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After two years of dangerous drift, military officers and state officials are covertly talking to oppositionists about the President’s exit and a transitional authority
The extraordinary morning broadcast by President Emmerson Mnangagwa on 4 August reinforced the national sense that his legitimacy is eroding as fast as the value of Zimbabwean dollar. Heading a government which has detained some of the region's best novelists and journalists, abducted and tortured opposition activists, Mnangagwa warned citizens about 'the bad apples that have attempted to divide our people. Good shall triumph over evil.'
Those divisions are festering at the heart of his government. A week earlier at a meeting of the politburo, the 50-strong policy-making body of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, Mnangagwa called on Isaac Moyo, director general of the Central Intelligence Organisation, to report on a 'de-stabilisation' plot claimed to have been run by Cleveria Chizema, a politburo member, and Tendai Savanhu, a former MP for Mbare.
Moyo explained that the plot showed collusion between dissidents within the ruling party and opposition activists whose aim was to drive Mnangagwa from power with a campaign of mass protests. Moyo claims his spies had discovered stocks of posters and placards calling for the toppling of Mnangagwa and praising his deputy former army general Constantino Chiwenga stashed at the homes of the party dissidents.
According to Moyo, after Mnangagwa was forced out, the plan was that Chiwenga would preside over a national transitional authority committed to constitutional and economic reforms and free elections. In other words, a classic palace coup. An ironic reworking of the putsch that Mnangagwa and Chiwenga had jointly organised against President Robert Mugabe in November 2017.
As Moyo explained the details of the plot against Mnangagwa to the politburo, Chiwenga, just back from another medical check-up in China, looked on impassively. Neither Moyo nor Mnangagwa accused Chiwenga of complicity in the plot from which he was meant to benefit. But the implied accusation hung in the room.
The only action following Moyo's report was the suspension of Chizema from the politburo for 'dereliction of duty', by not reporting the delivery to her house of posters calling for Mnangagwa's overthrow. The claimed uncovering of this plot set the scene for a crackdown by police and special forces' commandos on the opposition's anti-corruption demonstration on 31 July.
A 2,000 strong unit known as 'ferret' within the army's special forces has abducted and tortured activists, the latest being the nephew of Mduduzi Mathuthu, editor of the ZimLive website, one of the leading local news operations.
Police also arrested and detained author and film maker Tsitsi Dangarembga and opposition spokeswoman Fadzayi Mahere for holding protest placards in the Borrowdale suburb of Harare. In the townships, raids on houses and meetings by the ferret unit were far more brutal. Some of the footage was relayed on social media, triggering the #Zimbabweanlivesmatter campaign. Taken up by national artists, athletes and musicians it is spreading across Africa, further undermining Mnangagwa's standing.
Economic conditions in Zimbabwe, with inflation at over 700% a year and the value of the local dollar in free fall after a money printing blitz by the Reserve Bank, are driving more desperate nationals to flee.
In neighbouring Malawi, newly elected President Lazarus Chakwera has publicly backed the #Zimbabweanlivesmatter campaign. That may owe more to Mnangagwa's endorsement of his opponent in June's election rerun, Peter Mutharika.
Mnangagwa's biggest concerns are closer to home: in fact nearer to state house and the army barracks and the officers' mess. It has emerged that the government's rush to lock down the country owed more to fears of a plot to oust Mnangagwa than an attempt to contain coronavirus.
Soon after the community protests in January, many brutally slapped down by the ferret unit, senior military commanders and figures in ZANU-PF started discussing alternative political strategies. The initial plan had been that Mnangagwa would serve one full term and then hand over to Chiwenga.
But citing Chiwenga's apparent poor health – he spent several months in China for medical treatment last year – Mnangagwa lost interest in that idea. Another factor is that Mnangagwa's family, particularly his wife Auxillia Mnangagwa who was nearly killed in a car crash last month, and his business-minded twin sons Collins and Sean Mnangagwa, are urging him to stay on to forestall a national breakdown. Outside his fast diminishing circle of admirers, few believe that Mnangagwa should hang on.
Despite their working together for decades, relations between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga have cooled this year. They are unlikely to have improved after Mnangagwa added the health portfolio to Chiwenga's responsibilities. Obadiah Moyo, the sacked health minister, is being prosecuted for corruption after journalist Hopewell Chin'ono exposed a procurement scam involving the minister and a businessman and friend of Mnangagwa's family (AC Vol 61 No 7, Healthcare for dollars).
Yet Chin'ono is being detained on charges of subversion, tied into the planned anti-corruption protests, and minister Moyo is out on bail. Both Chiwenga and the Commander of the national army, Lieutenant General Edzai Chanyuka Chimonyo, have been telling colleagues and business people that the country is drifting dangerously.
A former officer told Africa Confidential that such talk is army code meaning the junior officers will act if the senior officers don't.
Living conditions for junior officers and the ranks have deteriorated sharply under Mnangagwa, despite the common complaint by civilians that he is running a military regime. It is mainly a thin stripe of top officers that have benefited in the past two years.
Until now, Mnangagwa has been protected by a group of senior officers and security specialists from the Midlands province. Most of them were in the Zimbabwean African People's Union and its armed wing, the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army. Mnangagwa is said to have ensured they were spared when he, as Minister of State Security in the mid-1980s, was part of the security system that organised the purges of ZAPU and ZIPRA cadres and the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland.
This group includes Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Force Philip Valerio Sibanda, Foreign Minister General Sibusiso Moyo, CIO chief Isaac Moyo, and head of Military Intelligence General Thomas Moyo. It may be that those historic loyalties are wearing thin.
We hear that several in this ruling group now favour either Chiwenga or General Sibusiso Moyo to take over from Mnangagwa in a palace coup that would allow the formation of a National Transitional Authority, in consultation with opposition leader Nelson Chamisa.
When first mooted, the plan would have granted Mnangagwa immunity from prosecution and a soft landing and he was said to have given it serious consideration. That option looks less likely now with fresh investigations reckoning that Mnangagwa's personal fortune could be around US$500 million involving substantive stakes in at least four national banks, several gold mines and equity interests in transport and agribusiness companies.
The decision by the United States Treasury on 5 August to sanction Mnangagwa's business ally Kudakwashe Tagwirei, chief executive of Sakunda Holdings and majority owner of Landela Mining Ventures, raises the stakes (AC Vol 61 No 5, Oil, guns and politics). Widely seen as a proxy for Mnangagwa, Tagwirei's dealings with commodity traders Trafigura have made him immensely wealthy in his own right.
Tagwirei is also said to have used some of the $3 billion of Mnangagwa's grossly mismanaged Command Agriculture programme to distribute largesse to senior ranks in the military. Any gratitude appears to have been short-lived. This week, Tagwirei was looking uncharacteristically worried when driving his new pink Rolls Royce through Chisipite, one of Harare's most prosperous suburbs.
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