Unpacking Zanu PF succession debate

via Unpacking Zanu PF succession debate November 29, 2013 by Zechariah Mushawatu Zimbabwe Independent

IN the last couple of years, acres of space in the private media has been dedicated to debating leadership succession in Zanu PF.

However, none of the news stories or opinion-editorial pieces published so far have sufficiently traced the causes of succession problems in the party or investigated the consequences of succession battles elsewhere so as to make an extrapolation of Zanu PF’s future based on what has been observed in other political parties that have gone through similar experiences.

Furthermore, no academics in the field of political science have put forth any solutions aimed at addressing succession problems.

It is from this background that I have found it necessary to write an analysis of Zanu PF’s succession power struggle.

Firstly, it is imperative to note that most of the succession problems being witnessed in Zanu PF have been witnessed elsewhere. Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China (CPC) witnessed internecine struggles for power similar to the ones taking place in Zanu PF before and after his death.

Similarly, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under the leadership of both Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin went through succession problems similar to the ones being faced by Zanu PF.

But before delving into the outcomes of succession fights in other political parties, it is essential to give a short definition of succession and outline the causes of its attendant problems being witnessed in Zimbabwe’s ruling party.

Simply defined, succession is the way in which political power passes, or is transferred from one individual, government or regime to another. Though it can be delayed for different reasons, succession cannot be avoided and eventually has to take place due to the fact that all office holders are mortal. Having defined succession, it is important to trace how its problems currently being witnessed in Zanu PF came about.

Lack of planning

Although Zanu PF has been in existence for over 50 years, the party has not established a clear succession plan aimed at regulating the passing of power from one leader to another.

While it would be wrong to claim that it has nothing that resembles a succession plan, it is important to note that the party’s constitution, which passes as the legal framework for succession, is not clear on what is supposed to happen in the event of the incumbent’s sudden death or incapacitation.

The party only has a clause that deals with what should take place in the absence of the party’s president and first secretary, in which case one of the two vice-presidents (at the moment there is only one) is supposed to carry out the first secretary’s duties. It is imperative to note that the term absence should not be mistaken for death or incapacitation.

Term limits

One of the best tools for regulating succession for any political office is the presence of term limits. This ensures that succession becomes a planned, organised and expected event that takes place after a certain number of years.

Lack of term limits in the Zanu PF constitution has resulted in uncertainty on when succession is supposed to take place, something which has promoted protracted factional infighting as camps remain in a perpetual mode of battling to ensure their leader succeeds the incumbent.


One of the causes of succession problems that has been noted by many scholars is a political party’s lack of experience in resolving such issues. Like everything else in life, which is executed better as a result of experience, the likelihood of carrying out a successful succession process is enhanced by repetition. The more a political party goes through succession processes, the more it is able to do so successfully.

Since its formation in 1963, Zanu PF has only been able to go through a turbulent succession once — that is when its current leader President Robert Mugabe took over from Ndabaningi Sithole at least 36 years ago. As such, the party has not gone through succession processes enough times to be able to have sufficient experience required to go through this experience smoothly.

Personality cult

Creation of a personality cult around the incumbent is something that slowly developed in Zanu PF over the past couple of decades, but intensified in the last 10 years.

Endless praises of Mugabe in the state media as well as the broadcasting of songs and jingles glorifying him has resulted in the development of a personality cult around him, something detrimental to smooth succession.

While the whole purpose of succession is to replace the incumbent, the creation of a personality cult around a sitting leader promotes the view that he or she is irreplaceable.

As such, the party rank and file and officials end up believing that whoever replaces the incumbent is not worthy to fill his or her shoes, which may eventually lead to the ouster of the successor.

Other causes of Zanu PF’s succession problems that have been discussed in some quarters such as failure by the incumbent to appoint a successor are disputable. There is no legal framework in Zanu PF that allows for appointment into the presidium; all positions in the presidium are gained through elections at congress after every five years.

Though it cannot be disputed that Mugabe influences the determination of who is elected or who will succeed him, failure by the incumbent to appoint a successor cannot be a cause of succession problems in Zanu PF since appointment into the presidium is not permissible in the party’s constitution.

What the incumbent can do to determine who succeeds him is to prop up a preferred successor through various internal party processes.

However, it is important to investigate how these succession problems in other political parties played out so as to envisage how succession problems in Zanu PF could possibly unfold.

For the purpose of this analysis, the CPC under Mao and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin are cases in point.

The succession crises witnessed in these parties had clear features and characteristics which are going to be examined and used to try and predict how the succession fight in Zanu PF, which bears many similarities to those of the parties mentioned above, is likely to play out.


Deep factionalism has been a feature of most succession crises recorded by history. In the CPC during the time of Mao and after his death, there was serious jostling for power by two camps: one centred around Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) and her three political allies from Shanghai, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Weng Hongwen — a group popularly known in Chinese politics as the Gang of Four — and by Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Marshall Ye Jianying.

Similarly, in Russia before and after Lenin’s death there was a fight for power involving Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Stalin, among others.

These factional fights were as fierce as the ones being experienced in Zanu PF, but what is crucial to note is that the intensity of factionalism in these parties heightened after the deaths of the incumbents who died in office.

In the CPC, factional fighting turned ugly soon after Mao’s death in 1976 and eventually resulted in the arrest, trial and imprisonment of the Gang of Four who emerged as the losers of the succession battle.

In Russia, Lenin who emerged as the victor in the fight for power, executed his rivals and changed the composition of his party’s politburo.

The implications of these historical events to Zanu PF’s situation are clear. The succession problems currently bedeviling Zanu PF are most likely going to intensify when the incumbent dies, particularly if he dies in office. The faction which emerges victorious after the ensuing internecine struggle for power will try to neutralise top members of the losing group.

This will mean a change in the composition of top party structures as those who belong to the losing faction will be replaced by those viewed to be loyal to those who would have taken over power.

Ousting a successor

Another feature of or a common occurrence in a succession crisis is the ouster of the immediate successor of the incumbent.

In the CPC, Hua Guofeng, who was Mao’s preferred successor — as he was seen as a compromise candidate between the leftist Gang of Four and the rightist Deng faction — was ousted from power. Hua eventually leaned towards the Deng group and was part of the plot to arrest the Gang of Four which had support in the military. Eventually, Deng came to power in 1977, displacing Mao’s preferred successor, Hua.

In Russia, Nikita Khruschev was ousted after coming into power during a succession crisis after the death of Stalin.

However, it is important to note that not all leaders who take over power after a succession crisis are ousted; Stalin ascended to power during a succession wrangle, but managed to maintain a grip on power till his death.

In both cases of deposition of leaders cited above, the reason given for their ousting was implementation of bad policies: Hua was ousted for promoting what was referred to as the “two whatevers” policy; while Khruschev was deposed for what his ousters generally termed policy failure and erratic behaviour.

Nonetheless, a deeper analysis of the ousters reveals that they were mainly to do with creation of a personality cult around their predecessors rather than their policy failures.

Creation of a personality cult around their predecessors resulted in the successors being viewed as incapable of governing in the same manner as their predecessors or being seen as weak leaders in comparison to their forerunners.

Another possible reason for the ousters was the presence of disgruntled power sharks who had failed to rise to power after the deaths of Mao and Stalin, and thus sought to unseat their successors.

Hence, in the case of Zanu PF, if a weak successor comes to power after the incumbent, he or she might be ousted within a few years of ascending to power.

Conversely, if a strong leader ascends to power, he or she could be able to protect his or her position from disgruntled power contenders like Stalin did after succeeding Lenin.

To be continued next week.

Mushawatu is a UZ political science and administrative studies graduate.