SHAFAQNA – Ninety-year-old Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is – quite literally – paving the way for his wife’s ascent to power.
In another sign of the First Lady’s growing clout, Harare residents awoke on Tuesday to a new street, Dr Grace Mugabe Way, leading to the conference center where Africa’s oldest leader may this week anoint his chosen political successor.
The veteran former guerrilla leader, who has manned the helm of the southern African country since the end of British rule in 1980, has never said whom he would prefer to take over when he retires or dies.
What little certainty there was has been blown apart this year by the meteoric political rise of his wife, a 49-year-old one-time government typist nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace’ for her reputed shopping skills.
Grace’s controversial receipt of a PhD in September, scathing assaults on Vice-President Joice Mujuru and open admissions of political ambition have even stirred talk Mugabe is planning to keep Zimbabwe’s leadership in the family.
“Some say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?” Grace said at one of a series of rallies designed to cement her popularity, but also raising the possibility of post-Mugabe in-fighting and instability.
Last week Mugabe changed the constitution of his ruling ZANU-PF party to allow him to appoint his deputies, effectively giving him absolute control over succession – should he wish finally to show his hand.
He told reporters on Monday there would be “major pronouncements” at this week’s five-yearly congress, a typically cryptic statement from one of Africa’s great political tacticians.
So far, the biggest casualty has been Mujuru, a battle-hardened guerrilla nicknamed “Spill Blood” who has been accused by Grace and state media of corruption and plotting to kill Mugabe in what analysts say is a smear campaign to end her immediate political career.
The demise of Mujuru, who has denied the accusations, and a host of ZANU-PF big-hitters close to her may ultimately have cleared the way for Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, a hardline long-time Mugabe acolyte known as ‘The Crocodile’.
But analysts say Mugabe is unlikely to give too much away with his appointment of deputies this week, preventing anybody from building up steam to challenge him.
“A successor will create another centre of power, which is what Mugabe has been fighting by dismantling Mujuru’s pillars of support,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.
“Mugabe may give an impression that those appointed stand a good chance of succeeding him, but he is consolidating and will remain the centre of gravity in the party and state.”
For the congress, ZANU-PF has spared no expense in turning a dusty expanse on the fringes of the central business district into a modern conference venue with paved streets, ornate marquees and a presidential suite.
The choice of venue – “Robert Mugabe Square” – is a defiant rejoinder to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which dubbed the location “Freedom Square” last year when it held a mass rally ahead of elections won by Mugabe.
A main road near the square is also named after Mugabe. Dr Grace Mugabe Way joins the two, a powerful reminder to its 13 million people of the centrality of the Mugabe name to the Zimbabwean state.
In ZANU-PF, Grace, who is set to become leader of its Women’s League this week, is publicly feted as “Mother”, while commentators in state-owned media have called her speeches a “breath of fresh air”.
However, when her husband eventually leaves power there are doubts she will carry the same clout.
Unlike many top ZANU-PF leaders, Grace played no part in the armed struggle in the 1970s to rid then-Rhodesia of its white-minority government, and her penchant for fine clothes and fast living sits awkwardly with socially conservative Zimbabweans.
Few have forgotten the fact – admitted by Mugabe in a fly-on-the-wall South African television documentary last year – that the couple started an affair while his first wife, Sally, lay terminally ill.
In her verbal attacks on Mujuru, Grace has also made some powerful enemies.
“The cache of the Mugabe name is there by virtue of Robert Mugabe,” said Piers Pigou, the International Crisis Group’s southern Africa representative. “Not by virtue of Grace Mugabe.”