The military demands seek to reinstate former Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa as first vice president and then as leader of a transitional administration.
According to an army statement broadcast on Zimbabwe state television on Friday, “significant progress” has been made in mediation talks aimed at ending Mugabe’s military house arrest.
Mugabe is still resistant to demands to resign, but increasing internal calls from war veterans and the army could see Mugabe bringing Mnangagwa back into the fold and a possible end to the temporary takeover.
However, discussions are still in the early stages, according to army officials, and consideration of a power transition as Mugabe’s presidential term draws to a close remains a major sticking point he has refused to concede to.
Mnangagwa, who earned the nickname “Ngwena” (Crocodile) from his youth as a member of the 1960s Crocodile Gang that waged acts of anti-colonial resistance against the white minority regime of the time. The moniker gained popularity as his political shrewdness has seen him survive seemingly dire situations.
The Lacoste Zanu PF faction – aligned with Mnangagwa and named after the French designer label with a crocodile logo – seems to have been rejuvenated by the army’s intervention after it appeared First Lady Grace Mugabe was tipped to take over Mnangagwa’s vacant post.
Upping the call
As diplomatic talks over Mugabe’s future leadership continue at home and in the region, Lacoste youths – both current and expelled Zanu PF members – have upped the call for Mugabe to step down and allow Mnangagwa to become party and national president.
William Gerald Lumumba Mutumanje (popularly known as Acie Lumumba), an expelled youth leader who has sworn off Mugabe, insists “the Crocodile” must rule.
In a video that has received over 75,000 Facebook views in its first hours of posting and continues to spread via WhatsApp, Zimbabwe’s most popular social media platform, Lumumba calls on Zimbabweans to march on Saturday.
He calls for people to gather in support of the military action and in solidarity with the war veterans’ call for the 93-year-old to pass power on.
“On Saturday the 18th of November every Zimbabwean find yourselves to the so-called Robert Mugabe square, find yourself there, bring your flag, carry it, because on Saturday we are going to make sure we support the military, they have done their part,” he implores.
Once allies, the war veterans fell out with Mugabe over a year ago for calling on him to appoint Mnangagwa his successor.
To step up their challenge to Mugabe, the former liberation fighters plan to gather on Saturday to launch a revolutionary council to set out a new vision for Zanu PF that sees Mnangagwa taking over the movement. Victor Matemadanda, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, told Al Jazeera Mnangagwa he feels it’s time for Mugabe to “do the honourable thing” and pass the baton on.
“Mugabe has betrayed our struggle over the years, and this time he has to go. He cannot hold the whole country ransom, and as war veterans, we won’t allow him to do that,” he said.
The ‘generals’ reward’
McDonald Lewanika, a political analyst and activist, told Al Jazeera he expects that if Mugabe is eventually allowed an “honourable exit”, questions over Zimbabwe and Zanu PF’s future leadership would need to be settled through a legitimate process.
He points out under the current constitution, should Mugabe eventually step down the first vice president would take over as interim leader for 90 days. But for that to happen, Mnangagwa would first need to be reappointed by Mugabe.
At this stage, it’s unclear if Mugabe will reinstate his deputy, but if he does, Lewanika says, the ruling party’s upcoming extraordinary congress slated for December could become a victors’ party.
The analyst says Zanu PF’s special congress, which was meant to be a “coronation” for First Lady Grace Mugabe who prior to the military action received party endorsements for the vice presidency, could potentially see both Mnangagwa and army leader, General Constantino Chiwenga handsomely rewarded.
“The Zanu PF congress scheduled for December will go ahead, so if a transition process is in place by then and the party is ‘allowed’ to elect a new leader, this will make the appointment of Mnangagwa legitimate.
“This could possibly result in the former Vice President opting for a zero-sum transition where the ‘winners’ take all the spoils, and the generals are rewarded,” said Lewanika.
A Crocodile waiting in the wings?
Alex Magaisa, a law professor and former adviser to former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai who has written extensively on Mnangagwa’s relationship with Mugabe, told Al Jazeera the time had come for the oft-reserved Ngwena to show his leadership qualities.
“Now his challenge is to demonstrate leadership. If his challenge was stifled under Mugabe’s wings, this is his chance to shine. He comes with a nasty reputation, and he must work hard to cleanse himself,” he said.
Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former prison mate, has held a cabinet post in the authoritarian regime since 1980. Magaisa describes Mnangagwa as having been Mugabe’s loyal “water carrier” who has done Mugabe’s bidding in various posts as minister of state security, minister of justice and speaker of parliament.
In these positions, Mnangagwa, a trained lawyer, has overseen intelligence and security operations that have caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
Mnangagwa’s reputation is tarnished by being minister of state security as he headed the Joint High Command (JHC), an organ that oversaw the army and the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO).
Operations by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade army unit and CIO in the south-western Matabeleland and Midlands regions resulted in the ethnic massacre of at least 20,000 people in the 1980s.
Although Mnangagwa has denied responsibility for the mass killings, he is seen as key player in the atrocities known as the Gukurahundi massacres.
Within the party, Mnangagwa served as Zanu PF’s chief election agent in the 2008 presidential elections while in the government he served as head of the Joint Operations Command (JOC), a modified version of the JHC.
In this dual role, Mnangagwa organised Mugabe’s re-election campaign in a presidential poll and runoff that resulted in the deaths of close to 200 opposition supporters and allegations of grave violations documented by international rights groups.
During his three-year tenure as vice president, Mnangagwa has tried to recast his image with both the local business community, where he has many wealthy allies, and the international community where he’s seen as a ‘reformist’.
He also spearheaded Zimbabwe’s reintegration after years of isolation by the international community.
He has led delegations to China, Belarus, Russia, South Africa and Western Europe where he has signed major trade deals on behalf of Zimbabwe.
To diplomats, as to much of Zimbabwe, the 75-year-old appears to be the man who might actually succeed Mugabe, and if a favourable deal to end the military takeover can be negotiated, the popular Crocodile may yet have his turn at the throne.
Tendai Marima is journalist in Harare. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @i_amten