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Zimbabwe: the crocodile bites back

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Yesterday’s military intervention in Zimbabwe looks set to bring a climatic end to President Robert Mugabe’s three decades of iron-fisted rule. While the army is insisting this is not a coup d’état, it certainly bears all the trappings of one. Regional and international governments have called for a restoration of elected rule but have been notably low-key in their protestations, likely reflecting a desire to look forward to the election of a new government, and not backwards to the restoration of Mugabe. In his hour of greatest need, it seems the antagonistic Zimbabwean President has found himself short of allies.

The backdrop to this instability is very much an internal affair, rooted in the heart of the ruling ZANU-PF party as a President clinging on to power has seen the factions beneath him fight over the corpse of his legacy. In recent months, an escalating battle has played out between opposing factions; the ‘G40’ spearheaded by the President’s truculent wife Grace Mugabe, and ‘Team Lacoste’ led by the recently-dismissed Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, also known as the crocodile for his fearsome aura. Goaded on by his wife, Mugabe’s decision to dismiss Mnangagwa appears to have been a major political miscalculation, which has caused the army to step into the fold.

In recent years, Mnangagwa was seen as the most likely successor to Mugabe. This view was premised on the fact he carries the national political authority and support of the ZANU-PF old-guard and military that would enable him to rally important backing. Importantly, he has also made enough overtures to business and the international community to be the person seen to be best able to manage an extremely challenging reform agenda, while not destabilising a political system which remains deeply entangled in Mugabe’s nationalist agenda.

But the younger G40 faction of the party has increasingly challenged this narrative, seeking to undercut Mnangagwa and carve out a different political future, with Grace coming to the fore as its vocal champion. Few analysts with a good understanding of Zimbabwean politics viewed Grace as a credible presidential successor given the limitations of her support base, and her controversial reputation – further spurred by her recent assault of a woman in South Africa. But the longer Mugabe remained in power, the more Grace rose to the fore, no doubt conscious of the limited time she had left to shore up a base and push the G40’s agenda ahead of Team Lacoste’s.

But her confidence in the protection she had from her husband’s stature as head of state appears to have been misplaced as she sought to push forward her own political interests. For this is above all a matter of interests, far more than visions for the future management of the state. Around each party faction lies a coterie of politicians and business executives with raised stakes for the winners and losers at this key juncture in Zimbabwe’s political journey.

There remains significant uncertainty around what will happen next. Mugabe’s rule is almost certainly over. And a period of political transition is now likely to take place, prior to the holding of elections next year – whether this aligns with the existing electoral schedule remains unclear. Mnangagwa is likely to remain at the centre of things, using the support of the military and ZANU-PF, while also potentially extending an olive branch to elements of the political opposition with whom he has been dialoguing for some time. This would be significant since it potentially paves the way for some form of alliance either pre- or post-election that seeks to bring political reconciliation and a focus on reviving Zimbabwe from its current economic nadir. But there are no guarantees here, not least because if the former Vice President is to re-assert himself, he must first look to his own party to draw backing.

The outlook for Grace and her supporters is even more uncertain. Several high-profile G40 politicians are currently under arrest, while Grace’s ability to fight her corner from within the country is likely to be severely constricted, such is the current state of play. She will receive backing from the youth and women’s league of the party, as well as from those politicians who have thrown in their lot with the First Lady. But this will not be enough and like her husband, she is likely to be short on allies in the international community – including within the important regional SADC block. Most crucially, the military is unlikely to provide Grace the space to re-assert herself, and a more likely scenario will see her head into exile.

These dynamics point to a period of flux and volatility in Zimbabwean politics, which will further damage an economy that is already on its knees. But the outlook is not entirely bleak, particularly since a move away from Mugabe and a dynastical succession could usher in a more reformist government. The country’s next leader will need to heal deep rifts in the ruling party and Zimbabwean politics more generally. In this respect, the country would potentially benefit from bringing the political opposition out of its current wilderness to allow for a moderately more consensual form of politics – or at the least a more open political landscape.

In the country’s political-economy context, such a move presents a monumental task matched only by the economic challenge of reviving an economy which has more than halved in size since Mugabe began his radical reform agenda in 2000. But playing to its strengths, Zimbabwe still holds great potential as an economy that is both rich in resources, has one of the strongest pools of human capital on the continent, and was once a breadbasket for the region. As Zimbabweans wake to a new uncertain dawn in national politics, we are likely entering a period of significant turbulence. But out of the ashes, Zimbabwe could rise again.

About the author: Roddy Barclay is Director of Intelligence and Analysis at africapractice. In this role he oversees a team of political analysts and business intelligence consultants across the company's office network on the continent and in London. Roddy has been advising businesses on understanding and managing political risk in Africa for over eight years.

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