Mugabe's Oldest Allies Fear Ousting Him Could See Them Sidelined

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Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace

Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace attend the Inauguration Mass for Pope Francis in St Peter's Square on March 19, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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President Robert Mugabe’s oldest allies favor letting the 91-year-old remain in office indefinitely rather than trying to oust him even as Zimbabwe’s economy collapses, members of the decision-making body of the ruling party said.

While frustrated by his resistance to changes needed to rescue the economy, they’re concerned that if pushed out of office he would place allies, including his wife and younger politicians, at the head of government, sidelining them, three members of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front’s politburo said. They asked not to be identified because the discussions aren’t public.

Doubts about Mugabe’s competence surfaced last month when he read the wrong speech at the opening of parliament without realizing he had delivered the same address a few weeks earlier. While Zimbabwe’s economy is stagnating, with slumping consumer demand pushing the country into deflation and 83 percent of government expenditure going on civil servant wages, Mugabe this year reversed decisions by his ministers to cancel state worker bonuses and trim the capital’s workforce by 5,000 people.

“Given the level of factionalism in ZANU-PF, there is no force strong enough to oust him,” Mark Rosenberg, Africa director at New York-based Eurasia Group, said by phone from Johannesburg. “If he doesn’t die in office and he steps down beforehand, he will try to control the process as much as possible and will probably succeed.”

The southern African nation faces its worst economic crisis since its virtual collapse in 2008, when it experienced shortages of fuel and staple foods and inflation soared to 500 billion percent, prompting the government to abandon its currency in favor of the use of foreign exchange including the U.S. dollar in early 2009. City residents are now subjected to power cuts between 4 a.m. and 10 p.m. on an almost daily basis and revenue of companies ranging from fast food outlet operators to beermakers and sausage producers has slumped, deepening deflation which has now persisted for 10 consecutive months. Prices fell 2.8 percent in August.

"We’re being taken to a very, very low point,” Harare-based economist John Robertson said in an interview. “No one seems able to announce policies that may provide at least partial relief for fear of being contradicted by the president."

Liberation War

While Mugabe promoted one liberation-war era colleague Emmerson Mnangagwa, 69, to the post of vice president at a December conference, he sidelined another, ousting former vice president Joice Mujuru, 60, from the party along with some of his oldest allies such as Didymus Mutasa, 80, a former speaker of parliament and cabinet minister.

Mujuru fought in the war against white-minority Rhodesia and served in Mugabe’s first cabinet in 1980 at the age of 24. She was married to Solomon Mujuru, the one-time Zimbabwean military commander who died in a fire in 2011.

At the same congress Mugabe’s wife Grace, 41 years younger than her husband, was given the post of head of the party’s women’s league, entitling her to a politburo seat, while members of a group known as Generation-40, cemented their positions. Among the most notable G-40 members are Local Government Minister Saviour Kasukuwere and Youth, Indigenization and Empowerment Minister Patrick Zhuwao. The group derives its name from the fact that most of its members are in their 40s and played no role in the war.

Zanu-PF and Mugabe have dealt with, and manipulated, power struggles since he unilaterally took control of the party in 1975 after the assassination of Herbert Chitepo in Zambia. The latest, though, worries the old guard because Mugabe is increasingly frail, often needing help to walk. Should he realize his frailty, they say, he may decide to empower his wife’s G-40 allies.

G-40 members including Kasukuwere have urged party supporters at rallies to chant, in the Shona language “Munhu wese kuna amai,” which translates as everyone back mother, a reference to Grace.

A failure to suppress the G-40 could hinder an economic recovery and prompt the defection of voters to a new party planned by Mujuru or the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, the people said. The lifestyles of the group, which include mansions and sports cars, make them unpopular in a nation where about 72.3 percent of the people live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the United Nations Development Program.

For her part, Grace must win over the military, a task complicated by the fact that she has no struggle credentials. Both Mnangagwa and Joice Mujuru have the credentials and support in the army and air force. Should Mugabe die in office, generals are likely to stick with what they know, the politburo officials said.

Should Mugabe promote his wife to a more powerful position than head of the party’s Women’s League, Mnangagwa and Joice Mujuru would face a greater threat. The military won’t readily contradict Mugabe while he’s alive, the officials said. Such a move might give Grace Mugabe and the G-40 a chance to oust Mnangagwa in a similar manner to the exit of Mujuru from the party, they said. Mujuru was accused of plotting to assassinate Mugabe, an allegation she denies.

(An earlier version was corrected as Grace Mugabe’s age was incorrect.)

— With assistance by Antony Sguazzin

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