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Chiwenga: Fierce general trapped in crocodile jaws



WITHIN just six years, the once all-powerful Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga — the mover and shaker of the military coup that ousted former president Robert Mugabe and a major influencer of the second republic’s first cabinet — is now a pale shadow of his former self, as he has been left institutionally weak and politically vulnerable while serving at the pleasure of President Emmerson Mnangagwa.


Chiwenga, then the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, put his head on the block for Mnangagwa after toppling Mugabe in November 2017 before inviting Mnangagwa to lead the government, on the understanding that he would pass the baton to him in 2023.

Mnangagwa appeared down and out after being dismissed from both the government and Zanu PF, before his dramatic escape to South Africa in early November 2017.

Chiwenga opened the door for Mnangagwa’s return, after the coup, although he had control of the levers of state power.

Mnangagwa however outwitted Chiwenga as he embarked on a risky but calculated and often brutal power consolidation drive soon after getting state power. Among other things, Mnangagwa has over the years removed all military commanders who played prominent roles in the coup, with some generals dying under suspicious circumstances.

Chiwenga himself almost died of suspected poisoning while Mnangagwa narrowly escaped a bomb attack at White City Stadium in June 2018, as the unresolved leadership question raged on.

But after the 11 September cabinet appointment following his controversial victory in the 23 August elections, Mnangagwa showed all and sundry that he was firmly in charge. He appointed his son, close relatives and acquitances in government as he flexed his muscle.

Chiwenga was removed as Health minister and now just remains an appointed Vice-President — unelected and vulnerable — largely ceremonial.

Mnangagwa amended the constitution last year to ensure the clause on running mates is not implemented to ensure Chiwenga does not become an elected Vice-President with power and in the process a shoo-in successor. He is now an appointed VP within the ruling party, Zanu PF, and in the government.

Chiwenga, who looked uneasy during Mnangagwa’s cabinet announcement, was further weakened after Mnangagwa dumped the military in his disputed re-election, but relying on a new clandestine CIO-run securocratic outfit, Forever Associates Zimbabwe.
He emerged as the biggest loser in the elections.

Euphoric Zimbabweans cheer soldiers during the 2017 coup

How Mnangagwa consolidated

Mnangagwa proved he was in control when he was elected Zanu PF’s first secretary and president at the 7th elective congress between 26 to 29 October last year at Robert Mugabe Square (also known as Freedom Square) in Harare.

Although Chiwenga had over the years worked on challenging Mnangangwa, after he showed signs he would violate an agreement to hand him power after five years at the helm, the former military general ultimately failed to mount a challenge.

Chiwenga thrust Mnangagwa into power as part of a plan to soften the coup, which was termed a military assisted transition.

Right from the onset, there was an understanding between Chiwenga and his military backers that Mnangagwa would be in power for five years before handing power to the former military general.

Chiwenga traded his military fatigues for suits after the coup following his appointment as Vice-President, although Mnangagwa preferred to appoint Oppah Muchinguri as his deputy, which was seen as a first sign at somersaulting.

As reported by The NewsHawks several times, no sooner had Chiwenga assumed power than he started consolidating his grip by — among other tactics — purging Chiwenga’s allies, setting the stage for a power battle between the two gladiators.

Tension and mistrust between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga built up since the early days of the coup, as the two disagreed on cabinet and Zanu PF appointments, among other decisions.

The June 2018 bombing at White City Stadium in Bulawayo also heightened the tension between the two leaders. Mnangagwa’s backers believe he was the target of the White City bombing, which they insist was an inside job.

In violation of the coup agreement, Mnangagwa wanted to appoint Oppah Muchinguri his deputy, but Chiwenga demanded the position.

Initially he wanted war veteran Victor Matemadanda to be appointed the Zanu PF political commissar, but his deputy insisted that the position be given to his close ally, retired Lieutenan-General Engelbert Rugeje. Mnangagwa also entertained forming a transitional government which would incorporate several people, among them former Zapu president Dumiso Dabengwa, but the idea was shot down by Chiwenga and his military backers, who wanted control.

Mnangagwa, however, took advantage of Chiwenga’s health woes to purge his allies from government and the military, often while his deputy was seeking treatment outside the country, thereby strengthening his hand.

The Covid-19 pandemic also rattled the Chiwenga faction as it eliminated some of his strongest allies such as retired Leutenant-General Sibusiso Moyo, who was the face of the coup, after announcing the military action as well as former Air Force of Zimbabwe commander Perrance Shiri.

Mnangagwa and his supporters started pushing for the President to remain in charge beyond 2023 as early as December 2018 during the ruling party’s Esigodini annual conference.

Prior to the push, Chiwenga and others were shocked to see Mnangagwa announcing in an interview in September 2018 during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York that he would seek re-election in 2023.

Mnangagwa’s power consolidation drive gained momentum following Shiri’s death in July 2020 and Moyo’s death in January 2021, given that the two were critical political cogs in the Chiwenga faction. After Shiri’s death, Chiwenga and his army-driven faction pushed for his replacement with a person with a military background, but Mnangagwa appointed his ally from Masvingo, Anxious Jongwe Masuka.

One of Mnangagwa’s key strategies has been to mainly appoint his ethnic Karanga homeboys, mostly from the Midlands and Masvingo provinces, into key positions, as part of a power consolidation strategy.

Chiwenga, Shiri and Moyo were critical in the planning and execution of the 2017 coup.
Besides being the face of the coup, Moyo was one of the key architects of the operation against Mugabe and worked hand-in-glove with Chiwenga when he was in charge of the military’s business units, which became central in building a war chest to execute the mission.

After assuming power, Mnangagwa unleashed a wave of purges in the military, police and Central Intelligence Organisation targeting Mugabe and former first lady Grace Mugabe’s allies first, before going for Chiwenga’s loyalists.

Key commanders — who pivoted the coup, including the commander of the Presidential Guard retired Lieutenant-General Anselem Sanyatwe — were removed in February 2019, while Chiwenga was battling ill-health in India.

Commanders retired ahead of diplomatic assignments included former Zimbabwe National Army chief-of-staff retired Lieutenant-General Douglas Nyikayaramba, who was chief-of-staff responsible for service personnel and logistics.

Nyikayaramba also succumbed to Covid-19. Other casualties were retired Lieutenant-General Martin Chedondo and retired Air Marshal Sheba Shumbayawonda. In May 2019, Mnangagwa then appointed Sanyatwe Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Tanzania, while Nyikayaramba was posted to Maputo, Mozambique. Chedondo was sent to China.

Sanyatwe had a personal relationship with Chiwenga to the extent that he flew from Tanzania to assist him finalise his divorce proceedings with his former wife Marry Mubaiwa.

Sanyatwe presented the Mubaiwa family with Chiwenga’s divorce token (gupuro), a traditional way of confirming that a marriage is irretrievably broken. Another big blow for the Chiwenga camp was Rugeje’s removal from heading Zanu PF’s critical mass mobilisation political commissariat.

Rugeje operated in the war room during the coup. Soon after the coup, Chiwenga arm-twisted Mnangagwa to appoint Rugeje as political commissar ahead of his preferred candidate Victor Matemadanda, albeit temporarily.

Mnangagwa later removed Rugeje from the position before appointing Matemadanda in June 2019. Mnangagwa’s cumulative manoeuvres shifted the balance of power in Zanu PF in his favour, although Chiwenga had an upper hand after the coup.

The political war of attrition between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga found expression in the President’s controversial biography titled A Life of Sacrifice: Emmerson Mnangagwa, which book reviewers and political analysts say exposed the widening rift between the two.
It was launched in August 2021. The 154-page biography, which Mnangagwa described as a “brief window” into his life, was authored by Eddie Cross, a former opposition MDC high-ranking official and MP.

The book is a hagiography for Mnangagwa which depicts Chiwenga in negative light through its narrative.

Cross, Mnangagwa’s biographer and newfound loyalist, said the President would brook no nonsense from those threatening his grip on power, seen as a warning to Chiwenga.

Mnangagwa, who at the time of the coup had fled the country to South Africa after his mentor-cum-tormentor Mugabe had hounded him out, only returned after Chiwenga led the coup that sent Mugabe packing. Mugabe later described Mnangagwa as his “tormentor”.

The book revealed that Chiwengwa’s appointment as co-deputy, together with Kembo Mohadi, was part of Mnangagwa’s coup-proofing ploy.

Mnangagwa appointed General Philip Valerio Sibanda to succeed Chiwenga as commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces. Sibanda, according to the book, is “possibly the best soldier in southern Africa and a man that was deeply respected in the army”.

“Mnangagwa’s actions drew little attention, but what the President was doing was closing the door on any possibility of the military-assisted transition (military coup) being repeated. He needed to know that the security services were led by men in whom he had confidence as professionals,” the book says.

Also in 2021, Mnangagwa strengthening his grip on power, while weakening Chiwenga by amending the constitution through Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 2) Act which gave him powers to extend the terms of judges who reach retirement age, and appoint senior judges without subjecting them to public interviews.

The Act scrapped a running mate clause which Mnangagwa’s camp feared would leave him vulnerable to an empowered vice president.

The running mate clause allowed Mnangagwa to have a pliant deputy — serving at his pleasure — while giving him greater control over cabinet, the Prosecutor-General and Public Protector.
After the December 2021 provincial elections, Mnangagwa used his muscle to reverse results in provinces where his backers had lost.

He further consolidated by ensuring that his backers were elected into the central committee in September 2022, ahead of the Zanu PF congress in October where he sealed his control of the party.

Mnangagwa was elected president unopposed, showing he had outwitted Chiwenga’s military faction after a brutal political battle. The victory was symbolised by Chiwenga kneeling before Mnangagwa in public.

Mnangagwa’s 23 August re-election further strengthened his hand.

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