HARARE – A victory for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe’s presidential elections this week would raise the prospect of him ruling well into his 90s, inflaming a succession battle that already quietly rages.
You don’t rule a country — especially one as volatile as Zimbabwe — for 33 years without knowing a thing or two about seeing off rivals.
Since taking up the reins of a newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980, Mugabe has for three decades deftly brushed aside opponents and, with power consolidated, kept subordinates in their place.
He started with Joshua Nkomo, a man many considered to be the father of the modern nation.
Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) kicked out the white-minority government after a long bush war. A brief co-habitation followed.
But ultimately it was Nkomo who fled the country, accused — with the aid of some suspect intelligence operations — of plotting a coup.
His supporters in Matabeleland were brutally crushed by North Korean trained forces, in an operation that killed around 20,000 people and become known as “gukurahundi” — the early rain that washes away the chaff.
Since then a series of elections have seen Mugabe retain power by hook or crook, repeatedly seeing off Morgan Tsvangirai, who he was again facing Wednesday.
Again critics doubt the vote will be free and fair, but few doubt the outcome. Yet perhaps the fiercest battle will take place behind the scenes.
Throughout his rule, Mugabe has steadfastly refused to name a successor. The lack of a clear heir has in recent years seen jockeying within Mugabe’s ZANU-PF between two camps — one led by Vice President Joice Mujuru and the other by hard-line Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
After losing the first round of the 2008 elections, there were reports that Mugabe was prepared to accept defeat, but was pushed by allies in the security forces to hang on.
It was the military that reportedly led the violent campaign in the lead up to the run-off election that Tsvangirai boycotted following the killing of some 200 supporters.
Wrapping up his election campaign Sunday, Mugabe showed no sign of changing tack, claiming he would have the energy to run in 2018.
On the eve of Wednesday’s vote, he was confident of victory but said he would step down if he lost. “If you lose you must surrender,” he said at a rare news conference where he dismissed claims of any interference.
“I comply with the electoral law. I am very obedient,” he said.
The U.S., however, voiced concern about the way the vote would be run and Tsvangirai, who was forced out of the race in 2008 after 200 of his supporters were killed, told CNN he took Mugabe’s promise “with a pinch of salt.”
Voters, some wrapped in blankets on a cold winter morning, started queuing at least four hours before polling stations opened and voting appeared to be brisk in many urban areas, which have traditionally recorded strong support for Tsvangirai.
“I am happy to have cast my vote. I just want an end to the problems in our country,” said 66-year-old Ellen Zhakata as she voted in Harare. “All my children are outside the country because of the economic troubles here. I am so lonely. How I wish they could be working here.”
Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change on Tuesday handed what it claimed was documentary evidence of plans to rig the election to observers from the Southern African Development Community.
The dossier, which one observer said raised serious questions, listed examples of duplicate or questionable voters gleaned from a initial examination of the electoral roll.
In June, the nongovernmental Research and Advocacy Unit said after examining an incomplete roll that it included 1 million dead voters or emigres, as well as over 100,000 people who were more than 100 years old.
“We have seen a lot of duplicate names in the roll, where you see somebody is registered twice, same date of birth, same physical address but with a slight difference in their ID number,” junior minister Jameson Timba said.
At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed Washington’s doubts about the way the vote would be run. “We do remain concerned about the lack of transparency in electoral preparations by continued partisan behavior, by state security institutions, and by the technical and logistical issues hampering the administration of a credible and transparent election,” she said.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was ordered Tuesday to fully publish the roll by Wednesday morning, leaving little time to correct problems.
Commission chief Rita Makarau said the delayed access to the roll had affected all parties equally. “It has not affected one political party, so in a way it remains unfair to all political players,” she said.
Mugabe’s failure to pick and groom a successor “means he cannot trust anyone in ZANU-PF,” according to Shakespeare Hamauswa of the University of Zimbabwe. As a result, if he is returned power Wednesday, he will likely continue to recycle the stalwarts who have served him for decades and a playbook that has served him throughout his political life.
Born on Feb. 21, 1924, in a Jesuit mission northwest of Harare, Mugabe was described as a studious child. He qualified as a teacher at the age of 17.
He took his first steps in politics while studying at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders.
He taught in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and later in Ghana — where he was profoundly influenced by the country’s founding president, Kwame Nkrumah. It was also there where he met his first wife, Sally.
As a member of various nationalist parties that were banned by the white-minority government, Mugabe was detained in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.
But he used his incarceration to gather three degrees, including a law degree from London, via correspondence.
He also used that time to consolidate his position in the ZANU and emerged from prison in November 1974 as the party leader.
He skipped the border for Mozambique, from where his banned party staged a guerrilla war against the white minority colonial Rhodesian regime.
Economic sanctions and war forced Rhodesian leader Ian Smith to negotiate.
After that ZANU, which drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, swept to power in the 1980 election.
In 2000, Mugabe launched controversial land reforms, driving thousands of white farmers off their land. Some of the white farmers were accused of joining forces with his Western foes in a campaign to topple him, using the opposition MDC as a front.
The white farmers were replaced by hundreds of thousands of black farmers — including his cronies and army veterans. The chaotic process plunged the former regional breadbasket into a decade-long crisis, with most rural dwellers relying on food handouts.
Under pressure to end the crushing economic decline, Mugabe entered into an agreement with Tsvangirai to form a unity government.