Amid Zanu PF's seemingly intractable factional and succession wars, President Robert Mugabe now has to contend with another mindless battle that is brewing between his deputies, Phelekezela Mphoko and Emmerson Mnangagwa.
At the heart of the new ruckus is a deadly fight over who is senior and more powerful between the two men who were appointed to their positions by Mugabe in December last year, following the brutal ouster from power of former Vice resident Joice Mujuru and her allies over murky allegations of plotting to depose and kill the embattled nonagenarian.
Zanu PF and government sources yesterday said the new war avenue "manifested the ruling party's undecided succession issue", adding that it was so deep-rooted and apparent to the extent that it was becoming "an embarrassing problem" at both party and State level.
"This is now an embarrassing problem as VPs Mphoko and Mnangagwa appear to be butting heads about their roles everyday, both at Zanu PF and government level," one of
the sources familiar with the issue said.
Another source said it was not "by accident" that Mphoko had, while giving a lecture at the Great Zimbabwe University in Masvingo last week, made it clear that he was not junior to Mnangagwa, going to the "ridiculous extent" of correcting and embarrassing a subordinate who had introduced him as the country's second vice president.
This was after Josiah Hungwe, a close ally of Mnangagwa, had addressed Mphoko as second vice president — with the VP bluntly and indignantly pointing out that there was no such position in both Zanu PF and the government.
"Before I proceed, I would like to make a point of correction to Cde Hungwe. We do not have a first and second vice president in our structures. We just have two vice presidents. We only have one first secretary of the party, who is President Robert Mugabe, and two second secretaries of the party who are the vice presidents. So, I wanted to make that correction," Mphoko told the stunned university gathering.
Mphoko has also, curiously, recently moved to distance himself from the rampant factionalism devouring Zanu PF, telling party supporters in Hurungwe that he allegedly had no office but worked under the auspices of Mugabe — a move interpreted by insiders as a jab against Mnangagwa and other bigwigs who are linked to factions.
"Having been away from the party for a long time, Mphoko has no faction and prides himself for being clean. However, we all know that Mnangagwa is heavily linked to a faction in the party," a Zanu PF central committee source said.
A senior civil servant said in addition to the "simmering tension" between Mnangagwa and Mphoko being "rooted in Zanu PF's terrible succession politics", another contributing factor was that "the structure set up is not clear on whether there is a first vice president or not" both at party and government level.
"I sympathise with both men as things are only clear when President Mugabe is away and one of them, and now that VP Mphoko is also assuming the duties, is acting president," the official said.
Another senior Zanu PF official said he understood that the problem was now so bad that Mphoko had allegedly recently approached Mugabe to complain that Mnangagwa was
"always undermining him and treating him like a junior vice president" when the two men were equal "at least in theory".
"VP Mphoko takes no prisoners and has told the president that he must be treated as an equal with Mnangagwa, whose backers view him as the first VP and him as the second.
"And I can understand why Mphoko may feel undermined and why Mnangagwa is often seen as the first VP by the media and party structures, as he (Mnangagwa) has worked closely with the President for a long time which may explain why he has acted for the president on more occasions than Mphoko," the official said.
A Zanu PF leader in the troubled Harare province said many officials were "gravitating" towards Mphoko as they allegedly regarded him as "a sober and impartial head" in Zanu PF's vicious wars — including the recent bloodletting over the choice of the party's Harare East candidate in the forthcoming by-elections.
A lawyer who was reluctant to be identified fearing being drawn into Zanu PF's wars said a further complicating factor in the Mnangagwa and Mphoko feud was that the country's Constitution stated that in the event that the president died or became incapacitated, the person who was the last acting president would take office for up to 90 days within which the party of the dead president would choose a successor to complete his term of office.
"With the Constitution giving both vice presidents an equal chance, Mnangagwa is thus no longer the clear favourite to succeed Mugabe although he has the advantage of always being ahead in the acting role," the lawyer said.
Alex Magaisa, a constitutional law expert who was part of the team that drafted the current constitution, confirmed that under the new supreme law, there was no VP hierarchy, at least until 2023 when the running mate clause will be introduced.
"There is nothing like that under the current set-up. If we were using the running-mates system, yes, there would be a first and second VP, but we do not have that system until 2023. At present, both VPs are appointed on an equal basis," Magaisa said.
But other legal experts say there is a conflict of interest between two provisions in the Constitution, with Section 100(1) suggesting that there is a hierarchy between the Vice Presidents and section 14(3) suggesting, on the contrary, that the two Vice Presidents are equal.
"This hierarchical structure does not apply under the present system, because s. 92 and the running mates system does not become operational until 2023. Under the current system, the Vice Presidents are appointed by the President in terms of Section 14 (2) of the Sixth Schedule.
"The two Vice Presidents are equal at law. One might contend that there is an internal political hierarchy within Zanu PF, which might make one of either VP Mnangagwa or VP Mphoko more senior than the other, but under the national Constitution, they are equals," Magaisa explained.
Even the Zanu PF constitution and the Unity Accord of 1987, signed between Mugabe and the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo makes no reference to a first or second VP.
Article 4 of the Unity Accord states: "That Zanu-PF shall have two Second Secretaries and Vice Presidents who shall be appointed by the First Secretary and President of the party."
And article 7 of the party's constitution reads: "There shall be a Central Committee which shall be the principal organ of Congress and shall consist of . . . (a) President and First Secretary; (b) Two Vice Presidents and Second Secretaries".