"As the ageing president becomes weaker and less important in day-to-day government affairs, his wife’s position of power will become more vulnerable to challengers."
A coup is a credible scenario this year, as Grace Mugabe appears to be positioning herself to succeed her husband as president of Zimbabwe. In doing so, she is splitting the governing Zanu-PF party, alienating influential members of the government and security forces, and reversing progress Zimbabwe has made in improving its foreign and investor relations in the past couple of years. Robert Mugabe, who turned 92 on 21 February, seems unable or unwilling to intervene to stop the damage.
There have been rumours recently in the Zimbabwean media that Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president and until recently the frontrunner to succeed Robert Mugabe, is considering resigning. This is reportedly because he is tired of being a target for Grace Mugabe’s verbal attacks and accusations. During February alone, she accused Mnangagwa of involvement in plots to kill her son, overthrow her husband, and blow up her dairy. These accusations seem fanciful at best.
Although it is not possible to verify the rumours of Mnangagwa’s possible resignation, it is increasingly clear that he is becoming sidelined in government. In a speech on 19 February, Robert Mugabe criticised an ally of Mnangagwa for stoking opposition to the government and Grace Mugabe in particular. And that Grace Mugabe has been able to continue a campaign against Mnangagwa over several months is itself a sign that the vice president’s influence is waning along with his chances of succeeding Robert Mugabe as president.
Grace Mugabe has taken a prominent role in domestic state affairs over the past year, often representing and speaking for her husband. She has said that she is not interested in becoming president, but she has focused on discrediting those who could potentially be a successor to the presidency. Anyone who has notable political influence or public support has been a target. She has had considerable success in winning the fights she has picked. Robert Mugabe has dismissed or sidelined his wife’s rivals.
Meanwhile, Robert Mugabe has become a much less publicly visible figure since mid-2013. When he has made appearances, it has been clear that his advanced age and poor health is affecting his abilities to govern. Given this, it is probable that Grace Mugabe is exploiting her position as first lady and filling the gap in leadership her husband’s weakness is creating.
However, we are sceptical about Grace Mugabe’s chances of succeeding her husband if he dies, steps down or becomes incapacitated by illness. She lacks widespread support within Zanu-PF, the security forces or among the public. Her influence is heavily dependent on Robert Mugabe. As the ageing president becomes weaker and less important in day-to-day government affairs, his wife’s position of power will become more vulnerable to challengers. This pushes up the risk of coup attempts.
Rising coup risk
The attacks against Mnangagwa are a risky move by Grace Mugabe. Mnangagwa has the backing of the security forces, the intelligence services, and many of the senior cabinet ministers. With a general view developing within government and the public that Grace Mugabe is gradually taking power from her ageing husband, there is likely to be support for her removal by Mnangagwa. A further sidelining of Mnangagwa from government is a potential trigger for him to take power.
Such an intervention could either take the form of Mnangagwa taking power but leaving Robert Mugabe in place as a puppet president, or of removing him along with his wife. While keeping the president in his position is probably still a more probable scenario than a coup, the potential for a full change in leadership is growing as Robert Mugabe becomes older and less relevant in Zimbabwe today.
The significant economic downturn, drought and food shortages that Zimbabwe is currently experiencing provide a pretext for Mnangagwa and his supporters to take power. Indeed, some Western governments have suggested that they see Mnangagwa as a credible successor, who would be able to reform the economy.
A decision to remove the president would probably not be an entirely smooth or peaceful operation. Mnangagwa has been involved in the security forces since independence. Because of this and the negative perceptions of Grace Mugabe, it is likely that Mnangagwa would retain the military’s backing. But Robert Mugabe’s role as the leader of the independence struggle means that his removal would be controversial, including among elements of the military and the war veterans’ organisation. We expect some small groups would try to start an armed resistance to a coup. Such resistance would be unlikely to prevent a coup from succeeding, however.
Image: Robert and Grace Mugabe; Creative Commons, DandjkRoberts