A stage-managed congress fails to tackle succession and factionalism: Is Zanu-PF digging its own grave?

Photo courtesy of mcdaniel.hu
Photo courtesy of mcdaniel.hu

By Sizo Nkala

Amidst questions of succession raised by his withering health, Zimbabwe’s 90 year-old president, Robert Mugabe, has enacted a mass purge of his own high-ranking officials, ostensibly to clear the way for his wife Grace to assume power after he goes. But all is not yet settled. Rather than consolidating power, Mugabe’s actions have created an unsustainable level of division within the ruling party.

Zimbabwe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), held its much anticipated sixth national elective congress in December 2014. The quinquennial event is the most important on the calendar of the party since its inception in 1963, as it is where decisions on party leadership and policy are made.(2) This particular congress attracted widespread interest as it was viewed as a watershed moment with the potential to redefine Zanu-PF, and possibly the country’s political trajectory. At the crux of the hype was the issue of leadership succession for 90-year-old President Robert Mugabe – an issue the party was hard-pressed to address and could seemingly no longer evade. The scourge of factionalism that had permeated almost every facet of the party seemed to lend credence to these expectations. Somehow, the congress lived up to its billing with unprecedented spilling of political blood as mass purging of high-ranking officials – including the then vice president Joice Mujuru – was effected. However, on the main issue, the succession issue, it turned out to be another so-near-but-yet-so-far moment as President Robert Mugabe hastily effected constitutional amendments tightening his grip on the party and reinforcing the status quo.(3)

This paper sifts through the events prior to, during and after the Zanu-PF congress with a view to ascertaining how these may affect the party’s political fortunes in the future. The analysis opines that, all told, the unceremonious dismissal of key figures from the party, filling of vice president posts by appointment rather than by election and the centralisation of power in the presidency may not be politically sustainable in the long term. Moreover, the failure to unequivocally resolve the succession question leaves the party vulnerable to future factional fights.

Succession and factionalism: Zanu-PF’s double headache

Succession has been central to Zanu-PF politics since the late 1990s when economic turbulence set in, inciting mass unrest and eventually the birth of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).(4) This led to questions being raised regarding the sustainability of President Robert Mugabe’s leadership going forward by elements both within and outside the party. Since then, with the country plunging deep into economic crisis and President Mugabe’s political appeal slowly waning with his age, high ranking party officials have been angling for opportunities to succeed the veteran leader. The lack of a clear constitutional provision addressing leadership succession ignited tight competition amongst Zanu-PF heavyweights thus giving rise to rampant factionalism.(5) Consequently, over the years the undercurrents of the party’s politics have been coloured by factional scheming and counter-scheming.

The traditionally clandestine and opaque nature of Zanu-PF’s internal operations makes the analysis of its internal politics akin to solving a cryptic puzzle in a language one barely understands. The party has for a long time concealed any tensions and divisions within its ranks without giving away a great deal. There was, until now, little evidence of the existence of factions save for a few claims based largely on conjecture and hearsay. However, as the weight of the 2014 congress placed inordinate pressure on the party, factionalism was laid bare as party members openly attacked each other in the media.(6) Something President Mugabe, and recently his wife, Grace Mugabe, both publicly acknowledged and condemned on numerous occasions.(7) Factionalism was also the recurring theme of Grace Mugabe’s “Meet the People Tour” rallies around the country in the run up to the congress. The former vice president, Joice Mujuru, and her newly appointed successor Emerson Mnangagwa were widely fingered as the leaders of the respective factions.(8) The fight to succeed Mugabe reached a highpoint with the firing of Joice Mujuru and seven cabinet ministers believed to be supporting her just after the congress on 9 December.(9)

The road to the 2014 Congress: Piecing the puzzle

The succession marathon reached the homestretch soon after the July 2013 national elections in which Zanu-PF came out victorious against the opposition MDC. Afterward, attention quickly shifted to internal politics. Crucial events, whose outcome would have a significant bearing on the allocation of powerful posts, were set to take place shortly thereafter. First were the party’s provincial elections held in December 2013 in which members of the Provincial Coordinating Committees (PCCs) and the provincial chairpersons were elected. In order to have any chance of succeeding Mugabe or landing any post in the Presidium,(10) a candidate must secure nominations from at least six provinces.(11) Unsurprisingly then, the elections were marred by accusations of vote rigging and a poorly managed electoral process,(12) as the factions in the party fiercely competed to gain control of these positions to ensure their eligibility for any potential succession opportunities. In the end, candidates believed to be aligned with Vice President Mujuru won in nine of the ten provinces, giving her an upper hand in the succession race.(13) However, this advantage was overturned as the congress drew closer, with eight provincial chairpersons suspended from the party on allegations of promoting factionalism.(14)

Next up were the Women’s and Youth Leagues’ congresses in August 2014, which were also marred in controversy and infighting. The Women’s and Youth Leagues also have an influence on the composition of the Presidium as they are entitled to a substantial number of seats in the powerful National Central Committee (NCC). Again these conferences, especially the youth conference, were seized with factional manoeuvring.(15) The candidates who win the top posts in these organs are eligible for the politburo and also sit in the NCC which has a significant influence on the nomination of candidates to the Presidium. Candidates who won the crucial top ten posts at the youth congress are believed to be aligned to the Mujuru faction.(16) This gave her an edge over her rival.

The women’s conference yielded yet another surprise. The president’s wife, Grace Mugabe, was endorsed by the Women’s League to take over from the incumbent Oppah Muchinguri as the chairperson of the league. The ascendancy of the First Lady to the helm of the Women’s League heavily tilted the scales against Joice Mujuru.(17) Grace Mugabe openly accused vice-president Mujuru in one of her rallies of incompetence, corruption and secretly conniving with the opposition.(18) She even went so far as calling for Vice President Mujuru’s resignation. The next crucial stage before the December congress was the national central committee elections, which had been delayed time and again but were finally held just before the congress in the last week of November 2014.(19)

The elected provincial chairpersons having been ousted, these elections favoured the Mnangagwa-led faction over the Mujuru one. Joice Mujuru’s bid to secure her seat in the NCC suffered a major setback as it was turned down by the party structures in her province. Key party figures believed to be sympathetic to the Mujuru-led faction also fell by the wayside.(20) This being the case, the composition of the NCC, which is the highest decision making body after congress, was dominated by officials sympathetic to Emmerson Mnangagwa. With the benefit of hindsight regarding the succession race, Joice Mujuru was effectively eliminated at this point. The loss of her seat in the NCC rendered her ineligible for the vice presidency of the party and the state.

Succession and factionalism: The unfinished business

The 2014 congress was, in many ways, a culmination of the long-running factional war in which succession was the central issue. However, the way in which the crisis was handled at the congress left a lot to be desired. The succession issue – which was the root cause of factionalism – was left unresolved, leaving the party at risk of having to put out more factional fires in future. The party constitution is still not clear on how the president is to be replaced. This makes the party vulnerable to damaging factional fights should the president resign or be removed from office. The elevation of one faction and the elimination of another may only be a stop-gap measure that does not permanently resolve the succession issue.(21) President Mugabe, as usual, played his cards close to his chest on the issue. Instead of picking a successor he tampered with the constitution to increase and consolidate his powers in the party.

The politburo effected eleventh hour changes in the party’s constitution to give the president powers to unilaterally appoint his two deputies and the national chairperson, who collectively constitute the presidium.(22) Moreover, the new amendments give the president the power to appoint the members of the politburo. This was a major departure from the previous clause of the constitution which stated that the presidium was to be elected by party delegates attending the congress. This also implies that the influence of party structures like the PCCs and the NCC over who succeeds the president has been drastically reduced – if not effectively eliminated. There is a real possibility that this move may alienate the party’s grassroots structures as they cannot influence the composition of the most important organs in the party.

The congress was reduced to a zero-sum game in which one faction’s win was a loss for the other. An unprecedented number of party officials were expelled from the party. The unilateral appointment of the deputy presidents by the president effectively reduced the party to a one-man show.(23) This means that the new vice presidents have limited latitude and no political capital since their loyalty is to the head of state and not to any particular constituency in the party. Some constituencies within and outside of the party have already expressed their disquiet over the appointment of the second vice president, Phelekezela Mphoko.(24) It is believed that the new deputy is not fit for such an important office as he has not been visible in the party structures and might be a political liability in the future. Furthermore, the firing of officials believed to be linked to the Mujuru camp may prove to be a grave political miscalculation in the long run. The fired officials command significant grassroots support and chances are that they may join forces with the opposition in the elections to the detriment of Zanu-PF.(25)

Concluding remarks

What is clear is that factionalism has eaten deep into the Zanu-PF structures as a result of succession manoeuvres. The 2014 congress did not address the cause of factionalism – the uncertainty over the president’s succession–and chances are that it will resurface in uglier ways in the not too distant future. No clear constitutional provision dealing with the succession issue was adopted and the president cemented his place to demonstrate that he was not yet ready to relinquish power. Granted, the issue may prove to be far more complicated than this article suggests, but the unconvincing manner in which factionalism and succession was handled may mark the beginning of the end for Zanu-PF.


(1) Sizo Nkala is a Research Associate at IOA with interests in electoral systems and processes, party politics, political participation and civil society. Contact Sizo through IOA’s South African office (info@inonafrica.com). Edited by Liezl Stretton. Research manager: Kyle Hiebert.
(2) See the Zanu- PF website, https://www.zanupf.org.zw.
(3) Tutani, C., ‘Its domination, domination, domination’, NewsDay, 12 December 2014, https://www.newsday.co.zw.
(4) Mandaza, I., ‘Zanu-PF congress -The rise and triumph of the securocratic state’, Zimbabwe Independent, 15 December 2014,http://www.theindependent.co.zw.
(5) Muleya, D., ‘Succession fire still glowing’, Zimbabwe Independent, 12 December 2014, http://www.theindependent.co.zw.
(6) ‘Zanu-PF to discipline fist-fight MPs’, The Herald (Zimbabwe), 17 July 2014, http://www.herald.co.zw. See also Zindonga, T., ‘Mutasa must be reined in’, The Herald (Zimbabwe), 16 August 2014, http://www.herald.co.zw.
(7) Nyoka, S., ‘Mugabe slams leaders for encouraging factionalism’, SABC News, 9 August 2014, http://www.sabc.co.za. See also Share, F., ‘Live: First Lady Amai Grace Mugabe Mashonaland East Rally’, The Herald (Zimbabwe), 17 October 2014, http://www.herald.co.zw.
(8) Mujuru was sacked from the party and relieved of her duties as the deputy president just before the congress on allegations of corruption, disloyalty to the president and fanning factionalism. Mnangagwa was elevated to the post of vice-president just after the congress by President Mugabe, thus replacing his rival.
(9) Dzirutwe, M., ‘Zimbabwe’s Mugabe fires deputy, seven ministers’, Reuters, 9 December 2014, http://www.reuters.com.
(10) The presidium is the uppermost organ in Zanu-PF, comprising the president, his two deputies and the national chairman.
(11) This is what the party’s constitution stipulated before it was amended just before the congress.
(12) ‘More chaos hit Zanu-PF provincial elections’, New Zimbabwe, 1 December 2013, http://www.newzimbabwe.com. See also Mambo, E. and Moyo, H., ‘Zanu-PF provincial polls turn riotous’, NewsDay, 2 December 2013, https://www.newsday.co.zw.
(13) Nyathi, B.K., ‘Implications of Zanu-PF provincial polls’, New Zimbabwe, 5 December 2013, http://www.newzimbabwe.com.
(14) Gumbo, L., ‘Zanu-PFZanu-PF Mat North chair speaks out’, The Herald (Zimbabwe), 24 November 2014, http://www.herald.co.zw.
(15) Zaba, F. and Masekesa, C., ‘Youth league new Zanu-PF battleground’, The Independent, 6 June 2014, http://www.theindependent.co.zw. See also Chidza, R., ‘Chaos, rigging mar Zanu-PF polls’, The Zimbabwe Mail, 8 August 2014, http://www.thezimmail.co.zw.
(16) Mambo, E., ‘Zanu-PFZanu-PF factions in bare-knuckle fights’, Zimbabwe Independent, 15 August 2014, http://www.theindependent.co.zw.
(17) Munyaka, T., ‘Grace sets out to charm the people’, Mail and Guardian, 12 September 2014, http://mg.co.za.
(18) Mushava, E., ‘MDC-T formed in Mujuru house – Grace’, Newsday, 18 October 2014, https://www.newsday.co.zw.
(19) Garare, O., ‘Zanu-PF in a fix over poll rules’, Zimbabwe Independent, 18 October 2014, http://www.theindependent.co.zw.
(20) ‘Home district shuts door on Mujuru’, The Herald (Zimbabwe), 26 November 2014, http://www.herald.co.zw.
(21) Muleya, D., ‘Succession fire still glowing’, Zimbabwe Independent, 12 December 2014, http://www.theindependent.co.zw.
(22) Share, F., ‘Politburo adopts Constitutional amendments’, The Herald (Zimbabwe), 27 November 2014, http://www.herald.co.zw.
(23) Mandaza, I., ‘Zanu-PF congress -The rise and triumph of the securocratic state’, Zimbabwe Independent, 15 December 2014,http://www.theindependent.co.zw.
(24) Sasa, M., ‘Tribal agitators launch VP Mphoko offensive’, Sunday Mail, 21 December 2014, http://www.sundaymail.co.zw.
(25) Muvundusi, J., ‘Zapu in talks with Zanu-PF rebels’, Daily News, 21 December 2014, http://www.dailynews.co.zw.