The death of a top Zimbabwean army general in a bizarre fire has changed the dynamics in internal Zanu PF battles over President Robert Mugabe’s succession, but analysts said the issue remained unsettled and could lead to some bruising battles ahead.
Retired General Solomon Mujuru, a key figure in President Mugabe’s party for nearly four decades, was, according to authorities, burnt to ashes when his farmhouse caught fire.
This official version, suggesting the authorities did not suspect foul play although police were still probing the death, has sparked rumours the general was murdered.
Mujuru (67) popularly known by his guerrilla name, Rex Nhongo, was married to Vice-President Joice Mujuru, and was deputy-head of Zanla in the 70s and the country’s first black army commander.
Many saw him as a strongman able to stand up to President Mugabe (87) who has led Zimbabwe for over 30 years.
Mujuru headed a Zanu PF faction which wanted his wife to succeed President Mugabe as party and state president, jostling against another faction led by Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Recently, rumours surfaced that the general was pressing President Mugabe to step down and that Zanu PF faction also courted the main MDC-T party of rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai for a possible coalition after general elections likely to be held in the next two years.
Political analysts saw the Mujuru faction as the moderate wing of a party whose current political and economic policies were driven by hardliners who helped Mugabe’s fightback to power in a disputed poll in 2008.
“There is no doubt that Mujuru’s death is a major blow to his faction, and could be a game changer in the succession saga,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.
“There is nobody in his faction with his stature, his political pedigree and his courage to rally support for his wife and to cut political deals,” he told Reuters.
Masunungure said an outbreak of political infighting could now be expected because there were other Zanu PF figures eyeing President Mugabe’s position besides Vice-President Joice Mujuru and Mnangagwa, for years regarded as President Mugabe’s preferred successor.
Over the last few months, a number of local media reports dismissed by government officials have suggested the current army commander, General Constantine Chiwenga, has presidential ambitions.
The National Constitutional Assembly chairperson Lovemore Madhuku said President Mugabe is likely to have a big say on his eventual successor and may use Mujuru’s death to take a hard look at problems in his party.
“I think (President) Mugabe is going to have a big say on how this will all end, because although his critics say he is a big liability he is also a big asset in Zanu PF because he wields authority, and is a renowned strategist,” he said.
Mnangagwa, a secretive political figure known as “the crocodile,” has worked with President Mugabe since the 1960s when he was jailed as a teenager after training as a guerrilla fighter and being captured by Rhodesian forces during a botched operation.
In public, Mnangagwa denies he has any ambition for the presidency, but many say President Mugabe had tended to gravitate towards his longtime personal assistant for his toughness, his temperament and his loyalty.
Analysts say President Mugabe had probably maintained the balance of power in Zanu PF by playing one faction against the other but his advancing age, the threat posed by Tsvangirai and the MDC-T and Mujuru’s tragic death could push him to resolve the thorny succession issue.
Although he remains Zanu PF’s presidential candidate, President Mugabe may not cope with the pace of an election campaign, especially if the poll is held in two years’ time, when he is 89 years old.
President Mugabe was forced into a coalition government with the MDC two years ago after disputed elections and the two are still haggling over democratic reforms and the timing of fresh polls.
Tsvangirai had expressed fears over hardline Zanu PF elements, but had appeared to warm to Mujuru over the years.
Many say top Zanu PF officials, including second Vice-President John Nkomo, State Security minister Sydney Sekeramayi and Zanu PF national chairman Simon Khaya Moyo, also saw themselves as possible successors to President Mugabe.
“The game is definitely not over, and we may see some bloody confrontations before we see the winner,” Masunungure said.