Here’s what’s happening in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe Army General Constantino Chiwenga, right, and Valerio Sibanda address a news conference held at the Zimbabwean Army Headquarters. (AFP/Getty Images)

Tanks rolled into Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, on Tuesday, as tensions escalated between the military and President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. In a statement read on the state broadcaster, ZBC, an army official reported early Wednesday morning that Robert Mugabe and his family are “safe” and that the military are “only targeting criminals around [Mugabe] who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country.”

What kicked this off? Zimbabwe’s vice president, Emerson Mnangagwa, was fired last week, accused of exhibiting traits of “disloyalty, disrespect and deceitfulness.” He went into exile, but continues to denounce the Mugabe regime.

Mnangagwa’s true crime is wanting to be Zimbabwe’s president, and steadily building a coalition to do so. Mugabe may have blundered by ousting the vice president — a move that seems to set up his wife, Grace, to be the next president.

For the past three years I have been studying Zimbabwe’s elite political networks, collecting materials on factions within the ruling ZANU-PF party. From these data, my team has mapped the links between elites, which may help shed light on who will succeed the aging Mugabe, who is 93. These succession networks are generated based on key elites who have openly declared a factional preference, and each elite is “weighted” by their positions, leverage, wealth and common associations. Elites are tracked monthly for changing loyalties.

Here’s what we learned:

1) Keep an eye on the security sector

The head of the security sector — Constantine Chiwenga — offered a dire public warning Monday to Mugabe and his supporters: no more changes to the party that limit the power of senior members. Military vehicles were photographed in the streets of Harare early Wednesday morning.

2) Many senior ZANU-PF members support Mnangagwa

While the former vice president’s supporters in the provinces have been purged, his supporters within government remain in place.

3) Expect to see more widespread political disorder

Provincial and regional powers are taking advantage of this crisis by demanding purges of competitors and enemies. The provinces have been the most active site of factional competition. After a long campaign that culminated last week, three Mnangagwa-allied provincial chairmen have been expelled or recommended for expulsion, along with dozens of other provincial officials. The remaining regional powers have been selected and imposed by Harare to represent Mugabe and factional interests.

Mnangagwa cemented his power after 2008

Until he was sacked, Mnangagwa enjoyed the backing of war veterans, state elites and several provincial powerhouses. This support, coupled with years of siphoned resource wealth, and his international support made things look very promising for “the Crocodile,” as Mnangagwa is known.

In the aftermath of the 2008 election, the ZANU-PF party targeted opposition supporters and ZANU-PF “defector” voters and traitors’ — blaming these elites for Mugabe’s loss in the first stage of the election, though he won the runoff election.

For his loyalty, Mnangagwa was eventually rewarded with the vice presidency, after “the night of long knives” when then-Vice President Joice Mujuru was purged from the party, along with all her supporters. Like Mnangagwa, Mujuru also coveted the presidency, threatening Grace Mugabe’s ambitions.

Grace Mugabe sees herself as the next president

Despite little public support and questionable party backing, no experience in politics, a penchant for outrageous statements, and a long list of corruption allegations, Grace Mugabe and the G40 or “Generation 40” faction are gearing up to lead the country. There is little chance the security sector, Zimbabwe’s remaining international friends and supporters, or most of the senior ZANU-PF ranks will concede to Grace Mugabe overtaking the state.

Grace Mugabe’s presidential aspirations are supported by Minister for Local Government Saviour Kasakuwere and Minister for Higher Education Jonathan Moyo — key G40 members. This name distinguishes them from the older ZANU-PF faction, who either support Mnangagwa (faction “Lacoste”), or support Mugabe because they are too afraid to do otherwise.

But G40 is an opportunist outfit: There is little ideology or strategy binding the weak network. Yet they have Mugabe’s blessing, likely because it presents almost no threat to him. The G40 network may be larger than the Lacoste faction, but tends to have lower-level and weaker elites. The connections between the elites are numerous, including being members of the Central Committee, the Politburo, the cabinet and provincial committees. But these elites, in comparison to the Lacoste networks, are in less powerful positions within the party, are younger, or assigned to ministries of lower priority to the state.

The pro-Mugabe G40 network. Figure from the Radar and African Cabinet and Political Elite Data project (ACPED) November 2017

So why fire Mnangagwa?

When Lacoste supporters called Grace Mugabe “a thief,” they apparently crossed the line. The president reacted to this sign of disrespect by firing Mnangagwa.

This is a decision Mugabe will probably come to regret. Mnangagwa’s network of supporters is unique in its density and strength because the elites in the group have stronger ties, weightier positions and closer connections (see the Mnangagwa network figure below). Further, many are security sector elites, hold senior positions in the War Veterans group, or hold senior institutional positions in the state and party. There are fewer elites in the Lacoste faction, but the faction members have stronger ties. As vice president, Mnangagwa created a coalition of key elite powerhouses including the head of the Armed Forces, the now-former finance minister, regional bosses, and the support of governors and Provincial Coordinating Committees in the important provinces of Masvingo and the Midlands — Mnangagwa’s home province.

Mnangagwa’s network of support

The pro-Mnangagwa “Lacoste” network. Figure from the Radar and African Cabinet and Political Elite Data project (ACPED) November 2017

Here’s the big problem. If Mugabe and allies tried to purge Mnangagwa supporters, he risked removing much of the talent from his government, including those who have stood with him since the independence struggle through the 1960s to the 1980s. ZANU-PF will be a shell of its former self.

In fact, many of Mnangagwa’s supporters are well versed in fixing elections, threatening voters, financing schemes to position allies and other actions that drive a semi-democracy. Mugabe should be wary of approaching an election in 2018 without the people who ensured his victory in past elections.

But leaving the Lacoste supporters in the government may leave Mugabe with little support from local and regional elites. This was the situation in the contested 2008 elections. The planned early 2018 primaries are likely to be especially contentious, and the security sector and war veterans may limit their active campaigning for the party.

Of course, Mnangagwa supporters could desert him, changing the equation for Mugabe. But jumping ship in shifting political waters is inherently risky. They would need to pledge allegiance to a man who is not far away from dying and whose wife, and potential successor, will probably see them as disloyal and disposable.

It’s also possible that Grace Mugabe will never ascend to the presidency through the vice presidency, in any event. Sydney Sekeremayi, the quiet and unassuming minister of defense, has already been touted several times as a possible president. His talent? Not being a threat to Mugabe and not being Grace Mugabe.

What happens now may depend very much on what the armed forces do next — or whether Mugabe takes aim at Mnangagwa’s strong network of supporters. Things looked challenging for Mugabe on Tuesday night, with the military reported to have taken over the national broadcaster and positioned armored vehicles on the roads in and out of Harare.

The big questions now are: What happens to Mugabe from here? What happens to G40? And more importantly, what will this mean for Zimbabwe in the longer term?

Clionadh Raleigh is a professor of political geography at the University of Sussex, and director of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) project. Her African Cabinet and Political Elite Data are available upon request. Follow ACLED on Twitter @ACLEDinfo.

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