He has held onto power for 38 years, ruined anyone in his way, and engrossed himself while his own people starved. However, Robert Mugabe isn’t getting any younger. At 93, he is the world’s oldest head of state. Rumours of ill health have been rife for years, from terminal cancer to general old age. For many years, Mugabe would often rebound not long after, once even joking he had been resurrected. However, recent issues, such as shaving his head and trademark toothcomb moustache and struggling to walk up a flight of stairs, has begun to concern many Zimbabweans of all persuasions. Particularly as Zimbabwe is a year out from an election, if he were to die, many fear it could spark internal fighting.
Zimbabwe is officially in campaign mode. The election, though not due until the end of July next year, is widely expected to bring a change in power for the first time since 1980. The Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, is in the best position to win the presidency since the 2008 campaign. Though seen as a Mugabe lackey for his part in a power-sharing government in an effort to bring peace, his public perception has mostly been rehabilitated.
What is even worse for Mugabe is the fact that many former loyalists have defected. The most prominent, Joice Mujuru, the former Vice President and widow of the late Solomon Mujuru, president of the powerful Zimbabwean National Liberation War Veterans Association, founded her own political party, Zimbabwe First. Recently, she signed a memorandum of understanding with Tsvangirai with the sole intent of removing Mugabe democratically.
This coalition has been extremely active as of late, one of their bigger campaigns is to encourage young Zimbabweans to enrol to vote in an effort to counter the expected and largely customary practice of ballot stuffing. It is also a wise move, considering that Zimbabwean youth are largely disenchanted with the current administration, a fact revealed by Pastor Evan Marawire’s #ThisFlag campaign.
Come the morning of August 1, 2018, it can be expected that Morgan Tsvangirai will be the next president of Zimbabwe. But what if, and it is not a big if, that Mugabe dies anytime between now and the election?
Aside from the expected mourning period and the customary lavish funeral expected for an anti-colonialist revolutionary and current head of state, one can expect the end result to be bleak.
One of the biggest problems Mugabe has is that he lacks an appropriate succession plan. To maintain power, he has intimidated, jailed and killed anyone whom he feels is a threat to his rule. From Josiah Tongogora to Joshua Nkomo, these potential leaders were dealt with in a manner Mugabe felt necessary. Others, such as Mujuru, were accused of internal treachery and expelled from ZANU-PF. His only real option is his wife, Grace Mugabe, whom many Zimbabweans have compared to Marie Antoinette. Preferring to be surrounded by yes men rather than competent prodigies has extended his rule but at the expense of the stability of his nation.
Constitutionally, it is expected that First Vice-President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, will be sworn in, and shall hold that post until Mugabe’s term expires. In the corridors of ZANU-PF headquarters, on the other hand, it can be expected there will be a power struggle. Grace Mugabe has in recent year’s displayed her credentials as a possible leader, her popularity increasing within the party. However, Mnangagwa, who is known for his links with the security forces, would certainly not come quietly.
Historically, power struggles in Zimbabwe and its previous entity, Rhodesia, have been bloody. There was the internal battle between ZANU and ZAPU whilst both were fighting against minority rule at the same time. Then there was the Gukurahundi massacre, the aim to secure Mugabe’s power. While such comparisons may seem fanciful just yet, it cannot be ruled out. If it were to degenerate into such a battle, Zimbabwe would be a no-go zone for investment. The little money it receives would dry up, and the economy would collapse. If the 2008 crisis was bad, this would be an absolute disaster. It would be expected that the Southern African Development Commission, the African Union and, depending on the severity, the United Nations may become involved.
All this may not happen. Mugabe may live on beyond 2018 and even engage in a transition of power. However, it is not to be guaranteed. The man is slowing down and, though every report of ill health should be taken with a grain of salt, a sudden death cannot be ruled out. What it does mean is that once the throne is vacant with no clear throne, it’s anyone’s guess. Whoever finally gets it, however, will have to deal with rebuilding the mess Mugabe has left behind.