The 36-year-old regime of President Robert Mugabe is obviously in its twilight. Intra-party rivalry over who succeeds the nonagenarian leader is rife with incessant purge of dissidents. Besides, the tension in the party and the country is not helped by deepening economic crisis and the corresponding unrest even from the traditional social base of the ruling Zanu-PF, the war veterans. Given the problematic nature of transition in Africa, this article analyses the prospects of a transition to new leadership in Zimbabwe. It scrutinixes the strength of the opposition, the electoral arrangements, and the configuration of forces within the ZANU-PF in the now open struggle to succeed Mugabe in power. While taking cognizance of the diaspora factor, it identifies three key factors, namely, the military, the liberation ideology and the role of the first lady that would be decisive in the emergence of a successor to President Mugabe. It argues that these factors would impact on the succession process. The case of Cote d’ Ivoire is presented as a parallel in ways that could guide the succession process in Zimbabwe. Besides the likelihood of continuation of ZANU-PF hegemony, it indicates the possibility of a replacement by the opposition. Conclusively, the article advocates making the constitution the first order of response to power vacuum in order to avoid the cycle of conflict that is present in the continent.


Arguably, Zimbabwe had been thrust into global reckoning thrice in its modern history. The first is the liberation struggle against white minority regime of Ian Smith, a struggle that has come to define its post-independence future since 1980. The second is the Gukurahundi killings of the 1980s in which an estimated 20,000 people were killed. And the third is the land reform program woven into the independence pact aftermath of the Lancaster House Dialogue. Although Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led the post-Smith government and remained in power ever since, there has always been room for opposition exemplified by Zimbabwe African People Union (ZAPU) no less an important partaker in the liberation struggle. While ZAPU was repressed by the ruling party, it would later enter into a merger agreement with ZANU to form the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in 1987. The economic crisis aggravated by the contradictions of the land reform process and the corresponding resistance brought Zimbabwe into global focus. Once a model of liberal democracy that provided the platform for Commonwealth’s engrossment of the Harare Declaration on democracy, it became demonized following the contradictory dynamics of its fast track land policy in 2000. In the wings was the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), an opposition party that was ready to unseat the incumbent government. Indeed, MDC typified opposition activities in the first decade of the current century and the desire for regime change in Zimbabwe.

For the greater part of Africa’s political history, transition from one government to another has occurred either through state-led violence in the form of coup d’état and civil war or through democratic transition, that is, electoral process. These processes are often driven by internal and external forces. Under military regime, incumbents do not relinquish power so easily; change occurs through counter-coup operations. There are also cases in which military regimes conduct elections and hand over power to democratically elected governments. For example, Nigeria, currently in its fourth republic had gone through various stages of transition to a democratic government. Curiously though the military in Nigeria has always seen its foray into politics as an aberration and therefore transitory. This is also true for the Ghanaian armed forces. But our continent has also witnessed sit-tightism in which leaders whether of the military or democratic hue decides to remain in power, changing the rules of the political game capriciously. This variant has led to either military incursion or civil war. Examples include Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia, Congo Brazzaville and Congo DRC to mention a few. Predictability in succession is therefore desirable. Under a democracy, the constitution being the grundnorm ought to be the best guarantee for succession in a multi-party environment. Truly, an ordered succession is conducive for the goal of national development. Even one party states have managed to order their succession process. The People’s Republic of China exemplifies the point being made. The ruling Communist Party has managed its succession process very well, from Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping. If President Robert Mugabe had ceded power to younger elements within the ZANU-PF a decade ago, he would have retained a moral veto today in Zimbabwean politics and his image as a national hero writ large. Transition within a dominant party, no less from one party to another is healthy for the political process especially in societies with national creeds and the corresponding principle of loyal opposition.

This paper is divided into six sections. The second following this introduction is an analysis of the state of the opposition. The third focuses on the electoral architecture and the fourth on succession struggles in ZANU-PF. The fifth section overviews succession processes in Africa with a particular focus on Cote d’ Ivoire while the sixth concludes the article with emphasis on the lessons and way-forward.

Opposition in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe parades a sizeable number of parties including independents such as the ruling ZANU-PF, Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), Movement for Democratic Change-Mutambara (MDC-M), and United People’s Party (UPP). New ones have also joined the contestation for power such as the Zimbabwe People First (ZimPF). The Zimbabwean opposition parties historically are no push over. ZAPU had formidable nationalist credential as ZANU. Before, the merger, they were locked in a historical rivalry along ethnic faultlines, counterproductively. The opposition showing in the 1990s (exemplified by Edgar Tekere's Zimbabwe Unity Movement) as well as in the 2008 parliamentary elections where it won a parliamentary majority shows the strength of the opposition. Opportunism would appear to have deepened with the formation of Government of National Unity in which Morgan Tsvangirai emerged as Prime Minister. The MDC, perceived to have a social base in urban centers, splintered first in 2005 with the exit of Welshman Ncube and later Tendai Biti who now leads the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The opposition today is weak without a grand alliance and many seem to worry about the grand rules of politics and is revealed in the slogan: no reforms, no election. The unity of opposition is inevitable wherever there is a dominant party. This was the case in Senegal with the entrenched hegemony of Party Socialist (PS), a benign party which had often instrumentalized co-optation to rein in the opposition. The grand alliance dubbed Sopi, a Wolof word for change, unseated the PS and brought Abdoulaye Wade of Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS) to power in 2000 and the later was booted out of power by a replay of the same grand alliance with the election of President Macky Sall in 2012 under the platform of  the Alliance for the Republic. In the lead up to the Nigerian 2015 elections, some of the opposition parties, hardly example of what a party should be, merged into the All Progressive Congress (APC) and defeated the then incumbent Government of President Goodluck Jonathan.

However, the good news about Zimbabwe is that opposition parties are aware of the need for a grand alliance. In the words of the Rugare Gumbo, a spokesperson of ZimPF:

Discussions with other political parties are taking place in the interest of Zimbabwe. We don’t believe in working in isolation, we believe that as opposition parties we must get together one way or the other without interfering with each party’s ideology, objectives, structures and programs. No, we don’t want things that are controversial where people end up fighting for leadership.

PDP’s Biti had also indicated move in this direction the meeting of his party general council. According to him:

Zanu PF will not reform itself out of power. Zimbabweans should never be satisfied with mortgaging their struggle to political parties. It is up to the youths, churches, women, civic society and all of us to force Zanu PF to make the necessary conditions to allow Zimbabweans a free and fair election.

In spite of these currents there are equally fissiparous currents in inter-party relations. The challenge is to overcome them and pave way for a grand coalition.

Electoral Architecture

….the electoral act has been amended nearly every election cycle. The amendments share a single thrust: to whittle away the electorate’s civil liberties. One set of changes, for instance, restricts the use of mail in ballots to absentee civil servants, diplomats, and uniformed members of the military and security forces. The obvious intent is to disenfranchise Zimbabweans living abroad—there [they] are thought to be about a million in South Africa and other southern African countries—who tend to be hostile to Mugabe and ZANU-PF.

There are genuine concerns about the extant electoral laws in Zimbabwe. Virtually all political parties agree on the need to transform the electoral laws for fair play. It is for them the Mount Everest to climb if opposition parties must overcome the incumbent ZANU-PF. Former Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s viewpoint is that the opposition parties should shun any election without electoral reforms. At least Biti concurs on this score and stresses that:

We have little time left because we are just over 36 months before the next election. But for us in the PDP, the precondition for a coalition is a strong party. We will not just go into a coalition to make up the numbers, but we will put ideas and structures on the table. A grand coalition is necessary, but not a sufficient precondition for change in Zimbabwe. Without electoral reforms we are going nowhere.

The electoral constraints lie in the questionable autonomy of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) whose commissioners are appointed by the government. Similarly, its secretariat is staffed with personnel with intelligence and military links to the ruling ZANU-PF. Its performance in the 2008 presidential elections which results were withheld for about five weeks remains a blight on the image of the commission. A survey conducted by Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) also lends credence to this perception. According to the survey, the majority distrust ZEC on grounds of impartiality and rated the commission poor on its conduct of elections. Also, about sixty-six percent expressed concerns about ZEC’s autonomy and another sixty-one percent have some reservations about the method of appointments of commissioners. In ways that indicate the direction, about seventy-seven percent want funding directly from the treasury on a first line charge. Section 205 (3) (a) of the 2013 Constitution on ‘Appropriation from Consolidated Revenue Fund’ has meant the desire for unhindered funding of the ZEC.

Succession Struggle in ZANU-PF

No matter how the Zanu PF leadership, especially Mugabe, may try to sit on top of this simmering debate and now turning into open clashes and public spats, his succession is the most topical political question and issue in Zimbabwe and, unfortunately, one that is not going away as he wishes.—Rashweat Mukundu.

The intrigues within the ruling party is of great importance and could have far-reaching consequence for the Zimbabwean polity. An undemocratic dig in could either lead to a civil war or a military backlash in the form of a coup detat by the Zimbabwe’s Defence Force. What is the nature of the intrigues? Although succession intrigues date back to the pre-independence period underlined by Chimoio Congress in 1977 in which Mugabe took over the leadership of ZANU from Ndabaningi Sithole, our pre-occupation here is the current succession intrigues within ZANU-PF. Although President Mugabe has always aggrandized power and brooked no opposition to his control of the country, his inability to choose a successor, notwithstanding the rationalizations often based on anti-imperialist rhetoric, has without doubt prepared the grounds for a succession struggle within the party. Significantly, biological factor has driven home the fact of mortality of the man who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence. Mugabe’s hunch underlined the point being made. In the 2014 Congress of his party, he said:

We are meeting at congress and it’s a congress which now must lead us to be very, very careful for the future. You can see the future is long; there will be a future without present leaders, after all some of our comrades are down…We no longer have (late vice-president Joshua) Nkomo. Hatisisinavo vese vanana (Vice-president Simon) Muzenda nana (Vice-president Joseph) Msika. So we will go also those of us in leadership, one day.

The purge of Joice Mujuru, former Vice President, now the leader of ZimPF, is the climax of what may yet turn out to be multiple plots. A while ago, Vice-President Joyce Mujuru’s camp was locked in a long-running battle with the Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa faction to succeed Mugabe. With her purge and elevation of Mnangagwa to the position of the Vice President, he appears within the party structure as a possible successor. But we cannot ignore other factors, namely the military, liberation ideology and the first lady.

The Military

The military has a veto particularly in unstable polities. In the case of Zimbabwe, Wesley Mwatwara, a specialist on War and Strategic Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, was quite apt when he said, “The military is so keen not only to be involved in the party’s succession politics to the extent of even seeking to eventually take over after Mugabe because they would want their interests taken care of”.  Also, Professor Martin Rupiya, in his book cited the views expressed by a retired brigadier-general who noted the symbiotic relation of the Zimbabwean military to politics in Zimbabwe since independence.  Indeed, “The visibility and influence of the military rose gradually over the years to the current position of dominance and de facto veto power over Zimbabwe’s civilian affairs”. This is supported by the views of a current serving Member of Parliament who qualified the parliament as a military establishment in that the ZANU-PF members of parliament are retired military person or with military background. Indeed the military and intelligence organizations are embedded in the institutions of the state. The statement credited to the security chiefs to the effect that they would not defer to a president WITHOUT liberation war credential further underlines importance of the military in the political equation.

Liberation ideology

ZANU-PF’s Liberation ideology with organic link to the military factor is founded on Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and its revolutionary principles. Imperial domination does harm to a people’s historical process and as a result produces a corresponding resistance for freedom, the core element of the national liberation struggle, the objective of which is “to regain this right usurped by imperialism, that is to say, to free the process of development of the national productive forces.” Today, what is perhaps left of it is mere anti-imperialist rhetoric and organizational centralism given the purge of the defiant Marxist cadres in the ZANLA who resented “a bourgeois nationalist political leadership”. This was to mark the beginning of a civil-military relations in which the boys in arms were subordinated to the political leadership of the party. Importantly, the historic independence pact in 1980 undermined “the party’s professed revolutionary ideals” replaced by what Blessing-Miles Tendi called “pragmatic conservatism” woven into “post conflict national reconciliation policy”. Despite its tenuousness, liberation ideology has remained a mobilization tool as well as being one of the sustaining logics of ZANU-PF’s hold on the reins of political power. The support of the veterans is a function of this factor. This liberation credential does matter and must be factored into the succession outcome within the ZANU-PF or without. It does resonate with a large section of Zimbabweans and it is also the perception among admirers of President Mugabe on the continent. It is the deficit in the majority of the parties in the tussle for power and therefore, a political capital to those who have it.

First Lady

While some observers underlined the ephemeral nature of the first lady’s influence others note her indispensability in the power calculus. As Rashweat Mukundu puts it,

We need not waste our time on the First Lady, Grace Mugabe, whose political career will end with the departure of Mugabe and her fortunes are as limited in time as the ticking clock of her husband…As Grace predicted herself, her political career will be dragged in the tarred road the day Mugabe leaves office and this will be done by both camps, those who support her and those who dislike….In other words, we do not have any Grace supporters in Zanu PF. What we have are people who are using her only to dump her later while others are outright[ly] opposed to her.

Guthrie Munyuki presents an alternate viewpoint:

Firstly, the emergence of Grace Mugabe from the political wilderness to assume the top post as secretary for women despite stringent party rules which had just been tightened a week before her entrance, is a sign of the change of script from the one that we have been reading since 1998….It is foolish to dismiss Grace as it is also laughable to think that she has no significant influence in the succession battle.

Diaspora Factor

In this whole analysis, how may the Diasporas weigh in on the succession dynamics? Do they constitute a critical mass and therefore a critical factor in the succession politics in Zimbabwe? What are the resources at their disposal? And in what way can they influence transition from the Mugabe era in terms of who succeeds Mugabe? Views expressed by some Zimbabweans in the Diaspora converge on some of the questions posed above. The diaspora constitutes a sizeable demographic and were they to return home to vote, they would, for sure, affect the electoral outcomes. As Alois Madhekeni, a Zimbabwean who resides in South Africa, puts it:

A third of the country's population is estimated to be in living in the diaspora. Most of these people economically active and politically conscious individuals with appetite, freedom and resources to stay informed, speak out and criticise.

Besides, they are fully aware of the fact that diaspora transfer forms an integral part of the regime’s sustaining logic. Without it the economic collapse would have been total. This has produced an unintended consequence for the regime. But if their resources were to be channeled constructively to opposition cause or candidate, it could have consequence for the succession process in the country. In spite of these possibilities, those I spoke to are unanimous about the complex and totalizing nature of Zimbabwean politics. The view is expressed that if Mugabe’s successor comes from ZANU-PF, the diaspora might have limited input. As Norbert Musekiwa notes:

The people within the country seem to have control over who succeeds Mugabe within ZANU-PF. There is an insinuation that the diaspora disserted Zimbabwe during hour of need and in that process also surrendered their right to contribute to internal Zimbabwean politics…Outside organizing to vote en masse, the diaspora has limited influence over ZANU-PF succession politics. Even a poorly managed succession in ZANU-PF might not threaten it [as it] has secured a critical mass of supporters inside Zimbabwe.

Madhekeni shares Musekiwa’s totalizing perspective of the Zimbabwean state which he sees as a Leviathan state presided over by a Machiavellian tactician and his cronies coalescing into a

powerful and intricate system where the lines (if any) between the ruling party and the state are blurred (The ruling party controls the military, the police, the intelligence, state media, electoral commission, judiciary, parastatals and traditional leaders).

Given its nature, the system by itself stands out as “the most critical factor in the succession politics in Zimbabwe... It can only reform, renew or destroy itself…The diaspora community is nothing but a tiny pawn on a giant chessboard”.  It is this frame of mind that convinces David Mandiyanike of the University of Botswana to conclude that “the process is driven more from inside. They can merely add a voice but not sufficient enough to change the course of succession.”

How do these permutations fit into the transition trends on the continent? We will attempt to answer this in what follows.

Overview of Succession Crises in Africa

At the turn of the century, Congo-Brazzaville lurched into a civil war. The then President Paschal Lissouba tried to arrest the former Head of State Sassou Nguesso with his own militia in June of 1997, this sparked a four-month civil war to the detriment of democratic consolidation. The undercurrents of the crisis lay in the jostling for oil rents by the elite and the undermining of state institutions. In the last one and half-century of post-independence existence, Africa presents a huge canvas with motifs of state-led violence (coup d’état), outright civil war and patches of civil rule. To be sure, succession, in the main,has been prone to crisis and violence.  In some instances, the struggle for power had degenerated into civil wars. Uganda,Liberia, Sierra-Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Cote d’Ivoire and Congo Brazzaville are concrete examples.

Within the last one and half decades of the prevailing century, the continent has witnessed a number of succession crises. Some eleven years ago in Togo, against the grains of the legal rational order, the military loyalists of the late President Gnassingbe Eyadema installed his son, Faure Eyadema, in power. In Guinea Conakry, the absence of clear procedures for succession led to the seizure of power by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara in 2008. Nigeria narrowly escaped a succession crisis in 2010. These developments had far-reaching implication for democratic principles and practice. The lessons were not lost on Malawi andGhana which upheld the rule of law following the demise of Presidents Bingu Wa Murtharika and Atta Mills respectively, in 2012 to the rebound of democratic values.

The Case of Cote d’Ivoire

While we are seized of the situation in Zimbabwe, it would appear that Cote d’Ivoire presents in some measure a parallel to the Zimbabwean situation. This is in two ways. One, the death of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny resulted in a tortuous path to a civil war. And two, the concentration of power in the president and the consequent absence of a clear succession matrix.  

President Houphouet-Boigny indeed concentrated much power in his hands and brooked no opposition that he once asked a Ghanaian journalist, Boakye Djan to show him a word in any African language which referenced opposition. Obsession with power very often obscures a sober appreciation of the transient nature of power; leaders drunk in power never seems to reflect on the day after power. This failure very often has dire consequence for the polity. As Richard Banegas has noted:

…at bottom, the result of a crisis of succession, pitting the two putative heirs of the Houphouët system (Henri Konan Bédié and Alassane Dramane Ouattara) against its historic opponent, Laurent Gbagbo. Like many other autocrats, Houphouët-Boigny was wary of any potential successor who risked accumulating enough power to challenge him during his own lifetime.

It is to be remarked that during the presidency of Houphouet-Boigny, the laissez faire policy on migrant workers engendered a huge population of ‘outsiders’, now one third of the country, by some estimate.

Insightfully, Banegas observes that:

During his more than three decades in power, President Houphouët-Boigny (1960–1993) established a system of politics that was based on the use of rents derived from extraversion. The most obvious form of this external orientation was the sale of coffee and cocoa for export, but rents were also generated by Côte d’Ivoire’s strategic position at the hub of the Franco-African relationship sometimes known as la Françafrique. Three key relationships formed the sinews of this political system: alliances with the former colonial power, with local planters and with the migrant workers who were welcomed in large numbers as labourers on Côte d’Ivoire’s plantations.

Upon the death of the President in 1993, the unexpressed contradictions of governance inherent in the institutional scaffolding of the state came to the fore and the emergence of new actors comprising civilians, soldiers and ambitious politicians angling to succeed Houphouet-Boigny. Henri Konan Bédié who was the head of the National Assembly by means of the constitution ascended to the presidency. Nonetheless, this development did not exorcise the ghost of succession crisis. Other parties in the succession fray such as Front populaire ivoirien (FPI) Rassemblement des Républicains (RDR) party, boycotted the 1995 election which was subsequently won by Bédié under Parti démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI). The boycott of the election created a legitimacy conundrum, and the citizenship question (fancifully termed, Ivorite) was also placed on the front burner. This produced a backlash in the form of a coup detat led by General Robert Guei in 1999. As an aftermath, forces nouvelles emerged under the leadership of Guillaume Soro.

Laurent Gbagbo of FPI won the democratic election of 2000 which followed the coup. Nationalist currents ala ivorite had reached a scale in which Alassane Ouattara was clearly seen as an outsider. Even though he had served as prime minister under President Houphouet-Boigny, it was purely on technocratic grounds and nothing more. As Banegas notes:

But it was also no doubt because Houphouët-Boigny calculated that because of Ouattara’s northern background and his close association with Burkina Faso, he could never become head of the Ivorian state. The man whom Houphouët-Boigny most consistently presented as the crown prince of his government was the notably uncharismatic Henri Konan Bédié, whose key qualities were his loyalty to the regime, an intimate knowledge of the ruling Parti démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), and membership of the Akan group, and especially the Baoule, who had held the reins of power since independence.

So by September 2002 war broke out as result of a mutiny by a section of the army in response to Gbagbo’s demobilization policy on the army. The war lingered until the 2007 peace accord and the formation of government of national unity which also collapsed. He subsequently lost power in the aftermath of the controversial elections of 2010. Indeed, the crisis was resolved by a complex interplay of local and international forces in favour of the incumbent president Qattara while Gbagbo is currently held in The Hague by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Uneasy calm prevails in that country because the identity crisis deepened by the wounds of war is yet to be resolved.

Conclusion: Lessons for Zimbabwe

In the foregoing, I have attempted a critical analysis of issues in the prevailing succession struggle in Zimbabwe, especially in ZANU-PF. Furthermore, I argued that three factors, namely, the military, liberation ideology and the role of the first lady would be central to understanding the outcome of the struggle to succeed Mugabe in power.  I have also analysed the strength of the opposition and the staying power of Mugabe. What is not in doubt is that Zimbabwe is headed towards the inexorable road to change.

However, there are many lessons to be learnt from succession crises on the continent. One is that the absence of clear pattern of succession can always lead to political conflict. Even when the constitution makes provision for succession it can always be subverted in the absence of legitimacy and consensus around the would-be successors. President Bedie was toppled apparently due to the absence of popular support from the major political forces, many of which shunned the 1995 elections. The Zimbabwean extant constitution provides for succession. Section 101 (1) (a) on “Succession in event of death, resignation or incapacity of President or Vice-President”, says inter alia that “If the President dies, resigns or is removed from office”, the first Vice-President shall assume “office as President until the expiry of the former President's term of office”.  The current Vice President Mnangagwa could suffer the Bedie fate in the event of the demise of President Mugabe. The military would certainly not be a passive player. If what the constitution anticipates happens, my suggestion is that Zimbabwe should follow the provisions of the constitution to stabilise the polity, more so the prospect of a civil war is unwelcome to many Zimbabweans because of the memory of losses in the liberation war.

Also, in the current succession struggles in Zimbabwe, the historical issues confronting the country, such as the agrarian question and economic crisis are not being articulated. As Stephen Chan has rightly noted:

It seemed to us to be power plays, personality plays and it was not to do with policy, it was not to do with governance, it was not to do with the future of the country in a technocratic sense and what will benefit the average Zimbabwean citizen.

The country faces a deepening economic crisis made worse by drought which has resulted in food shortage and state insolvency. The government is finding it difficult to pay civil servants and having to resort to strong arm tactics to quell growing discontent. The veterans who constitute a reserve army of support for the regime are withdrawing their support for the regime and now in the ranks of civil opposition. This new turn harbors the possibility of a replacement model in the succession process. According to Samuel P. Huntington,

Democratization consequently results from the opposition gaining strength and the government losing strength until the government collapses or is overthrown. The former opposition groups come to power and the conflict then enters a new phase as groups in the new government struggle among themselves over the nature of the regime they should institute.

Nonetheless, the solution to the economic problem does not lie in the application of wholesale neoliberal policies, a road taken before; but a well thought out economic recovery program that will include a review of the land reform. It is to be noted that the way these issues are posed and resolved would go a long away in stirring the country out of the succession dilemma in a post-Mugabe era. The ruling party and the opposition can do the country a lot of good by building consensus around key national questions such as these.

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