Is Mugabe losing control of Zimbabwe?

Court documents show two ministers are defying President Robert Mugabe in a power struggle over control of a mining company.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters/FILE
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends an international investment conference in Harare in July.
Soldiers run past a store during an outbreak of violence in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe in December 2008.

As leader of Zimbabwe since liberation in 1980, President Robert Mugabe has ruled with an iron fist, using a North-Korean trained brigade to put down a rebellion; eliminating rivals through show trials or allegedly via mysterious car crashes; and, during elections, intimidating opposition supporters, journalists, and human rights advocates with state-sponsored violence.

But is Mr. Mugabe actually still in charge?

A civil court case, launched by a Zimbabwean businessman to get back assets that were nationalized under Mugabe's government, raises serious questions about who really controls the levers of power in Zimbabwe today and whether any promises made by Mugabe would be honored by the ministers and generals in his own government.

Documents – including private cellphone text messages from senior Mugabe ministers – obtained by the Monitor from public court records in the case brought by businessman Mutumwa Mawere in the Zimbabwe Supreme Court in Harare, indicate that the authority of the 85-year-old Mugabe is being directly undermined by two of his closest confidants, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mr. Chinamasa is the chief respondent in the Mawere case, which opens Friday Sept. 4, and Mr. Mnangagwa ­– a former intelligence chief – is a front-runner in the bid to replace Mugabe.

"The question is, 'who is really in charge of the ZANU-PF [Mugabe's party]?' " says Takawira Musavengana, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane (Pretoria) and knowledgeable about the Mawere case. "When we focus on Mugabe, we're missing the ball. Who are the people behind Mugabe? What do they want? What interests do they have to protect? These power brokers will stop at nothing to make sure that Mugabe or someone who sings from the same hymn sheet is in charge."

The Mugabe succession battle

Like Kremlinologists watching senior communists at a Red Square parade, Zimbabwe watchers have been following rumors of the Mugabe succession battle for nearly a decade, but rarely have the private exchanges between Zimbabwe's sparring ministers come out into the public. The implications of this succession battle could come to a climax in December, when ZANU-PF holds a congress to elect its party leaders. Depending on which faction wins, the choice of Mugabe's successor could have wide-reaching effects, potentially undermining the current fragile coalition government with ZANU-PF's chief opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and threaten a return of intimidation and violence by security agencies aiming to retain control.

The only thing that is certain, for now, is that ZANU-PF's key players are not playing nicely, among themselves or with others.

A tycoon spurned

Mr. Mawere, a multimillionaire businessman who once had close ties with the ZANU-PF government, and particularly with members of his own Karanga tribal group, owns a massive business empire with interests across Southern Africa. But Mawere was accused of "externalizing" – taking out of the country – some $80 million in assets from his Zimbabwe-based asbestos mine, Shabanie Mashaba Mine Holdings (SMMH), and the Zimbabwean government moved to nationalize his company in 2004.

While Mawere has fallen out with some key ZANU-PF leaders – including former business partner Mnangagwa, the defense minister – he has tried to open negotiations directly with Mugabe. On May 9, and again the following day, he met personally with Mugabe in Tshwane during the inauguration proceedings for newly elected South African President Jacob Zuma. In June, he began to have almost daily text-message conversations with Mugabe's Reserve Bank governor, Gideon Gono.

Although close to Mugabe, Dr. Gono is now battling to retain his job, since it was Gono who printed so much Zimbabwe currency that the country suffered an inflation rate of 231 million percent.

Text-message evidence

In a June 6 text message, written in typical shorthand on his BlackBerry, Gono wrote to Mawere that there was strong opposition within Mugabe's inner circle to resolving the Mawere case. Justice Minister Chinamasa warned Gono against involving himself in the matter on Mugabe's behalf.

"Chinam group insisting tht me and vakuru [the old man, i.e. Mugabe] shudnt interfere with the cot processes - as it wil set bad precedents'!" Gono wrote in his clipped text-messages.

"If w do tht it makes it dificult 2 argue tht we cant do the same with [Roy Bennet MDC Treasurer who is in court facing treason charges], Jestina Mukoko [tortured human rights activist accused of plotting to kill Mugabe] and others. U c the strait jacket vakuru is being given 2 wear."

In their Harare offices, members of ZANU-PF's higher echelon fretted that Mugabe and his lieutenant Gono were about to return Mawere's mining company, and they mobilized to stop them from doing so.

In a May 19 letter, A.M. Gwaradzimba, the government's administrator of Mawere's former company SMM wrote to Chinamasa, the justice minister, instructing him to resist any efforts to "give back" Mawere's company.

According to the letter, a Gono deputy told Mr. Gwaradzimba that "this was a directive from the highest office in the land, coming through the office of the Governor of the [Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe]. According to him, a deal might have been struck between the President and MDM (Mawere), whereby the Government of Zimbabwe would give back the control and ownership of SMM to MDM. I however advised [the deputy] to go back and advise why it was ill-advised to temper with the reconstruction process [of the company] at this point in time."

Rule of law or tribal rifts?

While Zimbabwe makes a show of maintaining a rule of law ­– even jailed journalists accused of treason can have their day in court – true power and political alliances still revolve around tribal and family relations. The main division within the ZANU-PF, for instance, runs along tribal lines with the friends and relatives belonging to the Karanga tribe of Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa on one side, and the friends and relatives of Vice President Joyce Mujuru's (and President Mugabe's) Zezuru tribe on the other.

Anything that disturbs that tribal balance, including the recent death of Mugabe's second vice president, Joseph Msika ­– a Zezuru –has the potential for setting off violent sparring among ambitious contenders within ZANU-PF.

Ironically, it is ZANU-PF's persistent use of force against any opposition that many analysts interpret as a sign of weakness.

Its "land invasions," in which Mugabe supporters were encouraged to force white farmers off their lands, came just after a stinging referendum in which Zimbabweans voted en masse in 2000 against Mugabe and in favour of a new constitution that would weaken Mugabe's power.

The use of security forces and private militias to intimidate, detain, torture and kill opposition supporters during the lead-up to the March 2008 elections is also viewed by many observers as a ZANU-PF response to seeing its grip on Zimbabwean voters slipping. Nearly 500 opposition supporters were killed during those elections, and thousands more were displaced. The ZANU-PF denied that it had any role in the detention, torture, or death of opposition supporters.

Resistance to Mugabe-Mawere resolution

But despite this hardened attitude on the political field, Mugabe's willingness to meet with Mawere, the businessman, in South Africa this past May, sent shivers through much of the ZANU-PF establishment.

Senior ZANU-PF officials, including Chinamasa, publicly denied that Mugabe had met Mawere in May. But a member of Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Office (CIO), confirms that the meeting took place, and that it was cordial.

"The president wanted Mawere to furnish him with details and circumstance that led to the reconstruction of SMMH and some of his companies, which is currently taking place and what led to his specification," says the CIO officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "At the second meeting, the businessman brought all the important papers about SMMH and the president promised that he would help him."

It is this promise that caused the strongest reactions among senior ZANU-PF members in Mugabe's Cabinet. Arguing first that the president had no cause to interrupt the process of nationalizing Mawere's companies, and later arguing that intervening in a court case now would set a precedent for other court cases, Mugabe's presumed underlings repeatedly stalled the process, countermanding Mugabe's orders.

In a June 7, 2009, text message to Mawere, Reserve Bank governor Gono writes that he is facing stiff resistance from Chinamasa and Mnangagwa, who are trying to stop the president's efforts through legal and illegal means.

"We want to move swiftly so that matter is not intercepted," Gono writes. "I hear guys were lining up to snap your cos [companies] after legal or illegal process in cot this or next week. They wil b surprised."

In a separate message on that day, Gono adds, "Pse accept an apology frm 4 any distress I may have bn said I caused tho my prez and me are now clear wht we seem 2 hav bn up gainst! Misrepresentations and malice behind our baks! Gud day."

Court case goes ahead

At present Mawere, who confirms the details of this story and the veracity of the documents obtained by the Monitor, says he does not know how long the court case will take, nor what the outcome will be. Civil cases in Zimbabwe can take years to complete, or they can be thrown out in a day or two.

But in Mawere's court statements, the implications of this case show a government in disarray, with individual ministers following their own directions and disregarding those of Mugabe.

"To date, His Excellencey [Mugabe] has not officially informed me of the outcome of his intervention," Mawere writes in an Aug. 2009 court affidavit. "All I have been able to establish is that the negotiations were interrupted by the Respondent [Chinamasa] with the support of the Minister of Defence, Hon. E. Mnangagwa, whose interest and involvement in the matter remains undefined.

"One can hardly say that the decision to stop negotiations was made by the government as alleged by the Respondent," Mawere continues. "There is no basis for the Applicant [Chinamasa] to withdraw this appeal because the decision to postpone the litigation was at the instance of Dr. Gono under the instruction of His Excellency, The President of Zimbabwe. However, this case appears to have its own peculiar features that go beyond national interest."

• A Zimbabwean journalist, whose name could not be given for security reasons, wrote this story from Johannesburg.

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