She began her career young as a guerrilla, and then rose through the ranks to become a member of President Robert Mugabe’s inner circle and now Zimbabwe’s new Constitution has come as a blessing to her in the faction-riddled Zanu PF.
The 59-year-old Vice President Joice Mujuru is in line to be the country’s interim leader if the 90-year-old Mugabe was to retire or is incapacitated before the party’s congress.
With Mugabe at an advanced age and plagued by natural physical challenges associated with such an age, the Zanu PF succession battle could reach its climax this year with the party’s explosive congress set for December.
Justice minister and shrewd political schemer, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is locked in a perpetual succession duel with Mujuru, and the Chirimanzu-Zibagwe MP has emerged as one of the leading contenders to take over from Mugabe, but the veteran Zanu PF leader has not named a successor and has recently ruled out both “contenders”.
But Mujuru has long been a high-profile face in Mugabe’s administration, serving as acting president each time the Zanu PF leader travels outside the country.
The big question is what actually happens to Zimbabwe if Mugabe decides to retire or is incapacitated?
Bryant Elliot, a leading constitutional law expert, pointed to an article in the new Zimbabwe Constitution that explains what should happen when a president retires or is incapacitated.
The Constitution addresses two scenarios directly relevant to the president in office.
If Mugabe were to leave office, retire or be incapacitated, Mujuru, according to the new Constitution, is supposed to complete Mugabe’s term as that is the position set out in Section 101 of the new supreme law.
However, Elliot said, for the first 10 years of the new Constitution, that provision is altered by the provisions of Section 14 of the Sixth Schedule and in particular sub-sections (4) and (5) as read with sub-section (1), the effect of which is that a substantive replacement to the office of the president must be made “within 90 days after the vacancy occurred…”
“It is only until the new president assumes office after the 90 days period that the vice president acts as president, not until the end of his term if he had survived,” Elliot explained.
“Also, there is the vague provision that the political party, which the previous president represented, nominates his replacement and that political party ‘must notify the Speaker of the nominee’s name…”
“This provision presupposes that the political party concerned speaks with one voice in agreeing who is to submit the name of the replacement to the Speaker and crucially who that replacement is.”
The import of this is that if Mugabe is incapacitated anytime soon, he must be immediately replaced by the last acting president.
And with Zimbabwe having only one vice president, it means Mujuru will take over for 90 days after which Zanu PF will nominate a president to complete Mugabe’s term.
Political analysts say that while Mnangagwa might use his political skills to win the ticket to replace the president at the end of 90 days, Mujuru would have possibly used Machiavelli tactics to whip his party into line so that they all support and nominate her.
That means, if nominated, which is likely, she will be the country’s leader until 2018.
But things might become complicated if Mugabe gets to the Zanu PF congress without retiring which means a second vice president ( Simon Khaya-Moyo looks likely) will be appointed.
This will mean that whoever will have been the last acting president between Mujuru and Khaya-Moyo will take over for the 90 days.
Many suspect however, that Mnangagwa, who is leader of government business in Parliament and a hardline Mugabe ally, may make a run for presidential nomination at party level, forcing Zanu PF into conflict with itself as is happening now.
If Mujuru chooses to contest in the 2018 election, it seems likely she would face opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, a charismatic political gladiator who received 34 percent of the vote when he competed against Mugabe, who garnered 61 percent of the vote in July last year.
If Mujuru temporarily assumes the presidency, analysts have said it is difficult to tell whether she will have what it takes to win at the 2018 polls but that will another issue.
They note that Mugabe’s political strength was largely fuelled by his ability to personally connect with throngs of dedicated followers.
And that personal connection with his supporters is “what’s held things together in Zimbabwe,” an analyst said.
Mugabe has in the past said he was not happy with both Mnangagwa and Mujuru taking over from him, meaning the veteran leader can pull a fast one at the congress and push his own personal choice outside the two.
Mugabe might then commandeer Zanu PF to support his candidate and this is where names like retired Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) governor Gideon Gono and Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi come in.
Zanu PF factions have already expressed their jittery with Mugabe’s closeness to Gono following reports that the Zimbabwean President prefers the ex-RBZ governor to take over from him not only because they enjoy a close relationship but due to the fact that Gono is credited with keeping the country afloat during the economic crisis of 2008-9.
The worry is that without Mugabe’s cult of personality, Zimbabwean politics plunge into chaos.
In a country laden with widespread corruption, which has a powerful military, and links to murky diamond trade, this is especially scary.
Even before the last July election, there was widespread talk of an armed conflict if Mugabe was not elected, and the country has growing economic problems that any new leader may find impossible to handle.
After Mujuru’s elevation to the vice presidency in 2004, Mugabe said, “When you choose her as a vice president, you don’t want her to remain in that chair do you?” — a suggestion that Mujuru could be the next Zanu PF leader after Mugabe steps down.
Given the provisions of the new Constitution, observers say her path to the presidency was a fait accompli.
Born into a peasant family in Mount Darwin, where she resoundingly won a legislative poll last year squarely and fairly, Mujuru dropped out of school young and was aged 18 when she joined the liberation army. She rose through the guerrilla ranks to become a commander.
Her notoriety increased after she single-handedly shot down a Rhodesian army helicopter.
“I became very strong and learnt to make decisions and not wait for men to decide,” she said of her experience of war.
She joined Mugabe’s first post-independence Cabinet in 1980 at 25, and was one of the longest-serving government ministers before her elevation to the vice presidency in 2004.
Mujuru lives in Harare, but has a 3 500-acre requisitioned farm, Alamein, about 60km south of Harare where her husband Solomon’s remains were found after a mysterious fire in 2011.