Wednesday, October 03, 2007

You won't have Bob Mugabe to kick around anymore

Stop me if you've heard this before, but Robert Mugabe's career in politics looks like it may be coming to an abrupt end. If Zimbabwe were a normal country, they would have voted out a leader who has managed to single handedly ruin the economy and send a quarter of the population into exile, but that's just not how dictatorships work, now is it?

Mugabe's main method of retaining power has been the most effective tool of the African big man - cronyism. Over the years, Mugabe has, by and large anyway, eschewed the iron fist in favor of the velvet glove that offered potential political enemies a way into the ruling party to grab a share in the earnings from corruption. It's a classic strategy, and one that's proved to be extremely effective. The only problem is, what happens when the ruling political class runs out of money to steal, and people to extort bribes from? Robert Mugabe has been discovering the answer, and it isn't pretty.

Since independence, Mugabe has held a firm grip on the ruling ZANU-PF party, making quite sure never to let any single person rise through the ranks to the point where anyone would consider him or her to be "next in line". Yet because of Zimbabwe's economic implosion, a challenger within ZANU-PF has thrown down the gauntlet. A political faction within ZANU-PF led by retired General Solomon Mujuru has found itself engaging in a power struggle with the octogenarian Mugabe. So what's their beef?

Mugabe has insisted on running for reelection in 2008, and while he's hinted that he may step down if elected, he's also said that he intends to rule Zimbabwe until "at least" 2010. The Mujuru faction, on the other hand, is apparently insisting that Mugabe retire as soon as possible, which would lead the way for either Solomon or his wife Joyce to take control of ZANU-PF, which would lead the Mujurus just one more rigged election away from taking control of the country. Mugabe, of course, doesn't want to hear it, and he's attempting to fight back. Mugabe has ordered the state run press to insult the Mujuru faction, and has forbidden any "flattering" coverage of the Mujurus. Simultaneously, he's ordered the same outlets to provide extremely flattering coverage of Emmerson Mnangagwa, a politician who has fallen in and out favor with Mugabe, but who leads yet another ZANU-PF faction hostile to the Mujurus. Unfortunately for Mugabe, however, the press has very little influence on decision making inside the Zimbabwean politburo, and Mnangagwa's proximity to Mugabe is seen as little more than a crippling political liability.

Ominously for Mugabe, Solomon Mujuru appears to have gained supporters from the armed services, which is the only political faction Mugabe cannot afford to alienate. After squashing an alleged coup back in June, rumors abound that the Mujuru faction has reached out to the army, promising a greater role in government in exchange for their political support in the struggle with Mugabe. Nobody has been able to ascertain if the army backs the Mujurus, or if they will, as is also rumored, launch a coup if Mugabe is pushed out. As the only state institution capable of providing the muscle to prop up the government, the Army's political support has become the brass ring Harare's kleptocrats are flailing away at.

Now 83 years old, Mugabe is increasingly showing signs of frailty, and that he now lacks the physical and political vigor that sustained him during his most intense political challenges. The sharks are circling the lifeboat, and frankly, it's impossible to see how Mugabe is going to win that elusive final term to secure his "legacy" in politics. This isn't to say that the ZANU-PF predators looking to oust Mugabe will be any better for Zimbabwe's exhausted population of paupers, but I'm having a hard time imagining any scenario where Mugabe can outwit, or outmaneuver, them for much longer.

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