With its towering cake, exuberant brass band and abundant victory speeches, few days in the Zimbabwean calendar attract as much interest – or scorn – as Robert Mugabe’s annual birthday celebrations.
The high-spirited festivities, often held in defiance of prevailing economic gloom, are a chance for the country’s elite to exalt their long-serving leader and forget the daily burdens of power.
But as the presidential motorcade decamped to drought-stricken Masvingo province for Mugabe’s 92nd bash, opponents of the president were preparing to launch a party of their own.
To the cheers of supporters assembled in Harare, Joice Mujuru, an ambitious former ally of the president, yesterday launched Zimbabwe People First, a splinter party comprised of spurned Zanu-PF members. Promising to end corruption and fight an ‘unjust’ system, Mujuru’s move promises to enliven the bitter succession contest playing out in the twilight years of Mugabe’s reign.
On paper, Mujuru ought to prove a strong challenger. A regime insider with strong liberation credentials, Mujuru’s own relationship with Mugabe dates back to the 1970s war against white rule, when she earned the nom-de-guerre ‘Spill Blood’ for her allegedly fearsome battlefield exploits. Profiting from that reputation, and her marriage to feared Zanu-PF power-broker Solomon Mujuru – she expanded her influence within the party, securing the vice-presidency in 2004.
Her good fortune shuddered to a halt in 2011 when her husband was found dead in suspicious circumstances. Accused of harbouring leadership ambitions, she was forced out of the party last year in one of the periodic purges that allow Mugabe to strengthen his hand and eliminate over-reaching rivals.
Yet she has used her long stretch in the ruling party to build a powerful web of backers. Former Zanu-PF stalwarts, including Didymus Mutasa and Rugare Gumbo, serve to lend big-name credibility to the new outfit. As Mugabe’s power continues to dwindle in the years to come, the party will hope to secure further high-profile defectors.
But analysts doubt that Mujuru will be able to sustain a challenge against the wily president. The ruling party’s stranglehold over state industries and the near-extinction of an independent business class mean that the party will struggle to find wealthy donors. Foreign backers are equally as unlikely to materialise given Mujuru’s reputation as a compromised former regime insider.
Furthermore, a successor to Mugabe’s rule is seen as more likely to emerge within his own ranks. Powerful factions are jockeying for position, pitting Grace Mugabe’s ‘G40’ backers against a grouping led by Emerson Mnangagwa, current vice-president.
Early talk of repealing Zanu-PF’s indigenisation laws may help to differentiate Mujuru’s offering and appeal to would-be investors, but most are pinning their hopes of economic stability on a mooted rapprochement between the government and multilateral institutions, including the IMF.
Beyond all that, Mujuru’s most formidable challenge might be persuading the grassroots that her new party represents anything other than a continuation of the personality-driven status quo. In her launch speech, Mujuru boldly intoned that the party is “not fighting one man but the system, the system that is unjust.”
Given her central role in erecting that system, few are willing to bet that Mujuru holds the key to the radical economic and political change that Zimbabwe needs.