bizarre metaphor for his leader, likening him “Cremora”, a tea-creamer that is a favourite in many households across the country, and the subject of a popular television commercial at some point. “Gushungo,” Shamhu purred, referring to Mugabe by his clan name, “people say you have Cremora, the whole body!” Obert Mpofu, a Cabinet Minister, is another, of whom it was disclosed in court proceedings a few years ago that he has a habit of signing off memos to the President with the words, “Your ever obedient son”.

But those who are critical, or are under suspicion, have been side-lined or tossed out of the party. The case of Dzikamai Mavhaire is an emblematic example. Sometime in 1998, a motion was introduced in Parliament to debate the issue of presidential term limits, itself an indication of the discomfort some in Zanu PF were already feeling over Mugabe’s long stay in power even back then. During that debate Mavhaire, in an act of either bravery or foolishness, made the famous declaration calling for Mugabe to retire. “What I am saying is that the President must go”, said Mavhaire.

Mugabe was not happy. Mavhaire was suspended from holding any party position for 2 years. This was despite the defence of parliamentary privilege that had been submitted on his behalf by the Speaker of Parliament, Cyril Ndebele. The Speaker had issued a certificate of immunity to protect Mavhaire on the basis that his statement had been uttered in Parliament.

But for this, Ndebele also attracted the wrath of Mugabe, who described his action as rank madness. Senior Zanu PF officials, Nathan Shamuyarira and Didymus Mutasa demanded that Ndebele should also be brought before the party’s disciplinary hearing. Nevertheless, Ndebele stood his ground and received the backing of his former PF Zapu colleagues. Joseph Msika, who was the chairman of the Disciplinary Committee indicated there would be no hearing for Ndebele. Nevertheless, Ndebele did not keep his job after the 2000 elections. That Mavhaire episode was an indicator of intolerance to dissent or criticism.

Mugabe’s birthday may not be a public holiday, but it has been turned into one huge national celebration by the party faithful. Annually, they congregate in their thousands, at an appointed place where beasts of many varieties, tame or extracted from the wild, are slaughtered in fulfilment of one large feast. Drinks flow, men and women sing, dance and ululate, celebrating the leader’s birthday. Petitions are despatched to the Lord asking that the leader may be gifted with more years. “Long Live, Cde Mugabe!” was a familiar chant at rallies from the early days of independence. And with Mugabe now going for his 92nd birthday, this is one particular call that has been heeded.

“I fear we are heading towards the creation of a dictatorship. Democracy in Zimbabwe is in intensive care and leadership has decayed”. These were the words of Edgar Tekere back in October 1988 at a public meeting where he delivered a fierce critique of government. Mugabe responded by calling him a “dissident and malcontent”. It wasn’t long before Tekere got his marching orders from Zanu PF. That was only 8 years after independence. But the man who had occupied the trenches along with Mugabe had already seen that the revolution had lost its way.


This is how Mugabe firmly established his place at the centre of both party and country. It was done through a comprehensive and methodical exercise of political landscaping, in which all the tributaries of power were diverted to feed the central reservoir. The balance of power shifted dramatically, with power residing in the other arms of both the state and party flowing towards the Presidency. This has given an impression that at party level, Mugabe does not depend on the party, but the party depends on him.

This then brings us to the third part: With Mugabe such an omnipresent figure in Zanu PF and with his personality so intricately woven into the fabric of the party, does the party have the capacity to outlive him as a single unit? Can it survive intact without its patriarch? Or will the centre cease to hold and collapse when the lead character has vacated the stage? An examination of these questions will form the third part of this series. So far, we have examined how Mugabe came to dominate Zanu PF, but what happens when he has said his final adieu remains an important point of enquiry.

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