As Zimbabwe’s unresolved succession race escalates into violence, President Robert Mugabe has been forced to make a televised national address to tell his party’s feuding factions to “shut-up”.
Political tensions boiled over on Thursday when veterans of the 1970s liberation war who had gathered for a meeting on the fringes of central Harare were attacked by police with teargas and water cannon.
Mugabe, flanked by his two deputies Emmerson Mnangagwa and Phelekezela Mphoko, extended a rare apology to the war veterans but warned the rival camps within the ruling Zanu-PF to stop sowing division or face punishment.
The former guerrillas, led by War Veterans Minister Christopher Mutsvangwa, are mostly backing Mnangagwa to succeed Mugabe who turns 92 on February 21.
The war veterans were angered by Mugabe’s increasingly ambitious wife Grace, who called a rally on February 12 and openly denounced the succession ambitions of the Mnangagwa faction. Mugabe’s wife also used the rally in rural Mashonaland to announce that she is already firmly in power. Political commentators say the rally could yet prove to be a turning point.
For the first time, the veterans began openly criticising Mugabe’s wife, dismissing her as a political upstart who wants to hijack power.
To mobilise support, the veterans resolved to convene a meeting, but when they arrived at the venue they were ambushed by heavily armed riot police who deployed teargas and water cannon, sending them scampering.
Mugabe moved swiftly to diffuse tensions, although he blamed Mutsvangwa for organising a meeting without seeking clearance from the authorities.
Significantly, Mugabe did not censure his wife who is accused of causing strife through her unrestrained utterances.
“Those who are saying we belong to this faction or that faction, I say to them shut-up. You belong to Zimbabwe first and foremost whatever you say. Shut-up and let us not hear any divisive voices from you,” Mugabe said.
Mutsvangwa’s actions deserved the police’s heavy-handedness, claimed Mugabe.
Curiously, Mutsvangwa’s political strategy is built on quicksand – on the one hand he expresses strong support for Mugabe but on the other he is equally vocal in opposing the factional manoeuvres of Mugabe’s wife.
The robust admonishment from Mugabe means Mutsvangwa, who is also chairman of the Liberation War Veterans’ Association, will almost certainly lose his Cabinet post.
“He acted in a manner we describe as irresponsible, completely irresponsible, and in a manner which brings the name of the party [Zanu-PF] and government into disrepute – it brings it, you see, down in disgrace, in a manner in which it is now blemished, criticised,” Mugabe said.
“The people are beginning to wonder whether, in fact, we are governing properly or in accordance with the rules.”
Mugabe complained that the war veterans’ minister had not informed him of the ill-fated meeting, despite him being the patron of the former guerrillas.
Political commentators said this was an unrealistic expectation considering that the meeting’s main agenda was to strategise against Mugabe’s vocal wife in the first place.
Analysts said Mugabe, by meting out violence on the war veterans, was sowing the seeds of civil strife. The veterans are backed by most of the senior army commanders in propping up Mnangagwa’s “Lacoste” faction for the top post, although Mugabe insists there is no vacancy.
Mugabe’s wife is opposed to a Mnangagwa takeover and seems determined to vie for the job herself with the help of the “G40” faction.