FOLLOWING last month’s surprise recovery and return of Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga from China where he was receiving medical treatment, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has moved with speed to politically and administratively consolidate his power while curtailing his highly ambitious deputy.
Mnangagwa obtained Zanu PF’s backing to contest the 2023 elections although he has served only one-and-a-half years of his five-year term. He also used his influence this week to cause cabinet to approve numerous constitutional amendments aimed at entrenching himself in power.
Mnangagwa used last week’s Zanu PF annual conference in Goromonzi to further push his main internal rival against the wall, obtaining an overwhelming endorsement from the delegates as leader of the party as well as its sole presidential candidate for future elections in a major move that leaves him in a relatively firmer position.
Mnangagwa has an uneasy relationship with Chiwenga, whose political manoeuvres since the November 2017 military coup that toppled Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe suggest he harbours presidential ambitions.
Chiwenga, who was commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, orchestrated the coup which thrust Mnangagwa into power. Zanu PF insiders say the two struck an agreement that Mnangagwa would rule for five years before paving way for Chiwenga in 2023.
The two erstwhile allies have, however, fallen out because of Chiwenga’s presidential ambitions and Mnangagwa’s consolidation bid, which has seen him elbowing out the former military commander’s allies in both government and the army.
Mnangagwa has in the aftermath of the conference gone for broke as cabinet moved to approve a raft of constitutional amendments aimed at power consolidation.
The most defining amendment approved by cabinet on Tuesday was the Constitutional Amendment Bill of 2019 which will allow the president-elect to appoint two vice-presidents, while repealing the provision of running mates.
The amendment will effectively repeal a clause in Section 92 of the 2013 constitution which provides for the joint election of the President and two running mates selected by the presidential candidate starting in 2023. The arrangement, borrowed from the American electoral system, would imply that vice-presidents would have their own power base and their removal from office would require the same constitutionally provided impeachment process applied in the case of the President.
Presenting the cabinet decisions matrix at the end of the meeting on Tuesday, Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa said the amendment would also give the President power to hire and fire his or her deputies on various grounds, including that of physical incapacitation. This dovetails with what Zanu PF hawks intended to do with Chiwenga before he returned after his prolonged illness. They were pushing for his removal on the grounds of incapacitation.
“It also set out in Section 95 the conditions under which a Vice-President will vacate office, which include resignation, removal by the President, serious misconduct, failure to uphold the Constitution or inability to perform the functions of the office due to physical or mental incapacity,” Mutsvangwa said.
Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi explained why the government had decided to do away with the running mate clause so as to create one centre of power, which in this case is Mnangagwa.
“We believe it is not desirable in our constitutional dispensation to create separate centres of power. We would rather have a president elected by the people and then appoints his team, vice-president and cabinet. That is thinking. That is what is practised in Southern Africa and several countries,” Ziyambi said in a recent interview.
The constitutional amendments will also allow Mnangagwa to handpick judges for the High Court, Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court without undertaking public interviews. All he needs to do is consult the Judicial Service Commission. The same would also apply in the appointment of the Prosecutor-General and a Public-Protector.
Judges are viewed as crucial in the Zanu PF factional matrix given that they handle cases which may shape political fates, for instance the MDC’s high-profile presidential election challenge of last year.
“Mnangagwa made giant strides in his consolidation bid by getting a mandate from Zanu PF and effecting constitutional changes through cabinet. He is now clearly in the driving seat because he has managed to isolate Chiwenga,” a top government official said. “He has taken full advantage of Chiwenga’s illness to decimate his camp. It has been a long road of consolidation and this week was a major milestone alongside the earlier disruption of Chiwenga’s critical military support base.
“The constitutional changes are significant in that the vice-presidents will serve at the pleasure of the President, even post-2023. There will be no running mate, meaning the VPs will be appointees. An appointee is weak and cannot openly challenge the appointer because of the risk of being dropped from office.”
Since the hotly contested presidential poll on July 30 last year, Mnangagwa has been using his hotly disputed mandate to strengthen his grip on power.
For instance, Mnangagwa overlooked Chiwenga’s allies in his initial cabinet announcement in September last year in a move seen as aimed at whittling down his deputy’s ambitions.
In February this year, Mnangagwa also retired three major-generals and an air vice-marshal aligned to Chiwenga from the military and reassigned them to the diplomatic service, taking them off active military service.
These are former commander of the Presidential Guard Anselem Sanyatwe, who directed the coup on the ground. He also commanded a standby force that quelled last August’s post-election violence and left at least six dead and the civil unrest that rocked the country in January this year which claimed the lives of at least 17 people.
Also discharged from the military were major-generals Douglas Nyikayaramba, Martin Chedondo and former air vice-marshal Shebba Shumbayaonda, all of whom have since joined the less influential foreign mission posts.
The build-up to the conference was punctuated by behind-the-scenes manoeuvres by Zanu PF bigwigs to topple Chiwenga from his influential position on grounds of incapacitation following his four months hospitalisation in China where he underwent complex medical procedures.