PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa this year emerged triumphant at the Zanu PF elective congress after a fierce five-year power struggle — characterised by scheming, backstabbing, a grenade attack, poisoning and purges — over the unresolved party leadership rivalry between him and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga following the 2017 military coup which ousted former president Robert Mugabe.
Chiwenga, who commanded the Zimbabwe Defence Forces during the coup, was calling the shots after the putsch but Mnangagwa scored incremental gains over the last five years, before crushing his now weak and vulnerable rival at congress in October.
Mnangagwa brought Chiwenga to his knees — literally and metaphorically — at the crucial Zanu PF congress.
His surrender was symbolised by his kneeling before Mnangagwa. Those who spoke to The NewsHawks found the kneeling symbolic of defeat.
“That summarised the key outcome of the congress; Mnangagwa emerged triumphant and Chiwenga defeated, given their power relations in 2017 and the power shift now,” one delegate said.
“This is not to say Chiwenga is down and out. This means he is down, but not out. The fact of the matter is simply that he was routed at congress.”
Chiwenga accepted the trouncing and announced his rival as the party’s candidate in next year’s elections.
“The party membership through its structures and leagues has already clearly and thunderously endorsed Cde Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa as the president and first secretary, and as the sole presidential candidate for the ruling party, Zanu PF, in the 2023 harmonised elections. People have thus spoken,” said Chiwenga.
“He is the one and only candidate that we know.”
This was a far cry from his plan in 2017 during the coup when he called the shots. Chiwenga’s strategy was to install Mnangagwa as President for five years, and then take over in 2023.
This was part of the military plan to then keep power within their structures and among themselves. In 2017, Chiwenga practically installed himself vice-president when he exchanged military fatigues for a civilian suit, blocking Mnangagwa’s bid to appoint Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri co-deputy leader with Kembo Mohadi.
He also took over the defence and war veterans portfolios that Mnangagwa had initially given to Mohadi. Muchinguri-Kashiri was later appeased through an appointment as party chair, a position which she retained at congress.
In yet another indication of his power in 2017, Chiwenga stopped Mnangagwa from appointing Victor Matematanda, now ambassador to Mozambique, as political commissar.
He put his ally, retired Lieutenant-General Engelbert Rugeje who was later removed after the 2018 elections. Rugeje is a key Chiwenga ally who challenged Mnangagwa’s purges and new modus operandi at a charged politburo meeting in July 2019.
Mnangagwa arrived at congress, having put his ducks in a row through the district coordinating committee, provincial and central committee elections, as well as cells. The provincial elections were brazenly rigged in favour of Mnangagwa. Zanu PF insiders say the central committee members were meticulously vetted and packed with his supporters.
They say Mnangagwa went through the central committee list of elected members — one by one — to ensure it is dominated by his loyalists. Chiwenga struggled to even get nominated in his Mashonaland East province. Zanu PF insiders say Chiwenga lost political ground when he fell ill and almost died between 2018 and 2019. From there, they say, he never quite recovered even though his faction has remained intact, with potential to regroup and fight back.
The fight has been deadly — Mnangagwa has lived to tell the tale after a grenade attack on 23 June 2018 at White City Stadium in Bulawayo, while Chiwenga survived poisoning, according to insiders. The poisoning has left Chiwenga vulnerable to health complications, with some saying it has become his greatest undoing.
Some influential movers and shakers on the power struggle chessboard were purged, while others lost their lives; dying in unclear circumstances under the Covid-19 pandemic cloud; for instance, former military commanders and ministers Perrance Shiri and Sibusiso Moyo, who were critical Chiwenga allies.
Mnangagwa, who was weaker compared to Chiwenga when he took over power in 2017, has now ridden out the political storm buffeting his embattled presidency. Among other things, he has the combined effects of Chiwenga’s ill-health and the Covid-19 pandemic to thank for out-muscling his deputy.
Mnangagwa made crucial consolidation moves between 2019 and 2020, while Chiwenga was battling for his life amid poisoning fears. He was airlifted from South Africa to China in July 2019 before undergoing life-saving yet risky surgery at a military hospital in Beijing to fix his oesophagus.
Although Chiwenga has not fully recovered, he is in a better position than he was when he was flown to China as he could neither eat unassisted nor talk. He was being fed through intravenous means and had to undergo an intensive feeding programme before the operation, as he was too weak to be operated on.
Prior to being airlifted to China, Chiwenga had been hospitalised in South Africa and India, giving Mnangagwa an opportunity to consolidate power by, among other tactics, removing his key allies from powerful positions.
The Covid-19 pandemic then dealt him a heavy blow, after taking the lives of his two most powerful allies in government — Agriculture minister Shiri in July 2020 and Foreign Affairs minister Moyo in January 2021 — who, like him, had traded their military fatigues for suits after the coup.
Shiri and Moyo’s death left Chiwenga vulnerable and exposed in government at a time his strongest military backers had been removed from the army, and deployed on diplomatic missions outside the country.
Chiwenga’s key military backers, who played a pivotal role in the coup, were kicked out of the army and Zanu PF, while he was battling a life-threatening illness.
Among those removed were retired Lieutenant-General Anselem Sanyatwe, who commanded troops on the ground during the coup as Presidential Guard commander. Sanyatwe is Chiwenga’s personal friend and confidante.
Sanyatwe was retired alongside several commanders ahead of diplomatic assignments in February 2019. These include the late Zimbabwe National Army chief-of-staff retired Lieutenant-General Douglas Nyikayaramba, who was chief-of-staff responsible for service personnel and logistics, retired Lieutenant-General Martin Chedondo and retired Air Marshal Sheba Shumbayawonda.
In June 2019, Mnangagwa then made another significant move by removing retired Lieutenant-General Engelbert Rugeje from the Zanu PF commissariat and replacing him with ally Victor Matemadanda, as he seized control of the party, while Chiwenga was incapacitated.
The cumulative gains were there for all to see at party congress.