Zimbabwe: Why Mnangagwa fired his right-hand man, Owen Ncube

By Farai Shawn Matiashe

Posted on Monday, 17 January 2022 19:19, updated on Tuesday, 18 January 2022 10:34
Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his former state security minister Owen Ncube (TAR)

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa is struggling to unite and stabilise the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), especially after December's internal elections. So is the firing of his right-hand man, Owen Ncube, based on his having encouraged political violence during the recent polls in Midlands Province? Or is it a move to gain the trust of the party, proving he can do away with his closest confidant?

In a statement issued on 10 January by Misheck Sibanda, chief secretary to the president and cabinet, Ncube was sacked by Mnangagwa for “conduct inappropriate for a minister of government,” without disclosing the reasons.

But inside sources say Ncube had unleashed thugs on ZANU-PF members who were deliberating on the results of the recently held internal elections at the party’s provincial offices in Gweru in central Zimbabwe, about 277km from the capital, Harare.

Ncube was trying to snatch a top position in the province. This, however, did not work out.

Ncube’s ascendency to power

Ncube, who hails from the same province as Mnangagwa, joined the government in 2017 when he was appointed Midlands provincial affairs minister before being promoted to state security minister in 2018.

Inside sources say Ncube was being rewarded for his role in protecting the mining interest of ZANU-PF and government bigwigs with his violent machete mob, which is popularly known as Al-Shabaab in the Midlands. It is not affiliated with the Islamist group in Somalia of the same name.

  • In January 2019, in his capacity as state security minister, Ncube ordered a crackdown on demonstrators who were protesting against the government’s decision to hike fuel prices by 150%. The operation killed 17 people, who were shot by the military, while several women were raped.
  • In August 2018, Ncube was also implicated in the death of six civilians shot by the military following a crackdown by personnel from the Presidential Guard and police on main opposition MDC Alliance supporters who took to the streets to protest against the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s late announcement of 2018 general polls results.

Ncube, popularly known as Mudha, was slapped with sanctions in March 2019 by the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for alleged human rights abuses.

In February last year, the UK placed sanctions on  Ncube, along with Central Intelligence Organisation chief Isaac Moyo, Zimbabwe police commissioner-general Godwin Matanga and Anselem Sanyatwe, a former commander of the Presidential Guard. London said they are responsible for the “most egregious human rights violations”.

Who will replace Ncube?

Since taking power in 2017, Mnangagwa has been consolidating control by surrounding himself with his close friends, relatives and clansmen.

This is mainly to elbow out his vice-president Constantino Chiwenga, who is seen by many as a possible successor to Mnangagwa.

I firmly believe that Ncube will be resurrected outside the cabinet to do what he knows best, mobilising supporters and scaring party rivals and doing so in a muscular way.

Professor Eldred Masunungure tells The Africa Report that Ncube was fired because Mnangagwa wanted to target bigger fish within the party by demonstrating that he can fire his closest confidant.

“If this is so, [Mnangagwa] would then project an image of [a] no-nonsense boss who does not hesitate to fire recalcitrant cadres, no matter how high in the party and no matter how close they are to him,” he says.

“He wants to portray and buttress the narrative that no one is sacred, paving the way for jettisoning some of his senior cabinet ministers and even senior party cadres.”

Masunugure says he doubts Ncube is being permanently shut out. Instead, he will remain in Mnangagwa’s kitchen cabinet.

“I firmly believe that Ncube will be resurrected outside the cabinet to do what he knows best, mobilising supporters and scaring party rivals and doing so in a muscular way. While he might not be indispensable, I think he is too strategic a cog to be dispensed with that easily,” he says.

Masunugure says the replacement is likely to be someone from Mnangagwa’s inner circle both politically and ethno-regionally, considering the security ministry portfolio is sensitive.

Political violence

In late December 2021, ZANU-PF held its internal elections at the provincial level in preparation of the upcoming 2023 general polls.

In different provinces, the elections, which were marred by vote-buying and political violence, widened tensions between Chiwenga’s and Mnangagwa’s allies.

Ncube is said to be working with local government minister July Moyo to push their faction in Midlands Province.

The results of the elections were announced early this year after several weeks of withholding, despite reports of massive rigging and political violence.

These elections in which Ncube and crew were accused of using machetes to intimidate other ZANU-PF members are not different from any other ruling party elections,” says Farai Gwenhure, a political analyst. “ZANU-PF is violent and they manipulate elections,” he adds.

Andrew Makoni, a chairperson at Zimbabwe Election Support Network, says the reports of violence and vote-rigging are pointing to a problem that generally afflicts elections in Zimbabwe.

“If such violence and manipulation are not curbed at [the] party level, like cancer, it may spread [to] the national level. This is why we continue to call for a new Electoral Act, with sanctions for those who manipulate electoral processes,” he says.

History repeats itself…

With ZANU-PF in power, many analysts point to the fact that violence and intimidation are common. As political analyst Vivid Gwede points out, the ruling party has rarely conducted itself democratically, either in its internal or national elections.

“This is epitomised by the fact that there has never been free and fair elections for its president and first secretary since its formation in 1963,” he tells The Africa Report referring to the massive vote rigging and political violence witnessed during the liberation struggle and throughout ZANU-PF’s internal elections in a post-independent Zimbabwe.

While the firing of Ncube could indicate a conscious effort to hold someone accountable for the usual electoral violence, judging by history, it is merely a smoke screen for appeasing growing disunity in the party ahead of 2023.

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