Robert Mugabe has struck a secret “gentleman’s agreement” to hand over power in Zimbabwe to his feared defence minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, sources close to the two men have revealed.
Insiders say that Mr Mugabe, aged 88 and now in office for three decades, will stand as Zanu PF’s candidate in elections one last time before handing over to Mr Mnangagwa, a former spy chief nicknamed “The Crocodile” for his ruthless reputation.
In the clearest sign yet that he is being groomed for the top job, Mr Mnangagwa, 65, was recently dispatched to Tehran where he met Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a key anti-Western ally.
Having another Zanu-PF strongman succeed Mr Mugabe would help ensure that other powerful party members avoid any future scrutiny about wealth gained through illegal land seizures, and avoid possible prosecution at The Hague.
Mr Mnangagwa, the former head of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation, was appointed campaign manager by Mr Mugabe during the 2008 presidential election and was widely blamed for the brutality unleashed after his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, edged ahead in the first round of voting.
The prospect of taking over from the ageing leader gives him a clear incentive to ensure that elections tipped for later this year go Zanu-PF’s way again. Last month, Mr Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change, claimed that the army was already recruiting and training jobless Zanu PF youths “on a massive scale” for a new programme of vote-fixing.
Mr Tsvangirai, who is prime minister in a shaky coalition government with Mr Mugabe, says he has been told by senior security officials that “anyone other than President Mugabe, even if they win an election, will not be able to take up their mandate”.
Mr Mnangagwa, 65, helped orchestrate Mr Mugabe’s battle against white rule in the 1970s, during which he was arrested and tortured by white Rhodesian policemen, rendering him deaf in one ear.
Zanu-PF colleagues say he is the one man feared even more than Mr Mugabe, a reputation he gained as CIO head during the suppression of the rival Zapu party in 1980s, in which thousands of civilians were killed and in some cases forced to dance on the freshly-dug graves of relatives.
In later years he has been seen as Zanu-PF’s chief “money man”, helping organise lucrative concessions linked to gold and diamond mining.
Last month he met Mr Ahmadinejad to discuss further co-operation between Zimbabwe and Iran, which is known to be eyeing Zimbabwe’s uranium for its disputed nuclear program. Mr Ahmadinenjad said that their shared difficulties as targets of Western sanctions could be converted into “new opportunities for further development and progress”.
In return, Iran’s defence minister, Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, pledged to help beef up Zimbabwe’s armed forces. “We will help strengthen their military so that they are able to protect their land and culture, especially so they are prepared against the pressures and threats from Western countries,” he said.
The pact between Mr Mugabe and Mr Mnangagwa is alleged to have taken place at State House in Harare in April 2008, after the president failed to secure an outright majority over Mr Tsvangirai.
According to a long-serving Zanu PF minister who witnessed the meeting, the embattled Mr Mugabe offered Mr Mnangagwa the future presidency if he could help ensure that things went Mr Mugabe’s way in the second round.