Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Last Days Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwe is engulfed, and not only by a political crisis. While its leaders fight, its economy is in meltdown.

BY MARTIN FLETCHER

*President Mugabe 

With considerable trepidation, I took the lift to the sixth floor of the ministry of justice in central Harare to interview the minister. It wasn’t just that I lacked the accreditation foreign journalists must obtain to work in Zimbabwe – the interview had been arranged through unofficial back channels. The minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, also happens to be the vice-president, Robert Mugabe’s notoriously brutal chief enforcer for the past 36 years, and the most feared man in the country. “They don’t call him ‘The Crocodile’ for nothing,” said a Zimbabwean businessman who knows him well. “He never says a word but suddenly he bites. He’s very dangerous.”

But Mnangagwa, still powerfully built at 74, proved courteous enough as we sat in deep leather armchairs in his bright and spacious office. It was not in his interest to be hostile – not at this time. He is determined to succeed Mugabe and he will need Western support to rebuild his shattered country if he does, which is presumably why he gave me an almost unprecedented interview.
Aged 92 and the world’s oldest head of state, Robert Mugabe is fading. He falls asleep in meetings, suffers memory lapses and stumbles on steps.

He delivered the wrong speech at the opening of parliament in September last year and had to deliver the right one to a specially convened session the following day. As long ago as 2008 a WikiLeaks cable from the US ambassador reported that he had terminal prostate cancer, and he frequently flies to Singapore for unspecified medical treatment – blood transfusions, perhaps, or steroid injections. A diplomatic source talked of Mugabe’s “dramatic deterioration in the last two years”, and said: “He could go at any point.”
Mnangagwa did not admit he wants to be president, of course. Given Mugabe’s paranoia, that would have been political suicide. 

On the contrary, he was studiously loyal. When I asked which politician he most admired he immediately replied: “The president.” He refused to discuss the possibility of Mugabe dying. “Under British constitutional law you don’t conceive or desire the demise of Your Majesty. Why would you want to conceive or desire the demise of my president?” he asked. He even denied that he would seek Mugabe’s job when, to borrow the euphemism with which some Zimbabweans refer to the coming cataclysm, “the portrait falls off the wall”.

“I don’t see myself doing that,” he said. Of the decades he had worked with Mugabe, he said, “I was not serving to be president. I was serving my country.”
Nobody will believe Mnangagwa’s denial – certainly not close allies such as Christopher Mutsvangwa, a former Zimbabwean ambassador to China and the leader of the “war veterans” who seized the country’s white-owned farms in the 2000s.
I had met Mutsvangwa a few days earlier in the unlikely setting of a coffee shop in the affluent Harare suburb of Mount Pleasant. It was another encounter between a senior regime figure and a Western journalist of a sort that is becoming increasingly possible in the turbulence of Mugabe’s twilight days. Mutsvangwa told me he was “100 per cent” sure that Mnangagwa would be Zimbabwe’s next president. Indeed, he and other allies of the vice-president are already locked in a vicious struggle over the succession with Mnangagwa’s potential rivals in the ruling Zanu-PF party.

Grace Mugabe, 51, the president’s intensely ambitious and avaricious wife, set things going in late 2014 after her husband made her the head of Zanu-PF’s Women’s League and a member of the party’s Politburo. She persuaded Mugabe to expel the previous vice-president, Joice Mujuru, and her supporters from the party for allegedly plotting against the president. Mujuru – who as a teenage guerrilla during Zimbabwe’s war of independence in the 1970s gave birth in the bush, shot down a helicopter with a rifle and earned the nom de guerre Teurai Ropa (“Spill Blood”) – has now set up an opposition party, Zimbabwe People First (ZPF).

Having disposed of Mujuru, Grace and a group of “Young Turks” known as Generation 40, or G40, then turned their attention to Mnangagwa, seeking to oust him as vice-president and purge his supporters from critical posts in Zanu-PF. Grace made no secret of her ambitions, flying round the country in the presidential helicopter to address “meet the people” rallies. “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?” she asked. To give herself gravitas, she acquired a PhD from the University of Zimbabwe in three months; the degree was presented to her by the chancellor – her husband.
But Mnangagwa has his own cabal of older party members who fought in the liberation war and despise the G40 “upstarts”, who did not – Mutsvangwa calls them “power-grabbers” and “village head boys”. His so-called Lacoste faction (the clothing company’s emblem is a crocodile) has hit back hard, using Mnangagwa’s control of Zimbabwe’s Anti-Corruption Commission to launch high-profile criminal investigations against G40 leaders. For good measure, Mutsvangwa’s war vets have turned on Mugabe himself. In July they issued a communiqué condemning his “dictatorial tendencies . . . which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle”. In November they sacked him as their patron.

A secret Zanu-PF document passed to me by a reliable source shows how sulphurous the infighting has become. Emanating from Mnangagwa’s camp, it accuses G40 of plotting “political euthanasia” against the party’s founding generation and of “coercing the First Lady into a spirited campaign against VP Mnangagwa”.

The document suggests Mugabe himself created G40 because, behind his “feigned love” for his deputy, he “has always felt threatened by VP Mnangagwa and the prospect of his presidency being outshined by that of his protégé”.
The nine-page document then sets out a detailed plan to destroy G40’s leaders through “brutal character assassination”, fomenting “fights and chaos” within the group, and sowing “seeds of distrust” between G40 and Grace Mugabe.
In short, the party that has governed Zimbabwe since 1980 is sundered as never before. Beneath the bright-blue jacaranda and orange flamboyant trees that shade Harare’s broad avenues, vendors hawk newspapers that gleefully proclaim “Crunch Time For Zanu-PF Factions”, “Zanu-PF Implodes” and “Blood On The Floor”

“They’re at each other’s throats and it’s not unlikely it will end in a violent confrontation,” Ibbo Mandaza, a political analyst in Harare, told me.

But Zimbabwe is engulfed, and not only by a political crisis: while its leaders fight, its economy is in meltdown.

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