Zimbabwe: How Mnangagwa ‘crushed’ Chiwenga’s dream of becoming president

By Farai Shawn Matiashe

Posted on Thursday, 3 November 2022 14:36
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's President Emmerson Mnangagwa has outmanoeuvred his deputy Constantino Chiwenga in the fierce battle to be the 2023 presidential candidate for the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu–PF). At the party's Elective Congress held from the 26 to 29 October, the Central Committee, the highest decision-making body within the ruling party, endorsed Mnangagwa to seek a second term in next year’s general elections

Zanu PF insiders say that as part of the agreement after the coup, which ousted former leader Robert Mugabe in November 2017, Mnangagwa was meant to step down for Chiwenga, a former commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.

However, before Mnganagwa even finished the first year of his first term, his backers had already endorsed him as the sole candidate in the 2023 general elections.

Top officials within the ruling party say Chiwenga and his camp were pushing for a face-off between the ex-military commander and Mnganagwa, but found themselves blocked.

Addressing Zanu PF supporters at the Congress on Friday 28 October, Chiwenga said his boss should get another five years.

“I strongly believe that we are much better off as a Party and country if God grants the president many more years.”

He told supporters that “while this Congress is supposed to be elective, the party structures have already clearly and thunderously endorsed [Mngangagwa] president and first secretary as well as the Zanu PF sole candidate in the 2023 national elections. People have thus spoken. Let their will be obeyed”.

Mnangagwa, who said his party’s manifesto will be launched soon, will likely run in the 2023 general polls against Nelson Chamisa, the prominent opposition party leader of the Citizens Coalition for Change, whom he narrowly beat in the disputed 2018 election.

Mnangagwa outsmarts Chiwenga

Despite the coup agreement that Chiwenga will take over in 2023, Mnangagwa began to show his ambitions of contesting as the Zanu PF leader during an interview at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2018, shortly after winning the controversial harmonised polls in July.

In December, during a Zanu PF conference in Esigodini, Mnangagwa and his allies pushed for the ruling party’s first secretary to serve two terms.

Chiwenga’s dreams have indeed been crushed for 2023.

Mnangagwa was endorsed as the ruling party’s presidential candidate for the 2023 harmonised polls at a Zanu PF congress held in Bindura in late October last year.

Gwede says Chiwenga’s camp seems to have been decimated by having some of its members pushed into diplomatic posts, while others are now dead.

In 2019, Mnangagwa took advantage of Chiwenga’s illness and retired several key Chiwenga cadres in the military, while appointing his own key allies as part of his power consolidation efforts.

  • Anselem Sanyatwe, an ex-Presidential Guard (PG) commander and Chiwenga’s ally was appointed Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Tanzania. Sanyatwe, with his military personnel from the infantry battalion, the PG , and the Mechanised Brigade stationed at Inkomo Barracks in Harare, had played a critical role in the 2017 coup.
  • Others include the late Zimbabwe National Army chief-of-staff retired Lieutenant-General Douglas Nyikayaramba posted to Mozambique, retired Lieutenant-General Martin Chedondo posted to China, and retired Air Marshal Sheba Shumbayawonda.

“Another fact is that Mnangagwa knows the role of the military in his own rise and will try to coup-proof his administration through tactical appointments in the army as much as he can,” says Gwede.

In another move to weaken Chiwenga, Mnangagwa removed retired Lieutenant-General Engelbert Rugeje from the Zanu PF commissariat, a critical department within the ruling party and replaced him with his own ally Victor Matemadanda.

Covid-19 also took a toll on Chiwenga’s camp.

Chiwenga’s allies in government, who were key figures during the 2017 coup, including former Air Force commander agriculture minister Perrance Shiri and former military general and Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo, both died of Covid-19-related illnesses in July 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Chiwenga still remains the main contender for succession if he is able to hold out for that long both physically and politically

The final blow to Chiwenga and his backers came this year when Zanu PF structures in all ten provinces endorsed Mnangagwa as their sole candidate for 2023 meaning the latter could not be challenged at the just-concluded Elective Congress.

‘The door for Chiwenga’s entry is effectively shut for now’

Chiwenga has never expressed his interest in taking over, but some of his supporters in Zanu PF have openly backed him to take over from Mnangagwa in 2023.

Eldred Masunungure, a political analyst,  says Chiwenga should save his energy for 2028 when Mnangagwa finishes his second term, if he wins against Chamisa next year.

“Chiwenga’s dreams have indeed been crushed for 2023,” he tells The Africa Report.

“The ambition is now dead in the water and, at best, now has to be deferred to the 2028 contest.”

Stephen Chan, a professor of World Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, says Chiwenga’s best bet now is to position himself as best he can for the succession, which is to be the presidential candidate in 2028 when Mnangagwa will be to vie again, as per the constitution.

[…] if he remains vice president, he may benefit in the case of unforeseen events like [the] mortality of the office holder

“However, that means he has a vested interest in trying to prevent younger Zanu-PF members [from] ascending to the Politburo Central Committee or other senior party organs. The last thing he would want is to be in a competition for the 2028 nomination against a younger candidate with senior experience – even if by then the country [would be] yearning for fresh faces rather than those of the liberation old guard,” he says.

Vivid Gwede, a political analyst, says given that Chiwenga has not had a strong political base or clout given he led soldiers, it means he has a formidable political challenge to tackle.

“However, given the fact that Mnangagwa is only legally eligible for one more term until 2028, Chiwenga still remains the main contender for succession if he is able to hold out for that long both physically and politically,” he tells The Africa Report.

“[…] if he remains vice president, he may benefit in the case of unforeseen events like [the] mortality of the office holder.”

Worth pushing back?

Masunungure says it would be foolhardy for Chiwenga to fight for 2023 as his chances of victory in that fight are next to zero.

“However, he should start fighting for 2028 [as] Mnangagwa [will] have served the maximum two terms, according to the national supreme law,” he says.

“Further, most Zanu-PF members will sympathise with Chiwenga’s ambitions as a deserving candidate at that time.”

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