State media reports in Zimbabwe say former president Robert Mugabe is backing the National Patriotic Front (NPF), a breakaway party from the ruling Zanu-PF, in a bid to make a political comeback.
Reports that Mugabe is plotting a political comeback have clearly rattled his successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Returning to the political fray would be a very risky move by the 94-year-old ex-leader, jeopardising his generous golden handshake at the very least. But some analysts believe such a bold political gambit by Mugabe could be a spoiler, contributing to a shock defeat for Mnangagwa in the general elections expected in July, even if Mugabe has no chance of returning to power himself.
Retired army brigadier and Zanu-PF MP Ambrose Mutinhiri, a veteran of the liberation struggle of the 1970s, resigned from the party and from Parliament a week ago, as a protest against the military coup which had ousted Mugabe in November. On Sunday Mutunhiri met Mugabe at his Harare home and then on Monday announced the launch of the NPF.
The NPF is seen as a political vehicle for the so-called G40 faction of Zanu-PF, which included Mugabe’s wife Grace and is bitterly opposed to Mnangagwa, who routed its members in and after the coup.
The NPF has suggested that it has Mugabe’s backing, though he himself has not confirmed this. Addressing a Zanu-PF Youth meeting on Wednesday, Mnangagwa said he was “unhappy” with the reports that Mugabe was backing the NPF but had not yet confirmed them.
Analysts are not sure if Mugabe would be so bold as to take on Mnangagwa directly or if he would make any political impact if he did so. He has a lot to lose. After he was pressured to step down by the military after firing Mnangagwa as deputy president, Mugabe was reportedly offered a very generous severance package including a $10-million pension and many perks such as full security for himself and his family and many free flights on the national carrier.
Tony Reeler, a senior researcher at Harare’s Research and Advocacy Unit, says the extent of Mugabe’s involvement in the NPF is not yet clear , but it was evident by his recent statement to visiting African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki that he had not accepted his displacement.
“His statement that it was a coup is an indication that he has not given up the fight.”
If Mugabe is indeed making a political comeback, it’s still not clear what his intentions are, Reeler says.
“I would doubt that he is seeking a return to power as things have gone too far for this to happen.
“More than likely his goal is to prevent Mnangagwa from consolidating his power, but the question is whether this is to allow the opposition to win, or to push for some kind of transitional arrangement in which he might have a role.
“I doubt that the NPF will be able to win an election at this point, but it can be a very serious spoiler,” he added, citing the breakaway from Zanu-PF by Bhora Musango which cost the party dearly in the 2008 elections.
Reeler said it was also not clear what support Mugabe still had among the rural citizenry. He thought Mnangagwa might be reluctant to take away his privileges for fear of losing a large chunk of rural voters.
Other analysts have said Mnangagwa was always in danger of losing substantial support in the three Mashonaland provinces if there were a split in Zanu-PF. Some see the split in ethnic terms, between clans in the dominant Shona tribe. Mnangagwa is apparently a member of the Karanga clan while Mugabe is a member of the Zezuru clan.
Zimbabwean media owner Trevor Ncube on Thursday tweeted a warning to the new party not to stir up ethnic hostilities, saying, “NPF aims to stop the perceived Karanga control of Zanu-PF. This is a very dangerous game”
Reeler said it remained to be seen how NPF would play this year’s elections.
“Will the NPF operate as a spoiler as one Zanu-PF faction did in 2008? Will they try to be a real challenger by pulling in all the disaffected Zanu-PF people – including [former Deputy President Joice] Mujuru, etc? Or will they try to join a ‘grand coalition’?
“All of these are serious problems for Mnangagwa, who not only has to fight to keep his rump of Zanu-PF intact, but has to deliver something to the ordinary citizen that might attract votes.
“This latter looks increasingly difficult, and, even if he can keep his rump intact, he will face a very difficult election, especially for the presidency. I would guess, as things stand now, Mnangagwa is unlikely to get a clear majority on the first round, and could very easily lose the second round if all other parties throw their weight behind the second challenger, whoever that might be, but looks likely to be Chamisa.”
Nelson Chamisa is the new leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) faction which was led by its founder Morgan Tsvangirai, until his recent death from cancer. Several other opposition parties have nominated him as their joint presidential candidate.
Reeler concluded by saying; “In sum. I would say that Mugabe entering the fray has changed the terrain dramatically, and has given the NPF a credible political base, even if it a negative one based on those that were illegally removed from office. My guess is this is not only stirring up Zanu-PF, but causing no end of discomfort in the SADC and the international community.”
However, another Zimbabwe analyst, Derek Matyszak of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), does not believe the NPF presents a real challenge to Mnangagwa. In an interview with News24 he dismissed it as just a project by Mugabe and other disaffected Zanu-PF members to continue his legacy.
Matyszak said it was “wishful thinking” to believe the new party had “the gravitas to challenge the ruling Zanu-PF party”. He also found it very hypocritical of Mugabe to demand an apology from Mnangagwa for ousting him, as Mugabe reportedly did at his recent 94th birthday party. He noted that Mugabe had overseen “the most brutal regime under the Zanu-PF banner for years”.
Zimbabwean political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said he didn’t know what the NPF’s strategy was.
“But I hope they can read the dynamics on the ground and understand why it is crucial to have one presidential candidate if we want to dump the military under President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga.
“Certainly that presidential candidate can’t be anyone formerly associated with Zanu-PF.”
Zimbabwe advocate Freedom Chuma said he had no doubt Mugabe had given his blessing and support to the NPF as he was clearly very unhappy with the way he was ousted.
“I think Mugabe is a person with a resilient character. Once he sticks to a principle, he can die with it. His argument is that politics should lead the gun and no matter how much they might disentitle him or take away his ill-gotten wealth, he might actually choose to go down fighting.”
Arthur Sibanda, from Bulawayo, advised Mugabe to remain in retirement.
“What more does he need? He must take a back seat and let others lead. His time has passed and he should focus on other things such as playing grandfather to his grandchildren or writing books.