HARARE (Reuters) – The death of a top Zimbabwean army general in a bizarre fire has changed the dynamics in internal ZANU-PF battles over President Robert Mugabe’s succession, but analysts say the issue remains unsettled and could lead to some bruising battles ahead.
General Solomon Mujuru, a key figure in Mugabe’s party for nearly four decades, was, according to authorities, burnt to ashes when his farmhouse caught fire.
This official version, suggesting the authorities do not suspect foul play although police are still probing the death, has sparked rumours that the general was murdered.
Mujuru, 67, popularly known by his guerrilla name Rex Nhongo, was married to Vice-President Joice Mujuru, and was deputy head of Mugabe’s liberation army ZANLA in the 1970s and the country’s first black army commander.
Many saw him as a strongman able to stand up to Mugabe, 87, who has led Zimbabwe for more than three decades.
Mujuru headed a ZANU-PF faction which wanted Joice Mujuru to succeed Mugabe as party and state president, jostling against another faction led by Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Recently rumours surfaced that the general was pressing Mugabe to step down and that his ZANU-PF faction also courted the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai for a possible coalition after general elections likely to be held in the next two years.
Political analysts see the Mujuru faction as the moderate wing of a party whose current political and economic policies are driven by hardliners who helped Mugabe’s fight-back to power in a disputed poll in 2008.
“There is no doubt that Mujuru’s death is a major blow to his faction, and could be a game changer in the succession saga,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.
“There is nobody in his faction with his stature, his political pedigree and his courage to rally support for his wife and to cut political deals,” he told Reuters.
Masunungure said an outbreak of political infighting could now be expected because there were other ZANU-PF figures eyeing Mugabe’s position besides Joice Mujuru and Mnangagwa, for years regarded as Mugabe’s prefered successor.
Over the last few months, a number of local media reports dismissed by government officials have suggested that the current army commander, General Constantine Chiwenga, has presidential ambitions.
Lovemore Madhuku, head of the National Constitutional Assembly pressure group said Mugabe is likely to have a big say on his eventual successor and may use Mujuru’s death to take a hard look at problems in his party.
“I think Mugabe is going to have a big say on how this will all end, because although his critics say he is a big liability he is also a big asset in ZANU-PF because he wields authority, and is a renowned strategist,” he said.
Mnangagwa, a secretive political figure known as “the crocodile,” has worked with Mugabe since the 1960s when he was jailed as a teenager after training as a guerrilla fighter and being captured by Rhodesian forces during a botched operation.
In public, Mnangagwa denies he has any ambition for the presidency, but many say Mugabe has tended to gravitate towards his longtime personal assistant for his toughness, his temperament and his loyalty.
Analysts say Mugabe has probably maintained the balance of of power in ZANU-PF by playing one faction against the other but his advancing age, the threat posed by Tsvangirai and the MDC and Mujuru’s tragic death could push him to resolve the thorny succession issue.