KENT - The latest episode in Zanu PF’s intriguing drama in the battle to succeed President Robert Mugabe involves two men blessed with the gift of the garb, Professor Jonathan Moyo and George Charamba.
They have been trading tough words in social and traditional media, revealing that the succession battle is not only real but that factionalism in the ruling party can no longer be concealed or portrayed as fiction. But what does this mean in the context of the on-going succession battles?
A couple of weeks ago, writing in his column in The Herald as Nathaniel Manheru, his pseudonym, George Charamba criticised what he christened the “anti-Mnangagwa cabal”. Charamba refuses to confirm that he is Nathaniel Manheru, but it is now an open secret that he is the man behind the name. Moyo had revealed a few years ago that Nathaniel Manheru was Charamba’s alter ego. His recent article wasn’t the first time that Charamba had shown his inclination towards Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. But this was also a repudiation of his earlier denials of the existence of factionalism in Zanu PF.
To close watchers of the Zimbabwean political scene, it was obvious that the so-called “anti-Mnangagwa cabal” was in reference to the G40 faction, a group of Zanu PF politicians which is resisting the idea of Mnangagwa succeeding Mugabe, who turns 92 next month.
The notion of G40 was coined a few years ago by Moyo, who is said to be the brains behind the outfit, although he denies its identity as a faction. Instead, he calls those aligned to Mnangagwa and pushing for his ascendancy to the presidency as “successionists”.
Ironically, in the latest twist of events in the succession drama, Charamba uses the term “successionists” to refer to Moyo and his G40 faction, which has prompted Moyo to call him a “wordthief” since Moyo originally coined the term.
Even though Charamba does not identify them by name, Moyo’s unhappy responses to Charamba’s interview confirms that Moyo and G40 were the targets of his open attack in an interview with ZiFM radio station, which has been reproduced by The Herald. Moyo has accused Charamba of using his civil servant role as Permanent Secretary to defend a “desperate faction” — by which he refers to the Mnangagwa faction.
It is important to place the current public fight between Moyo and Charamba into context. It is a reflection of succession politics but it is also a public manifestation of a personal rivalry between the two men. Writing in 2006, Moyo referred to Charamba as a “useful idiot” after the latter had written a piece that was severely critical of Moyo in his Nathaniel Manheru column. The verbal fight between the two men was nasty and it was ironic that when Moyo was re-admitted into Zanu PF, he once again became Charamba’s boss. The latest episode is another chapter in the fractious relationship between the two men.
Twice, Charamba has been Moyo’s subordinate at the Information ministry — the propaganda unit of government and the ruling party. Working on the same side for Mugabe and Zanu PF, one as minister and the other as presidential spokesperson, they formed a powerful unit.
The men may never have liked each other, but they didn’t have to — Mugabe simply used his leadership acumen to make sure they worked for him and they did. If they were in competition to please, then it was still to his benefit.
But if there was a formal hierarchy at the ministry, Mugabe was careful to play on their egos and sow confusion by making Charamba his presidential spokesperson, a role he exercised alongside his permanent secretarial role at the ministry.
Thus while he was Moyo’s subordinate at the ministry, he also enjoyed a measure of independence as presidential spokesperson, where his boss was Mugabe. But now Moyo is no longer controlling information, which gives Charamba the edge in terms of defining the political narrative.
With Charamba showing he is in Mnangagwa’s corner, this gives us an indication that the G40 may now suffer a fate similar to what befell the Gamatox faction and the opposition before it: they will face a State media blackout and whenever they appear, it will be because they are being attacked or denigrated. The information war is critical in political battles and this latest development will be a big blow to Moyo and the G40.
The strategy will be to do to Moyo and G40 what Moyo and company used to do to Zanu PF’s and Mugabe’s opponents when he was the propaganda chief: close off media space, especially in radio and television and attack the opponents relentless, regardless of media rules, ethics or truth. Moyo and the G40 may soon find that, like the opposition and like Mujuru before them, they will be subjected to serious State media assault, without a right of reply.
They will have to scurry for space in private media. In addition, any Moyo or G40 loyalists in the editorial staff in State media may find themselves imperilled. They may be relocated to high-sounding but empty posts or could be relieved of their responsibilities completely. Unless, of course, they switch loyalties and sing for their supper, all of which will weigh heavily on Mnangagwa’s political opponents.
Moyo himself may have sensed the need to find alternative media space in the wake of his removal as Information minister in July last year.
He had already prepared space for himself on social media — Facebook and Twitter — where he has been an active and popular participant, a circumstance that has drawn criticism with Charamba chiding him for trying to ascend the political ladder through tweets.
However, Moyo will continue to make use of social media, and will generate headlines, especially in the private media. But the irony is that he may now be the victim of the same media tactics that he used to employ against Mugabe’s opponents. It would be interesting to see if ZiFM or ZBC will avail the same space to Moyo and his allies. Or better still, if they could bring the two men together, for an open debate on the subject.
An important point to note is that in criticising Moyo and the G40 group, Charamba has indicated that he was speaking for the president. This changes the nature of the conversation completely, from being a Charamba-Moyo debate, to one between Mugabe and Moyo. It is unusual for Mugabe to talk to his ministers or party members through his spokesperson or in this way.
Usually, if he has a weighty message, he speaks directly and often publicly. Is Charamba implying that Mugabe has descended to the level where he has a public altercation with his junior and appointee? Surely Mugabe must have better mechanisms through which to communicate his displeasure with his ministers?
Or has Charamba used the President’s Office in order to give weight to his statements? Has he employed the name of his office to fight a personal war against Moyo?
Certainly, Moyo thinks Charamba is abusing his position. In one of his tweets Moyo said Charamba must not use his position as permanent secretary to serve Mnangagwa’s faction. If however, it is true that Charamba was speaking for Mugabe, Moyo’s responses will now be taken as a direct challenge to Mugabe.
How will Mugabe react to Moyo’s response to the interview? Will he see that as a challenge to his authority? If he does not act in response, what would that do to his authority? Does it not undermine his authority? All these are questions emanating from Charamba’s claim that he was speaking for the president.
But there is also the possibility that Charamba may have over-extended himself, and exaggerated the claim that he was speaking on behalf of Mugabe. There is a lot of fawning in the interview and even if there was an approved presidential message, Charamba diluted it with his own views and emotions.
The statements smack of a man trying too hard to please his boss, like someone who is under pressure and must demonstrate loyalty. Charamba has in the past been blamed for the embarrassing episode in which Mugabe read the wrong speech at the opening of Parliament last year. Indeed, it could be that Mnangagwa skilfully took advantage of Charamba’s predicament to back him at the time when everyone was pointing fingers in his direction and accusing him of engineering the embarrassment.
If as Charamba says, this was Mugabe speaking, what are we to make of his state of mind in the succession drama? This is complicated by the fact that it has long been thought that the G40 faction is supporting and is supported by Grace Mugabe. If Mugabe is rebuking G40, as implied by the Charamba interview, does it mean Mugabe is going against his wife’s ambitions, as backed by G40? It is evident that Charamba is backing Mnangagwa as opposed to the G40 faction. Does this mean Mugabe has decided to pick Mnangagwa for succession?
It could be that Grace Mugabe has decided to ditch the G40. Mugabe and his wife may have reflected, during the comfort and quietness of their long vacation in Dubai, and resolved to ditch the G40 and instead back Mnangagwa. If this is the case, it would be a significant blow to the G40.
Nevertheless, history of this succession drama cautions us against writing early political obituaries.
If precedence is anything to go by, it would be utterly foolish to write Moyo and the G40 off, even after this devastating rebuke. This is not the first time that Moyo has seemingly faced the nadir of his Zanu PF career. Back in 2014, Mugabe described Moyo as a “weevil” and in a statement that gave birth to the terminology of “Gamatox” in Zimbabwean politics, Didymus Mutasa prescribed that the “weevils” needed to be fumigated with Gamatox, a pesticide.
From then on Mujuru’s faction, to which Mutasa belonged, became known as the “Gamatox faction”. Mugabe also referred to Moyo as “Devil incarnate” and at that moment, it seemed Moyo’s Zanu PF career was over. Many were writing his political end.
Yet within weeks, Moyo had turned the tables on his critics and by the end of that year, it was Mujuru, Mutasa, Gumbo and the rest of the Gamatox faction who had been unceremoniously ejected from Zanu PF. Moyo had the last laugh.
Last year, when Moyo faced a similar challenge and was even temporarily removed as minister, some also thought that was the end of his career. But yet again, he rose like a phoenix to retain ministerial office. Even when he lost the powerful Information ministry, Mugabe simply moved chairs and relocated him in Higher Education.
The fact is that while Charamba might not like Moyo, referring to him as a “little man”, Mugabe understands the strategic importance of keeping the wily political scientist close. Mugabe realises Moyo makes for an uncomfortable opponent and that as long as he accommodates him, he will have less trouble to deal with, a point that seemingly escapes Charamba who appears to be permitting his personal animosity to get ahead of political reason. Moyo might be the proverbial stone in a man’s shoe, which though uncomfortable, is not removed but readjusted.
But there is also an indication of indiscipline and reckless behaviour that is not usually associated with Zanu PF.
This altercation only adds fuel to the chaos where people are now openly trading insults. Could it suggest that the leader is losing control of his troops? Could it be that those who know no longer have the same levels of obedience to the centre as before? It certainly looks like open season and it’s not like the Zanu PF of old — a rigid, tight and disciplined organisation in which members followed the set path, even if they did not agree with it. Some might say it’s democracy at work. Others, however, might say it’s more sinister and portends disaster.
Meanwhile, after this assault, Moyo and G40 will surely have to regroup and find an appropriate response. Mnangagwa, very quiet and seemingly hapless for so long, has thrown a significant punch, showing there is still life yet in his long-held bid to succeed his old boss.
*Magaisa is a lawyer and academic based at the University of Kent in the UK. He is a former technical advisor in the Zimbabwe constitution-making process and also former adviser to the then Prime Minister of Zimbabwe Morgan Tsvangirai.