HARARE – The race to succeed President Robert Mugabe as leader of Zanu PF has narrowed to two major contenders namely Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa who, despite the increasing hostility towards him, still stands a good chance to succeed the incumbent on account of his proximity to the throne, the Daily News can report.

Mnangagwa — a 74-year-old lawyer and long-standing ally of Mugabe — was until now believed to be a shoo-in to succeed the Zanu PF leader who is expected to run for president for the last time in the forthcoming 2018 election, but his path has been littered with impediments that might snuff out his political flame.

Long considered as a rank outsider in the succession race, Sekeramayi has burst into the contest to give it an intriguing twist that is characteristic of Mugabe’s delicate power-plays meant to maintain the balance of power in his fractious party by playing one faction against the other.

A soft-spoken physician who left Swedish medical school in the mid 1970s and headed straight to join the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army forces in Mozambique, Sekeramayi is also seen as a fierce loyalist of Mugabe who has managed to keep himself clear of the factional fights in Zanu PF so far.

With Mnangagwa coming under a barrage of criticism, the Defence minister is increasingly coming out of his shell, taking barbs at rivals — much more confidently.

Several authoritative Zanu PF sources told the Daily News this week in exclusive briefings that the main direct backer of Sekeramayi was Mugabe’s wife, Grace, with the incumbent pulling the strings from behind.

He also seems to have been given impetus following the Mnangagwa “demolition job” by both Mugabe and his wife at the presidential youth interface rally in Bindura last weekend.

At a meeting of Zanu PF’s Women’s League in the capital Harare in July, Grace — considered by some to be a possible future leader – implored Mugabe to name a successor.

The 52-year-old mother of four, who has become a power broker in Zanu PF since her elevation to the top echelons of the party in 2014, has repeated this call and has said Mugabe’s word would be “final”.

Political analyst, Maxwell Saungweme, said he thinks Mugabe was being arm-twisted by his wife to anoint Sekeramayi.

“Indeed, Sekeramayi will be the chosen successor for Mugabe. In spite of his advanced age, Mugabe is fending off pressure from his wife who wants him to anoint a successor. But Mugabe has been resisting this, hence a change in Grace and Generation 40 (G40)’s strategy to want to finish off Mnangagwa before the congress so that come congress the only person to choose from is Sekeramayi,” said Saungweme.

“Ngwena cannot be a pushover. He has backing from (army) generals and others in Zanu PF. His botched up suspected poisoning actually created more sympathisers for him from Zanu PF. You know in Zimbabwean politics, people tend to side with a perceived victim. That the whole poisoning or illness did not take his life actually complicates the succession debate and makes it harder for Grace and G40 to have their way.

“So I foresee a tussle between Sekeramayi and ‘Ngwena’. For now, Grace will be likely put in as vice president for Sekeramayi, with a view of making her president in 2023. Not now. Even under a Sekeramayi Zanu PF presidency, Grace will be the de facto leader, as she appears to be now,” added Saungweme.

A secretive political figure who has worked with Mugabe since the 1960s, Mnangagwa is also known as “the crocodile” or “ngwena” in Shona.

On Saturday, Mugabe ruled out choosing a successor, and also ruled out anointing his wife to take over, saying it would be against the party’s constitution.

Mugabe is, however, likely to be influential behind the scenes in picking a new Zanu PF leader at a congress in 2019, and is said to be under pressure from his wife to support Sekeramayi, who is 73-years old.

Some claim there was a push for an extraordinary congress in December that will be elective.

While in Bindura, Mugabe and his wife took turns to attack Mnangagwa.

The Zanu PF leader revealed to his supporters untested allegations — contained in a 72-minute video first presented in the Zanu PF politburo by Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo on July 19 — that the vice president crippled a former ZBC newscaster over an extramarital affair and is carrying out a silent power grab by capturing the military, public media and judicial institutions.

These allegations, he said, have been rubbished by Mnangagwa, whose allies assert they are part of a covert operation to halt his drive to the top.

According to Mugabe, Mnangagwa has some 65 pages of reply to Moyo’s scurrilous allegations, exposing a somewhat toxic political environment in Zanu PF, which is just getting uglier.

Earlier, Mnangagwa had courted the ire of the first family over his silence amid swirling rumours that he fell ill at a Zanu PF campaign rally in Gwanda last month after he had been poisoned through ice-cream from Alpha and Omega Dairy, on by the Mugabes.

The first family was said to be apoplectic with fury and accused Mnangagwa of failing to restrain his supporters they alleged were attempting to dent her dairy brand.

Mnangagwa was forced to issue a statement, describing as “false” and “mischievous”, insinuations that he fell sick after eating ice-cream supplied by the first family, adding the claims were meant to set him up against Mugabe.

Mnangagwa’s voluble supporter Energy Mutodi was subsequently fired from Zanu PF for claiming Sekeramayi poisoned the vice president and has appeared in court over the allegations.

Seething with anger, Grace took her crusade to Bindura where she warned Mnangagwa that if he did not rein in his supporters, he faced the fate of former vice president Joice Mujuru who lost her positions in the party and government in December 2014, completing the purging from national politics of a woman who was seen as frontrunner to succeed the 93-year-old Zanu PF leader.

Analysts, however, said getting rid of Mnangagwa would not be easy. daily news