The sudden death of retired army commander General Solomon Mujuru — the tough kingmaker or queenmaker behind his wife’s rise to the Vice-Presidency — is likely to heighten tensions in Zanu PF as the battle to succeed President Robert Mugabe rages on.
Mujuru’s death in the early hours of yesterday in a fire at his Beatrice farm, south of Harare, is likely to rob his faction of a pillar, rallying figure and key strategist in the succession battle.
With his death, his camp now knows they will have to scrap even harder without their “commander” to outflank his fiercest rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is renowned for his political wit, cunning and business deals.
Zanu PF — already reeling from crippling internal power struggles — risks plunging further into turmoil as other factions take advantage of the power vacuum left by Mujuru.
Party insiders told NewsDay yesterday the death would deeply divide the party, which was already fighting over when elections should be held and who should be the presidential candidate if they were delayed to 2013.
One politburo member said: “If anything, Mujuru’s death could weaken the party as factions intensify their fight to succeed (President) Mugabe. I can’t think of anyone in Mujuru’s faction that can fill the vacuum he has left.”
The Mujuru camp had in the past clashed with President Mugabe over the timetable of the President’s departure. Mujuru had been pushing for the President to quit now and allow his wife, Joice, to take over, but this angered the President who felt these were increasingly transparent moves to stampede him out of office.
His death will also be a blow to the MDC-T and reform-minded Zanu PF stalwarts, who supported Mujuru’s manoeuvres to work with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s party.
Mujuru had a major advantage of not only being a Zanla commander, but was also an influential former member of the Zipra forces led by the late Vice-President Joshua Nkomo.
It was Mujuru, whose wartime name was Rex Nhongo (billy goat) — fabled in local lore for sexual prowess and hardheadedness — who implored guerillas, most of whom had never met President Mugabe, to accept him as their leader after his predecessor, Herbert Chitepo, was assassinated by opponents in Zambia in 1975.
In 1978, Mujuru quelled an internal revolt aimed at toppling Mugabe, and that made him indispensable.
Former Home Affairs minister and Zipra intelligence supremo Dumiso Dabengwa yesterday said Mujuru’s death had not only robbed his faction, but also Zanu PF of the only remaining person who could challenge President Mugabe openly and tell him to retire.
“He was a very strong member in Zanu PF and probably the only one remaining that was capable of speaking his mind about anything he didn’t like and the only one that could criticise the party,” Dabengwa said.
“I don’t know of anyone else who is capable of doing that. I don’t see any other character or person in Zanu PF that can take over from him. He was a very powerful person.”
Dabengwa said in the ’80s Mujuru told Vice-President Nkomo and President Mugabe to retire and allow his generation to take over. This, Dabengwa said, angered Nkomo who banged the table with his walking stick and told him he was “mad” to suggest such a thing.
Despite his resignation from the army and its top post in the ’90s, Mujuru remained one of the most powerful men in Zimbabwe — one of the most feared because he knew the movement’s innermost secrets.
University of Zimbabwe lecturer and political analyst Eldred Masunungure said the death of Mujuru was likely to shake Zanu PF down to grassroots level and further weaken the party.
“The dynamics of power will change. It will depend on whether his faction has a successor to step into his shoes. His wife is the natural heiress. Even if the power shifts, that faction will continue to exist, but its strength will now depend on who takes over,” he said.