HARARE - It has turned out to be the most determined, comprehensive and intense of any of Zimbabwe's races for power. The trouble is, no-one is going to be allowed to vote.
On July 25, a rent-a-crowd of several hundred of the ruling ZANU(PF) party's women's league turned up at the collection of stolen white-owned farms that Grace Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwe's president, has turned into a palatial rural compound.
They said they had come to nominate her as the head of the women's league of the ruling ZANU(PF) party. For good measure, they brought the current secretary of the league, who said she was resigning to hand the position over the Mrs Mugabe. "I am shocked," Grace trilled coyly.
In the last month she has criss-crossed the country, holding rallies supposedly to "thank the women of Zimbabwe" for nominating her to lead the women's league. The state media has provided saturation coverage beyond anything seen before.
The newspapers carry front page stories of her rallies, and inside after each one is the verbatim report of her speech (lasting over an hour). And in case any reader missed that, a note gives the web address for an audio clip.
Ahead of one rally in western Zimbabwe this week, minister of sport Andrew Langa spoke in terms borrowed from the Workers' Party of North Korea. "We expect to hear the words of unity and wisdom from the first lady, who is a mother to all of us," he gushed. "As you are aware, a mother is the backbone of every household and we are all excited and ready to receive her guidance and leadership."
Suddenly buses in Harare have appeared with two-metre images of her face plastered on the side. There is also a 10-tonne truck with a hoarding on the side with her portrait, advertising "the Dr Grace Mugabe meet-the-people tour."
Dr Grace Mugabe. The woman who in 1998-9 managed to squeeze one pass out of seven papers for a correspondence course in English literature with the University of London (from where her husband obtained a couple of respectable degrees while in detention under the Rhodesian government), was capped onSeptember 12 by her husband at the University of Zimbabwe with a doctorate.
Few of President Robert Mugabe's artifices have aroused as much outrage as this. Her thesis was entitled "The Changing Structure of the Family: The Case of Children's Homes in Zimbabwe." Not only is it unavailable, but none of the senior academic committees established to process doctorates have seen it.
Levi Nyaguru, the vice-chancellor shouts rudely at journalists asking about it. Wags at UZ say that PhD stands for "Please Hide the Dissertation." A senior Western diplomat warned that the phony award could lead to overseas universities refusing to accept degrees from UZ.
She is uniformly referred to in the state media as "Dr Amai Grace Mugabe" (Amai means "mother" in the Shona vernacular). She has been traversing the country in the presidential helicopter with large delegations and squads of bodyguards. Now she has her own motorcade.
My five-year-old grandson's attempts to feign a sore tummy to get out of picking up the lego he threw on the floor are more convincing than this rushed project to present Grace as a serious candidate to high political office.
It has been a political campaign of immense complexity involving thousands of state and party officials and the state resources needed. The speed and determination with which it has been carried out, regardless of cost, smacks overwhelmingly of direct orders from Mugabe.
In December, he faces the most critical five-yearly congress of his ZANU(PF) party. Since 2000, when he was approaching his 80s, party members at successive congresses have asked for debate on the "succession issue." They have been firmly stamped on, and the authors accused of treachery.
So it is no surprise that there has grown a hidden struggle between two groups in the party - one led by Joice Mujuru, 59, the vice-president, reform-minded and in control of most of the structures of ZANU(PF); the other by Emmerson Mnangagwa, 72, minister of defence and a ruthless, scary individual who has the backing of the military and security establishment. He is aptly nicknamed "the crocodile."
The country's entire political, administrative, security and even business establishments are riven between supporters of either faction. Supporters of Mujuru will hope for favours from senior officials in her faction, and will go out of their way to spoil the efforts of Mnangagwa supporters; Mnangagwa faction members will do likewise to Mujuru supporters.
It's unsurprising that the Zimbabwe government and its economy are jammed like an engine with sugar in the pistons.
With Mugabe due to turn 91 in four months and still no successor in sight, the tensions between the two groups is spilling alarmingly into the open, with increasingly hostile verbal exchanges and violent clashes between rival groups. Observers are waiting for the first bombing, the first assassination.
Mugabe has hitherto profited from the enmity, as each side tried to outdo each other in sycophancy competitions at the feet of the president, even as he cried crocodile tears over the factions he was warned would tear apart his party.
Only his closest aides appear to have been briefed on his strategy. But piece by piece, the plot has been unfolding. Unable to trust either of the two pretenders to the throne now, Grace now appears as the chosen one, portrayed as the destroyer of factionalism.
Her elevation has been done with an eye on the next stage - the December congress, where the president will have probably his last chance to deal with the factions.
With Grace's promotion to head of the women's league, she automatically became a member of the politburo, the second highest body in the party, after Mugabe and his vice-presidents. But on Friday last week (Oct. 10), she announced: "I am seeing a higher post."
This was followed by an attack on Mujuru on Wednesday, when, without naming her, Grace accused the vice-president of "doing nothing while (president) Mugabe works for you. We want a vice-president who helps the president, not just one who piggy-backs on Mugabe's back. We no longer want that."
The tenor of the insults plumbed new depths of bitchiness, like the rally chant of the former women's league head: "Down with husband-burners." Mrs Mujuru's husband, boozy former army commander Solomon Mujuru, was burnt to death in a mysterious fire on the family farm in 2012. Mrs Mujuru is clearly on the way out. Grace would never have been part of such an attack on her without the approval of her old husband.
The two vice-presidential positions (one has to be for an Ndebele under an agreement struck in the late 80s to share power with the tribe) have previously been voted on by the provincial assemblies of the party, even though the elections have been firmly managed.
But this week (Oct.12), the state Sunday Mail paper announced that "analysts and senior party insiders" (the president?) had said that the party constitution "must be amended" to give the president the sole right to choose the two vice-presidents.
Mugabe is leaving nothing to chance. No vote. Goodbye Joice, hello vice-president, and president-in-waiting, Grace?
It is the final work of an aged dictator to wipe out even the slimmest of vestiges of democracy and freedom of choice in his own party, trusting no-one, and allowing him to maintain a family dynasty in power. He may hope that it will give him a chance to step down from the draining chore of having to keep ahead of the machinations of his fawning, scheming acolytes.
He may well put his ignorant, naïve, spoiled and profoundly disliked wife through an apprenticeship for a while. But, what will happen, it is asked, when he has to fly to Singapore for eye surgery, and, on her own, she has to chair meetings of the politburo, the cabinet or the gangster generals? "They will devour her," said political scientist Eldred Masunungure.
And like Mao Zedong's Jiang Qing, Juan Peron's Eva and Nicolae Ceaucescu's Elena, she will fall. And god knows what then.
This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.
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