Harare, Zimbabwe - He's known as the "Crocodile" for his political cunning and the former security chief with strong ties to the military and intelligence apparatus may have the inside track to replace Zimbabwe's long-ruling President Robert Mugabe. 

Mugabe named Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, 68, as one of two new vice presidents in a shake-up following the sacking of the former vice president Joice Mujuru - once viewed as Mugabe's heir apparent - and eight ministers this week. 

On Friday, a swearing-in ceremony was held for the new Zimbabwean officials. Phekezela Mphoko, a veteran diplomat, was the other new Mugabe deputy sworn in the capital, Harare.

Mujuru had served as Mugabe's deputy for the past 10 years and was the odds-on favourite to succeed the 90-year-old Mugabe before her dismissal on Monday. Mugabe accused Mujuru of being a "witch", a "thief", and "simplistic", alleging she had been scheming to assassinate him.

Former fighter

Mnangagwa - an ex-guerrilla fighter who spent a decade in colonial jails with Mugabe for fighting the white minority government - has long been seen as a possible successor. He was frequently at the president's side during critical moments of Mugabe's long, often tumultuous rule, and held important posts such as minister of state security, defence and finance, as well as speaker of parliament.

His decision to dismiss Vice President Joice Mujuru, seen to be a force for moderation, risks sparking further instability in the country.

- Jenai Cox, Freedom House


The new vice president had harsh words for his predecessor, referring in a speech to "the corrupt tendencies of vice president Joice Mujuru and her treacherous cabal of counter-revolutionaries and quislings".

On Sunday, Zanu-PF, Mugabe's party, unanimously endorsed the president as its candidate in the 2018 elections. But the elderly Mugabe, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1980, has been plagued by ill health. In recent years, Mugabe has shuttled between Zimbabwe and Singapore for medical attention - ostensibly for cataracts - and if he were unable to complete his term in office, the vice president would take over.

"I am here for as long as I am still sane, with good memory and will power," Mugabe said in his closing remarks to the 6th Zanu-PF National People's Congress last Sunday.

"I thank God for giving me extra strength. I still have a bright mind; I still have will. I know our history more than you do. I know the wishes of those heroes and those who lie elsewhere more than you do. I know the wishes of the chiefs, dead and alive."

Assassination attempt

Mugabe announced on Wednesday that an attempt had already been made on Mnangagwa's life.

"The office of Mnangagwa was broken into last night, and poisonous powder spread all over the desk and so on," the president said. "That powder, which when the door opens, there is that flash of air, would be blown up and then he would breathe it."

But his secretary opened the door instead, inhaled the air, and is now in an intensive care unit in a Harare hospital, he said.

"For what? What wrong have we done? Why? Why, why, why?" Mugabe thundered while pounding the podium with his clenched fist to loud gasps from Zanu-PF's 300-member central committee. 

"I am just warning you that it's not always those who smile at us who are our friends," Mugabe added.

Charity Charamba, Zimbabwe's chief police spokeswoman, told state TV that members of the police's special unit had attended the scene and obtained evidence that might identify the poison and the perpetrators of the offence. 

"Two people were affected by the poison and are presently in hospital," she said. "Their condition is stable. We condemn the unlawful acts and once identified, perpetrators will face the full wrath of the law." 

Hardliner reputation

Mnangagwa served as Zimbabwe's state security minister in the 1980s, during Mugabe's crackdown on an uprising in the country's Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.

The so-called Gukurahundi massacres, carried out by a crack military unit trained by North Korean military advisers, resulted in the killings of 30,000 people, according to an estimate by the rights group Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe. 

A lawyer by profession, Mnangagwa has a reputation as a hardliner and was Mugabe's chief election agent in the 2008 and 2013 elections, both of which were tainted by violence and accusations of ballot fraud. Mnangagwa's combative defence of Mugabe's nationalism and socialism made him a favoured protégé.

Mugabe also named former Zipra military commander and seasoned diplomat Phekezela Mphoko as second vice president of the ruling party and of the state. A career diplomat, the little-known Mphoko's last posting was in neighbouring South Africa.
Grace Mugabe smiles after being confirmed as leader of Zanu PF's powerful Women's League [AP]

Meanwhile, Mugabe's wife Grace, 49, has risen to head the Zanu-PF party's Women's League after levelling a raft of graft allegations against Mujuru.

After his appointment, Mnangagwa stood on the stage at congress and gave a barn-burner of a speech in classic Mugabe style. He shouted until his voice gave out, swore an oath of loyalty to the revolution, and blasted its opponents.

Mnangagwa, who depicts Mugabe's socialist government as a protector of the masses against an evil capitalist West, told journalists on Wednesday he felt "humbled that I have been given this honour to serve our beloved Zimbabwe as vice president".

Asked whether the purge would weaken the party, a beaming Mnangagwa responded: "The revolution has a way of strengthening itself. It goes through cycles. This is another cycle where it rids itself of elements that had now become inconsistent with the correct line."

'Troubling' for democracy

Freedom House - a non-government organisation that advocates for democracy - expressed concerns about the developments in Zimbabwe.

"The re-election of President Mugabe as president of Zanu-PF is troubling for the democratic process in Zimbabwe," said Jenai Cox, Freedom House's programme manager for Africa. "His decision to dismiss Vice President Joice Mujuru, seen to be a force for moderation, risks sparking further instability in the country."
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Piers Pigou, southern African director of the International Crisis Group, said economic problems such as deflation and a scarcity of hard cash remain a debilitating factor that can only be surmounted by major reforms. 

"We have yet to see how these developments will enhance the economic recovery project, but I can't see too many folk holding their breath in the circumstances," Pigou told Al Jazeera.

He added it was unlikely the vanquished ministers will have the courage to form their own party. "Some allege that the actions taken have alienated a massive section of the party," said Pigou, "not only purged and related leadership, but also the rank and file".

"We need to see what these developments mean for control of resources, institutions and processes... While the purges have certainly led to a reconfiguration of politics within Zanu-PF… this may not translate into a reconfiguration of Zimbabwean politics more generally."

Source: Al Jazeera