Mugabe: Between the wife and the loyal lieutenant

Robert Mugabe made the wrong choice that cost him the presidency. But this could turn for the better for Zimbabwe.

FILE PHOTO: President Robert Mugabe listens to his wife Grace Mugabe at a rally of his ruling ZANU(PF) party in Harare
Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, at a rally in Harare [File: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]

After 37 years in power, the curtain is surely closing on Robert Mugabe’s long reign as president of Zimbabwe. Today, although they insisted that they were not carrying out a coup, the military generals effectively took control of state power.

This came just two days after the top military leader, General Constantino Chiwenga, issued a statement that was highly critical of the Mugabe regime, declaring that it had failed. The statement told Mugabe that he had lost control of the ruling party and government and ominously warned that the military would not hesitate to step in and take “drastic measures”.

The general’s statement was prompted by last week’s controversial sacking of Mugabe’s vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was previously considered the leading contender to succeed the 93-year old president upon retirement. Mnangagwa has a close relationship with some members of the military, which is why they came to his defence following his sacking. It was Mnangagwa’s expulsion that brought the confrontation between Mugabe and the military.

However, Mnangagwa and Mugabe were not always enemies. Mnangagwa, the younger man in the relationship, had served Mugabe loyally for a very long time, first as a special assistant during the war to liberate Zimbabwe, which Mugabe led in the 1970s, and later as a minister and vice president in independent Zimbabwe.

Before his sacking, he was one of the only two ministers in the government who had been in Mugabe’s cabinet since 1980. Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s enforcer, carrying out the more unpleasant tasks, first as state security minister, then as justice minister and as vice president. In the ruling ZANU-PF party, Mnangagwa was, for a long time, in charge of party finances. He was known to be loyal to Mugabe. So how then did the two men fall out?

Mugabe’s young wife, Grace, developed her own ambitions to succeed him. This placed her into direct conflict with Mnangagwa, who had waited in the wings for a long time, hoping that one day he would succeed his boss.

For his part, Mugabe was faced with a choice between his wife and his long-time lieutenant. He chose his wife, which immediately brought him into conflict with his subordinate. A bad situation only got worse when Mugabe fired Mnangagwa last week.

This type of military intervention is not new, and Mugabe has no right to complain.


This came after Mnangagwa had been humiliated by the First Lady. When Grace became aggressive and treated Mnangagwa with contempt, Mugabe did not restrain her. Instead, he backed her and also attacked Mnangagwa before he fired him. This escalated the crisis.

Ironically, it is this move to sack Mnangagwa that has boomeranged on Mugabe and now threatens to cause an ignominious end to his long and controversial political career. His top military general, Chiwenga, has chosen his subordinate ahead of him.

It is yet another instance of the military intervening in civilian politics, although this is prohibited by the constitution. However, this type of military intervention is not new, and Mugabe has no right to complain. The difference is that this intervention is against Mugabe. In the past, it has favoured him.


For example, back in 2002, the military generals took a political position to support Mugabe while prejudicing his bitter rival Morgan Tsvangirai, who they regarded as lacking liberation credentials. This was repeated in the following elections. In the aftermath of Tsvangirai’s victory in 2008, the military also intervened, ensuring that Mugabe recovered lost ground through a brutal campaign especially in the rural areas. This allowed him to keep power against all odds.

So the irony is that while Mugabe has survived by virtue of the backing he has received from the military, he is now on the verge of losing power, pressured by the very same military.

In a normal society, people would be outraged by a military takeover. But Zimbabwe at the moment is far from normality. Zimbabweans have had to carry the burden of misrule from the Mugabe regime since 1980. They have been violated and frustrated. Their efforts to change government and try new approaches have been foiled. In recent years, even the once-vibrant opposition has become tired and started squabbling due to fatigue and frustration.

It seemed like Mugabe would stay in power until death. Social and economic conditions have not been improving. They have only been getting worse. The country has no national currency, and of late, there have been serious cash shortages. Unemployment is more than 90 percent. Most young people have one ambition: to leave the country as soon as they can.

In these conditions, people have said any change, whichever way it comes, is good. This is why most Zimbabweans seem to have welcomed the military intervention. It is not because they like military rule. Rather, it is because it is a form of change from the one-man rule system which was threatening to become dynastic rule. The mantra has been: anything but Mugabe. That there may be problems with military rule is not an immediate concern. It’s something they are prepared to confront as it comes.


And what now for Mugabe? There will be negotiations aimed at giving him a dignified exit. As for his wife, she may only be spared out of deference to Mugabe. But what happens to her after Mugabe’s departure is anybody’s guess. She made far too many enemies during her short political career. Her allies in her faction will also pay the price for their conduct. They also became haughty and arrogant. They celebrated too soon, well before the war was over.

The succession race was brutal and caused bad blood between the factions. Now, however, they are detained. It’s important of course that they are treated humanely and that they get due process in line with the constitution. But the faction that is now in power will most likely choose vengeance, making sure that the losing faction is totally and completely annihilated.

As for the victors, their challenge is multi-faced: they must ensure the restoration of the constitutional order, they must heal a divided party and nation, they must create an environment that will bring the country back to a free democracy, they ought to work on mending international relations especially with the West and, uppermost in the minds of most people, they must fix the economy.

This is a mammoth task, and they would do well to harness the pool of talent that is at the country’s disposal. Zimbabwe has opened a new, if uncertain, chapter. It will need all the help it can get from its friends.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.