Is Mugabe set to play a huge role in the upcoming elections?

By Prince Kurupati

Former President Robert Mugabe
Former President Robert Mugabe

I never thought he whom I had nurtured and brought into government and whose life I worked so hard in prison to save as he was threatened with hanging, that one day he would be the man who would turn against me – Mugabe.

The above excerpt was taken from an interview conducted by ITV with Robert Mugabe last week and it specifically relates to Zimbabwe’s new leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa who was Mugabe’s longtime deputy since the days of the liberation struggle in the 1970s. It was the first time that the deposed Zimbabwean leader made a public appearance since his resignation in November last year after the military had put him and his family under house arrest and his party had fired him as its leader.

As has been the case with Mugabe, the interview focused solely on Robert Mugabe. The whole interview demonstrated how bitter Mugabe is with the new leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa who he described as ‘illegal’.

While to most this interview was more of a lamentation by a former powerful president who is struggling to come to terms with his new way of life, to ZANU (PF), the ruling party and Mugabe’s former party, Mugabe’s interview is a challenge, a huge one more so in light of the impending harmonised elections set to take place in the coming three to four months.

A ZANU (PF) challenge but an opposition blessing

Just like everyone else, the opposition parties in Zimbabwe did not anticipate Mugabe’s interview with the international media. However, it couldn’t have come at a better time for them as it presents a huge challenge for the ruling party on the eve of the elections.

Since the military intervention of November, Mnangagwa has been on an offensive charm trying to sanitize the whole military intervention both in Zimbabwe and the international world. To his credit, various quarters in the international community and even in Zimbabwe had been/were falling for Mnangagwa’s charm. Though refusing to acknowledge that ZANU (PF) had started its campaigns as it awaits primary elections, it was crystal clear to everyone in the country to see that Mnangagwa was already campaigning for the upcoming elections.

Everything was going smoothly for ZANU (PF) i.e. also taking into context the power struggle in the country’s main opposition party, MDC-T. However, all that came to a screeching halt on 16 March as Mugabe came from the doldrums.

Asked whether he will be seeking to return as Zimbabwe’s president, Mugabe laughed off the suggestion saying he is 94 and does not want to be president again. Unbelievable as it may sound, it was a surprise for many as he was chosen as the presidential candidate by ZANU (PF) months before the military intervention in November meaning if he hadn’t been forced to resign, it’s likely he was going to be president not only at 94 but even beyond!

ZANU (PF) knows that Mugabe may no longer have intentions of challenging for the presidency but he still holds some leverage over the ruling party in the upcoming elections. Undoubtedly, Mugabe’s influence has waned ever since his departure as exemplified by his supposedly ‘friends’ i.e. SADC and the AU refusing to entertain him however that does not take away the fact that he holds much on Mnangagwa than any other person and that he knows the machinery and system well in ZANU (PF).


Mugabe knows very well his former ‘lieutenant’ as they have been together for close to 50 years. During that time, he has amassed knowledge on Mnangagwa’s strengths and weaknesses. As we have seen, one of those weaknesses is that Mnangagwa does not respond well to ‘provocation’ and that is exactly the card Mugabe has been playing since he started to air his voice post-November 2017.

The first incidence came when Mugabe invited Joice Mujuru, a former Vice President who worked with Mugabe. During the two’s meeting, Mugabe reportedly told Mujuru that he didn’t willingly resign but his hand was forced to submit the resignation. Though subtle, Mnangagwa did not kindly take this. A few days after the incidence, Mugabe met with Ambrose Mutinhiri, another close Mugabe ally who recently quit ZANU (PF) and is the president of the New Patriotic Front (NPF), a grouping of the G40 cabal which was loyal to Mugabe. Mugabe’s meeting with Mutinhiri did not go down well with Mnangagwa. In a public address soon after the incidence, Mnangagwa said he was closely monitoring the former president and it was clear that he had been disturbed by Mugabe’s subtle provocations. That was soon followed by a ‘Pasi naMugabe’ (Down with Mugabe) slogan.

All these incidences point to one thing, that is Mugabe is trying to break the new persona that Mnangagwa has taken, that of being a democrat guided by the rule of law and respect of human rights. Beyond the veil, Mugabe knows lie the ‘real’ Mnangagwa, the one who ruthlessly followed his commander’s word in killing thousands in Matabeleland during Gukurahundi and subsequently perpetuated electoral violence from the 2000s onwards. Once this real, Mnangagwa is exposed, then the support he might have found in his offensive charm is possibly going to run away leading him to fight a losing battle.

It’s not clear if Mugabe’s plan is going to succeed, but for it to have any chance of succeeding Mnangagwa must first fall for the bait. He has done it once but that’s not a guarantee he will do it again. However, if he does fall for the bait, then its highly likely that by showing his former self, he will alienate himself from his new friends, supporters, and sympathizers and that would be the end of his political career.


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