But Solomon Mujuru (nom de guerre Rex Nhongo), husband of Zimbabwe’s current vice-president Joice Mujuru, died last month, incinerated in his bed in a highly suspicious house fire that many sheet home to the bare-knuckled behind-the-scenes battle going on to succeed Mugabe, 87, now said to be terminally ill with prostate cancer.
Events since Mujuru’s death have shown just how poisonous that battle for the succession has become; a senior cabinet minister was sacked simply because she had the temerity to suggest Mugabe was “too old” to win another election.
Hardliners determined to ensure that, despite his cancer, Mugabe continues in office for as long as possible and is replaced by one of their own when he goes are determined to ensure they control the succession process.
They have their sights set on Joice Mujuru, who got her job because of the power wielded by her husband. She is widely viewed as the centre of moderation within ZANU-PF, someone who gets on well with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in the country’s fragile power-sharing government, an all too rare voice of reason.
Mugabe owed his accession to power 31 years ago largely to Solomon Mujuru. He was the fearless guerilla commander leading the fight against what was then Rhodesia’s white government. Mugabe, a geeky, bespectacled intellectual who was deeply religious and didn’t know which end of a Kalashnikov the bullet came out of, was greeted with deep suspicion when, after 10 years in jail, he arrived at the guerilla base camps in neighbouring Mozambique.
Mujuru smoothed the way for Mugabe to assume control of ZANU-PF forces, persuading the faction-ridden guerilla army to accept him as leader, something that enabled him to become president in 1980. Mujuru became head of the armed forces until, in the 1990s, he quit to go into business, becoming wealthy through land holdings (the farm where he died was seized from a white family), shares in financial institutions and diamond and platinum interests.
All the time, however, he retained his influence as kingmaker (Mugabe) and queenmaker (getting his wife, Joice, the job of vice-president). Reputedly, he alone could stand up to the famously irascible Mugabe. And stand up to him he did, to the chagrin of the hardliners, influencing Mugabe to accept the power-sharing arrangement with Tsvangirai and getting the dictator to think again when he seemed hell-bent on defying South Africa and other neighbouring states by holding an election before the country has a new constitution that will safeguard against vote-rigging.
No more. With Mujuru gone, the hardliners within ZANU-PF are seeking to ensure that one of their own, most likely long-serving defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa or possibly the current head of the armed forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, succeeds Mugabe, a scenario that would sound a death knell for the power-sharing arrangement.
And Mugabe, in defiance of the wishes of the South African-led Southern African Development Community, is again talking about forcing an early election that will be aimed at ensuring ZANU-PF gets another five years in power. Any election would be aimed at just that, ensuring that, whatever happens, ZANU-PF, be it under Mugabe, Mnangagwa or anyone else, stays in power and that Tsvangirai’s MDC, despite its win last time, remains sidelined.
Nothing that has emerged since Mujuru’s death confirms suspicions that he was the victim of “murder most foul”, as one vice-presidential aide put it. Officials insist that the fire was caused by candles lit during a blackout.
But in the febrile atmosphere of Zimbabwean politics, in which no less than Mugabe’s personal banker has been cited in US diplomatic reports disclosed by WikiLeaks as confirming he has terminal cancer and could die at any time, there can be no surprise about the ferocity of the battle being joined for the succession.
The political daggers are unsheathed. If he was around, Solomon Mujuru might have been expected to play the role of conciliator and kingmaker (or queenmaker) as he did before.
The WikiLeaks disclosures have tossed an incendiary new element into the mix. The hardliners appear determined to seize the initiative, and without the liberation war hero around there seems little to stop them.