As Zimbabwe braced for opposition protests after this month’s disputed election, a heated argument broke out in the offices of President Emmerson Mnangagwa over who is in charge of national security, people with direct knowledge of the meeting said.
At one point, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga reminded Mnangagwa it was he who installed the president in power after last year’s coup against Robert Mugabe.
Details obtained by Reuters about the post-election rift between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga paint the clearest picture yet of a power struggle that could define Zimbabwe’s future.
As a result, Western governments and big business fear Zimbabwe may not fulfil its economic potential, putting at risk billions of dollars in aid and foreign investment.
Zimbabweans hoped the election on July 30 would turn a page following decades of turmoil under Mugabe.
That optimism evaporated in following days with a military crackdown on demonstrators, when the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) was alleged by the opposition to have rigged the vote and police and soldiers accused of abusing opposition supporters.
Mnangagwa, the 75-year-old Mugabe ally who replaced his friend, was declared the winner by the ZEC on August 2, but the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Nelson Chamisa (40) is challenging the result in the constitutional court this week.
Analysts say the court is unlikely to overturn the result.
Presidential spokesman George Charamba said there were no divisions between Chiwenga and Mnangagwa, echoing the united front the two have maintained publicly.
“The overbearing reality of harmony within the Presidency will not change because of wishful scenario-building,” Charamba said in an emailed response to questions. “One gets a sense some interests feel threatened by the combination in the Presidency.”
After a more peaceful build-up to the election compared with the violence of the Mugabe years, nervousness grew when the ZEC delayed releasing the presidential result.
When it eventually became clear the ZEC was about to announce Mnangagwa had won, Chamisa claimed victory on July 31 and accused ZEC chairwoman Priscilla Chigumba of collaborating with ZANU-PF, the ruling party, to steal the election. Chigumba defended her independence.
As tension mounted, Mnangagwa, Chiwenga, and defence force chief Philip Sibanda held crisis talks in the presidency offices, according to two sources, one from the military and another from ZANU-PF. Several other senior officials were present, they said.
Chiwenga (61) said he held the defence portfolio and should manage security at opposition demonstrations expected the following day, the sources said.
Mnangagwa and Sibanda wanted protests to be handled by the police.
“Chiwenga was unhappy. He said the election was badly managed and stability needed to be restored. It got heated,” said the military source.
“Chiwenga said no one should forget who got rid of Mugabe.”
Charamba, who speaks for the president and vice-president, declined to comment further. Chiwenga did not answer a call to his phone. An army spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A day after the meeting, as riot police tried to disperse protesters in Harare, military armoured vehicles unexpectedly rolled onto the streets. Soldiers fired live rounds and beat opposition supporters. Six were killed.
Since then human rights groups reported more than 150 incidents of alleged abuses by security forces against opposition supporters, including illegal detention, assault, looting and rape. Many in the MDC have fled.
Mnangagwa denied reports of an opposition crackdown and said human rights groups “have an agenda”.
International election observers called for greater transparency over the army crackdown, which they say is threatening to undermine Mnangagwa’s credibility.
Mnangagwa, who opened an investigation into the violence, says the MDC is to blame for any deaths because it encouraged demonstrations. There has been no explanation why soldiers used live rounds against unarmed protesters.
Police said they called for military assistance.
Two senior Western diplomats said Mnangagwa’s team told them Chiwenga ordered the army onto the streets, without providing any evidence.
Chiwenga, who spent four decades as a soldier before going into government in December, has not publicly commented about the military intervention.
“If Mnangagwa ordered the deployment it is a worry. If he didn’t know about it, in a way, it is more worrying. You have to ask: who is in control?” a diplomat told Reuters.
“This internal struggle may paralyse any reform process and Zimbabwe will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis.”
Analysts and diplomats in Harare believe Chiwenga’s ultimate ambition in removing Mugabe was to take his seat but he handed power to Mnangagwa to give the military intervention a veil of legitimacy.
“Chiwenga should not be underestimated. He will dig in,” said Alex Magaisa, a London-based political analyst.
“If Mnangagwa survives the court challenge, I still do not expect him to finish his term. I expect Chiwenga to take over before the next election.”
The acrimony between the Mnangagwa and Chiwenga factions intensified due to failure to achieve the smooth election Mnangagwa promised, security sources say.
“They are operating parallel governments,” Magaisa said.
The split between Chiwenga and Mnangagwa is making it difficult for investors, who don’t know who to talk to. Deals have apparently fallen apart.
If Zimbabwe is to secure the International Monetary Fund help it needs to revive the economy, Mnangagwa and Chiwenga must find a way to push through painful reforms. They have a history of overcoming adversity together.
In 2003 Chiwenga, Mnangagwa and Mugabe were among 77 Zimbabweans sanctioned by the United States for allegedly undermining “democratic processes” and causing “politically motivated violence” in elections the previous year. Mugabe’s administration denied committing human rights violations.
Despite spending decades alongside Mugabe, both men are trying to show they are a break from the past.
Mnangagwa made progress improving relations with Western states since taking power as he seeks to shed his image as Mugabe’s right-hand man and allegations of involvement in a crackdown in the 1980s that killed 20,000 people. He denies wrongdoing.
The charm offensive may already be unravelling after spokesman Charamba – a Chiwenga ally – blamed “hostility” from Western states, primarily the United States, for putting off investors.
Chiwenga, who has close ties with Russia and China, is struggling to rebrand himself as a statesman rather than a soldier. He met officials from Britain and the European Union last week to discuss national security but made a poor impression, a source in the meeting said.
When diplomats raised concerns about human rights abuses and the violence on August 1, Chiwenga dismissed it as “fake news” and told them not to interfere, the source said.
Fears are growing that a divided presidency will not achieve the drastic overhaul of government departments and the security services Western states demand.
“This is a defining moment for the credibility of this government. The time for rhetoric is over,” said Piers Pigou, a southern Africa consultant at the Crisis Group think-tank.
The ructions have dismayed Zimbabweans who took to the streets to embrace soldiers during the coup last year.
“We should have known these generals would end up being the real ones in control,” said Tonde, a Harare street trader.
“They swapped camouflage for suits and ties but are the same men deep down.”