Zimbabwe: Mnangagwa braces for potential challenge from his VP Chiwenga

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Thursday, 23 June 2022 11:30

President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga greet supporters of his ZANU PF party at a rally in Murombedzi
President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga greet supporters of his ZANU PF party at a rally in Murombedzi, Zimbabwe November 24, 2018. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Zimbabwe politics are shaping up to be fairly competitive as President Emmerson Mnangagwa faces not only a spirited opponent from the opposition, but also a potential challenge from his own Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga.

Mnangagwa’s allies in the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) and the government are pushing for the first-term president to be the party’s unrivalled standard-bearer against Citizens Coalition for Change leader Nelson Chamisa in the 2023 presidential election.

That strategy is running into headwinds however after Vice President Constantino Chiwenga’s faction took control of most of Zanu PF’s provincial structures during the ruling party’s bloody internal elections late last year. Since then, key party groups, including its Youth League, have endorsed Mnangagwa, leaving it unclear whether anyone will challenge the president at Zanu PF’s elective congress this December.

Early this month, a Zanu PF spokesperson said the Women’s League is also likely to endorse Mnangagwa at its upcoming conference. However, in places like Matabeleland North Province in western Zimbabwe, the Mnangagwa-aligned camp of Zanu PF Secretary for Administration Obert Mpofu appears to be losing its grip on key constituencies.

Will he or won’t he?

The diverging trends are fuelling intense debate over whether Chiwenga will follow through in his attempt to unseat the president.

“Like all fights for power in Zanu PF, what we are likely going to see towards preparation for 2023, internal party candidates selection and a congress in Zanu PF, is an intensification of factional fights,” journalist and human rights activist Rashweat Mukundu tells The Africa Report. “The fights are becoming more brutal” compared to those during Robert Mugabe’s three decades in power.

The coming elective congress will not likely give him any avenues to take power

“I do not foresee Chiwenga easily backing down at this moment,” says Mukundu. “If there is any indication of backing down, it [will be] a strategic retreat to come back; so whoever wins will have the power to decimate the losing faction. We should brace up for more turbulence in Zanu PF.”

A retired general, Chiwenga played a key role as commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces when the army toppled Mugabe, paving the way for Mnangagwa to ascend to power in November 2017. Mnangagwa defeated Chamisa the following July to win his current five-year term.

Zanu PF insiders say at the time, an agreement was reached between the two men for Mnangagwa to serve just one term, with Chiwenga taking over in 2023.

However, as early as September 2018, in an interview at the UN General Assembly in New York, Mnangagwa started showing his ambition to run again in 2023. Three months later, in December, at a Zanu PF conference in Esigodini, Mnangagwa and his allies pushed for the president, who is also the ruling party’s first secretary, to serve two terms.

Vivid Gwede, a democracy activist in Harare, expects Chiwenga to continue to gun for the top jobs in both government and the Zanu PF.

“The coming elective congress will not likely give him any avenues to take power since an open and democratic contest for Mnangagwa’s position is highly unlikely,” he says. “What the Chiwenga faction can do is possibly weaken Mnangagwa’s hold on power by attempting to influence lower leadership structures and other appointments in government.”

However, political analyst Farai Gwenhure says any tensions between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga are blown out of proportion as they have more in common than differences. “At the end of the day, Chiwenga is not positioned to put up a significant fight,” he tells The Africa Report. “His best bet would be to wait until Mnangagwa finishes his second term.”

Rival factions

Zimbabwe Minister of Media Christopher Mutsvangwa has warned those plotting to unseat Mnangagwa that they will not succeed. He says there’s no question the president is allowed to run for a second full term, adding that the ruling party has already endorsed him.

Nevertheless, the president has struggled to unite the party since taking over in 2017.

Recently, the pro-Chiwenga camp has faced accusations of working with an expelled Zanu PF faction known as Generation 40 (G40) to cause divisions in the party. The faction includes former Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere, former Higher Education Minister and Zanu PF politburo member Jonathan Moyo, the late President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace Mugabe, and Mugabe’s nephew, Patrick Zhuwao. Many live in self-exile after fleeing the country following the 2017 coup against Mugabe.

Some Zanu PF supporters have been pushing for Kasukuwere to challenge Mnangagwa at the Zanu PF elective congress in December.

In turn, the party is accusing Kasukuwere of sponsoring Zanu PF Youth League member Sybeth Musengezi, who asked the High Court last year to nullify the November 2017 Zanu PF central committee meeting that confirmed Mnangagwa as the acting president. Musengezi was arrested in late May in an apparent move by Zanu PF leadership to silence him.

At the end of the day, Chiwenga is not positioned to put up a significant fight.

Gwede says, at the moment, exile is a handicap for the G40 camp, but they stand a chance to rise back to the top with the right alliances.

“The G40’s only realistic chance of influencing the leadership dynamics in Zanu-PF is through striking a deal with either the Mnangagwa or Chiwenga faction,” he says.

Mukundu says the G40 is finding ways to divide Zanu PF while working with some elements opposed to Mnangagwa. He says the former politicians of the Mugabe era “cannot thrive in a democratic movement” and will want to return to their “natural home” in the ruling party.

“The G40 cannot fit in the liberal politics of the opposition in which leaders are challenged and questioned,” he says. “Their orientation is to go back to Zanu PF, where the hierarchy of power is clearly defined. This is what they have been used to.”

Mukundu foresees a”realignment of forces in Zanu PF, leading to Mnangagwa being kicked out.”

Gwenhure says, however, that while the G40 have significant appeal within Zanu PF, they lack a local face who is a natural leader, making it almost impossible to rally their forces.

Meanwhile, political commentator Maxwell Saungweme insists the group has no shots to call. “They are known to be hard-core Zanu PF […] and have nothing new to offer,” he tells The Africa Report.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options