Mugabe seeks to consolidate power with African Union post
As Robert Mugabe turns 91 today, he continues to cling to power at home
Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe trips up: the 91-year-old oversaw the installation of his wife Grace as president of the Zanu-PF women’s league. Photograph: AP
In the twilight of his political career, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has outmanoeuvred many of the detractors who have tried to undermine his rule over the past decades.
His ruthless purge in December of Zanu-PF’s influential vice-president, Joice Mujuru, whom he suspected of plotting to take control of the ruling party, has ensured the former liberation movement will remain firmly in his hands until he dies.
In addition to Mujuru, who was vice-president for the past 10 years, he has swept away dozens of her loyal senior supporters in Zanu-PF’s politburo, its administrative and provincial structures and government.
Mugabe, who turns 91 today, also oversaw the installation of his wife Grace as president of the Zanu-PF women’s league at the same conference, although she has no political pedigree.
Many observers believe the unexpected addition of this former secretary to Zimbabwe’s elite political circles has paved the way for a Mugabe dynasty to emerge that can protect his family’s interests after his death.
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Mugabe and his wife remain banned from travelling to the EU because of his suspected involvement in widespread human rights abuses in his own country since the 1980s. In recent times many of his cronies who were banned have had sanctions against them dropped but the Mugabes’ status is unchanged.
However, European Commission spokeswoman Catherine Ray confirmed earlier this month that Zimbabwe’s leader can visit the bloc in his capacity as the AU’s new head, despite the ban.
In a further softening of its stance towards Zimbabwe generally, the EU recently confirmed it has given the southern African nation €234 million, which is the first time the bloc has given financial aid to Mugabe’s government since imposing sanctions on him and his allies in 2002.
In recent months business delegations from countries in the EU, including France and the UK, have been travelling to Zimbabwe in search of investment opportunities.
Mugabe has always been held in high regard across Africa for his role as a freedom fighter, but his popularity had waned between 2000 and 2009 due to allegations that he repeatedly stole elections and orchestrated violence against opposition supporters.
He came under serious pressure from global and regional leaders to relinquish power, and when he refused to do so he was cast as a stereotypical African despot by much of the world.
So how has he managed to turn things around so effectively and what does it mean for Zimbabwe?
Professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg Cheryl Hendricks says that since 2009, when he entered a powersharing arrangement with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change following disputed elections in 2008, Mugabe has been “very shrewd”.
“But since then he has obliterated his opponents in terms of the opposition party [in the 2013 general election] and those who could challenge him within Zanu-PF [since the party conference in December] root supporters in Zanu-PF, who are the majority. This support is not out of genuine loyalty, but rather he is the means to access resources and power in Zimbabwe.
“If he was to change the nature of politics in Zimbabwe he would likely experience a serious backlash from within his own party from members who do not want to see a new fairer political system that works to emerge,” she says.
As for how this affects ordinary Zimbabweans, Hendricks says Mugabe’s new-found legitimacy will adversely affect Zanu-PF rather than benefit it, as the battle around who will take on his mantle will rage as long as he fails to clearly anoint a capable successor.
“I think Grace Mugabe will become vice president once current vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa eventually takes over [as president], and they are both very divisive. This could well be the beginning of the end for Zanu-PF, and that could destabilise the country,” she says.