In Zimbabwe, another Mugabe seeks the presidency

The president's wife, Grace Mugabe, has traveled the country in recent months, trying to shore up support for a spot as the vice president and eventual leader of Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe has ruled the country since 1987.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Zimbabwe's first lady Grace Mugabe addresses a rally in Chinhoyi, Oct. 2, 2014. In her speech Mugabe castigated factionalism in the ruling Zanu PF party, as she embarked on her maiden political rally since been nominated to head the Zanu PF ruling party women's league in July. The rally held in the small farming town marked the vivacious 49-year-old's first steps to shore up her political credentials outside President Robert Mugabe's shadow.

President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace Mugabe has begun swiftly and in earnest to succeed her husband as leader of Zimbabwe, and in the past two months she has been using the budget and the jets and helicopters of her husband to travel up and down the country in a “charm offensive” to rally support.

Ms. Mugabe, 40 years junior to her husband, is seeking to position herself as a second vice-president of Zimbabwe – ready to take control should President Mugabe, who turns 91 this year, step down or pass away. Mr. Mugabe has been in office for nearly three decades. But the first lady faces stiff resistance from the president's fellow liberation-struggle cadres, who have elbowed each other for power for years – especially current first Vice President Joice Mujuru, considered a prime successor.  

Two months ago Ms. Mugabe was nominated as head of the women’s wing of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) Patriotic Front (PF). She’s since used the spot to court church leaders, traditional chiefs, and youth – often hosting them in lavish parties at the plush family estate in Mazowe, a small town just north of the capital, Harare.

Mr. Mugabe has been ailing and has traveled to a number of overseas medical facilities. He’s rumored to possibly step down prior to 2018 when his term ends. He has hinted he may retire from the ZANU PF party leadership, though he’s accepted the nomination to lead the party congress in December.

Under Zimbabwe’s new constitution, that congress is where Grace Mugabe would need to become second in command to her husband in order to then snatch the top job.

Ms. Mugabe has shown herself willing to take on the same kind of tough approach to politics that her husband is known for. She recently told a gathering that she was ready to “spill blood” in defense of the vast empire grabbed from white farmers during the chaotic land reform that started in 2000.

But she also has dramatic and chilling claims about a variety of issues and people. She once suggested a role in the apparent suicide of a journalist named Heidi Holland who wrote a critical book on her husband.

Splitting the party?

Until recently the fiercest political fight in Zimbabwe was between incumbent Vice President Mujuru and the Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. Both are veterans of the guerrilla wars that toppled the colonial regime of the former Prime Minister Ian Douglas Smith in 1980. But that rivalry has changed with the arrival of Grace, who says she seeks a “higher post”.

In a packed schedule of “Meet the People” travels since this summer, widely and somewhat uncritically covered in the press, Ms. Mugabe has called for Mujuru to step aside and has characterized the vice president as jealous and dishonest. She said Mujuru, a liberation war veteran, was “just staying there and doing nothing while Mugabe works for you [the people].”

But Ms. Mugabe has also been an equal opportunity rhetorical aggressor: She has made veiled attacks on Mugabe’s long time ally and ZANU PF secretary for administration, Didymus Mutasa, a close ally of Mujuru in the Mugabe succession matrix.

But she does have critics who openly speak out against her. In a column titled “I beg your pardon Grace” in the Masvingo Mirror newspaper, war veteran and former top soldier Kudzai Mbudzi writes: “Amai [First Lady] … seems to me too individualistic, immature, … and purely opportunistic… We are looking for a leadership to propel the country into an orbit of sustainable competitiveness and economic prosperity after periods of economic decay.”

Political activist, Blessing Vava, says Ms. Mugabe is a pawn being used to split the current successor away: “I think Grace is not necessarily her own person, however she will be a very important factor because of her proximity to president Mugabe. She is just being used to destroy Mujuru. Mujuru will take it lying for as long as president Mugabe is alive unless she wants to split the party.” 

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