Harare, Zimbabwe - Vice President Joice Mujuru has been ousted from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front's powerful Central Committee, raising the spectre that she could be deprived of political power in the government.

Mujuru lost her Central Committee bid on Wednesday after a provincial executive committee rejected her nomination papers, the first time in Zimbabwean history that a vice president had ever been elbowed out of a party election while holding that position.

Mujuru has long been a leading contender to succeed the current president, 90-year-old Robert Mugabe, but the ouster signals she has fallen from grace, insiders say, and marks one of the most stunning upsets in the ruling party's 51-year-old political history. 

Mugabe's wife, first lady Grace Mugabe, has been accused of launching a purge of Mujuru's closest supporters within the ruling Zanu PF in a bid to stymie the VP's challenge to President Mugabe. Zanu PF's elective congress is scheduled in the capitol Harare on December 2.

Mujuru was widely regarded as a potential successor within the party, but analysts see the crusade against her as meant to neutralise her as a threat. Grace Mugabe is rising to the top ranks of Zanu PF, amid suspicion that Mugabe could be grooming his wife to eventually succeed him.

Purging challengers

Nine out of 10 Zanu PF provincial chairpersons allegedly linked to Mujuru have been fired after a vote of no-confidence and replaced with what observers have called friendly, if not pliable, comrades loyal to the first lady.

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Mujuru's ouster marks an abrupt end to her slow rise through the Zanu PF leadership, a path that many expected would make her the first female president in Zimbabwean history. Formerly a guerrilla who went by the name "Spill Blood" in the liberation war that ushered in Zimbabwe's black majority rule in 1980 after a bitter bush war against the white-led minority government, Mujuru, 59, is the widow of the late liberation war hero Solomon Mujuru.

It is perhaps the most significant jolt to the establishment since the start of a crusade spearheaded by Grace Mugabe and the state-controlled media, which has openly accused Mujuru of "corruption, fanning factionalism and treason". Mugabe's wife has also accused Mujuru of plotting to assassinate the president, who turns 91 in February.

While Mujuru has not commented on her loss in the Central Committee, which essentially dethrones her as Mugabe's deputy in the party, she has staunchly denied the graft and high treason accusations. 

"I stand ready to defend myself before the party, and in any court of law on any of the allegations made against me, at any time, in accordance with the laws of Zimbabwe," Mujuru said in a November 16 letter published in privately owned Zimbabwean newspapers, the Daily News and Newsday. Mujuru has described the charges as "malicious, defamatory and irresponsible". 

Mujuru has been accused of breaching party discipline by allegedly leading a faction to succeed Mugabe, who was controversially re-elected as Zimbabwe's president last year in July amid accusations of ballot fraud by the local opposition. 

One source, who talked to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, claimed aides to the Zimbabwean president "contrived" the recent "false claims" of an assassination plot allegedly engineered by key Mujuru allies to undermine her credibility as a potential future Zanu PF leader.

Many Zimbabweans say she should take over the leadership because of her outstanding contribution in the liberation war, business acumen, and wide social base.

'Watching from the terraces'

In the past several weeks, senior aides loyal to Mujuru, including spokesman Rugare Gumbo, have been fired after an alleged intelligence sting recording, in which he is allegedly heard saying Mugabe needed to stop the vicious attacks on Mujuru, otherwise the president himself would be removed from power. 

Gumbo, who was suspended for five years last week in a closed-door meeting of Zanu PF's politburo, said Mugabe accused him of plotting against his leadership.

"It was the president himself who accused us of plotting to overthrow him," Gumbo said. "We will be watching from the terraces."

Gumbo and the Zanu PF party's administration secretary are also accused of masterminding a plot to assassinate Mugabe by hiring Israeli and South African hit-men, according to the state media.

Grace Mugabe has used nationwide rallies to slam members of the Mujuru faction's alleged disloyalty to her husband and has employed a bitter mix of threats, vitriol and caustic diatribes at her rivals in the VP's camp.

With Justice Minister Emerson Mnangagwa locked in a perpetual succession duel with Mujuru, the Chirimanzu-Zibagwe MP has allegedly used backing from the first lady to consolidate his bid to take over from Mugabe, but the veteran Zanu PF leader has not specified a successor and has recently ruled out both "contenders".

The campaign has been marked by unrestrained attacks on Mujuru, yet spared the rod on the Mnangagwa faction, even though she claims to be wholly against factionalism.

Analysts not only view Grace Mugabe's use of state resources - including a helicopter and mini-motorcade - as a symbolic show of proximity to power, but that she is a contender for the presidency. She has also been nominated to head Zanu PF's Women League.

On the campaign trail, she has prefaced her speeches with "God says", or "Baba [Mugabe] wants". She has accused top Zanu PF officials of widening divisions in the faction-torn party by manoeuvring to replace the former guerrilla leader, and called on the Mujuru faction to let the doddering Zanu PF leader "finish his job".

"Mrs Mugabe's role is to say the unsayable and finger the untouchables. She has nothing to lose and things will not be the same again after her decisive intervention," UK-based Zimbabwean scholar and political analyst George Shire said. "Those who think she has other ambitions miss the point."

Mugabe has shown that he can manipulate people and institutionalise processes when it is to his advantage.

- McDonald Lewanika, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition

Raising eyebrows

Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London, said the attacks on Mujuru, especially those by Grace Mugabe, raised eyebrows in western capitals, but the purge of her allies from the politburo came as a complete surprise. 

"At this moment in time, no one is any longer seeking to predict the future," Chan told Al Jazeera. "The West had hoped for a pluralistic and open-minded Zanu PF to emerge from the party congress. The signs seem against that now."

McDonald Lewanika, the director of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a conglomeration of more than 350 civic society organisations, said Mugabe is looking beyond Mujuru for his successor.

"Mnangagwa is far from assured from taking over, and may soon realise that Grace, if she is a monster, may come to devour him, too," Lewanika said. "Besides, Mnangagwa cannot operate under the false pretence that Joice's ouster is his entry because through the current developments, Mugabe has shown that he can manipulate people and institutionalise processes when it is to his advantage."  

Sydney Sekeramayi has been a loyal member of the ruling party since the 1960s and has held high profile posts in the government. A medical doctor and a reserved person, Sekeramayi is being touted as a "dark horse" and one of the leading contenders to succeed Mugabe. Analysts claim he is favoured by the SADC sub-region, is less tainted by corruption and political chicanery.

"Although Sekeramayi has some international respect, I must say the West had hoped for a younger technocratic and open-minded generation," Lewanika said.

Piers Pigou, southern African director of the International Crisis Group, said Sekeremayi "may be someone who the various groupings can rally around, but this is pure speculation".

He said the attack on Mujuru did not mean Mnangagwa was a shoo-in. "I don't think this is clear assurance for Mnangagwa's takeover, although the latest developments have certainly strengthened his 'camp' significantly," Pigou said. 

"Mnangagwa's camp may be looking for accommodation with those pushing some manifestation of dynastic options; this may be an attempt to keep as many as possible within the fold. I see the push back from Mujuru's camp is limited and ousted chairs [are] declaring loyalty to the party."  

"Simply repeating Mugabe is the candidate and all roads are about the president and what he wants and not undermining him," Pigou said, "is a rather sad reflection of the paucity of ideas". 

Source: Al Jazeera