Zimbabwe’s former Ambassador to China and top Zanu (PF) member, Chris Mutsvangwa, has acknowledged that challenging party President and First Secretary, Robert Mugabe, for his position is “perilous”.

In an exclusive interview with The Zimbabwean, Mutsvangwa, considered a hardline strategist, said no-one would openly challenge Mugabe without his approval.

“Anyone who challenges Mugabe for the top job does so at his own peril. Any party official who wants to succeed him will only do so with his (Mugabe’s) blessings,” stressed Mutsvangwa.

His remarks come ahead of the party’s annual conference on Tuesday, and at a time when all 10 provinces have endorsed the 89-year old leader as their candidate in next year’s presidential poll.

Observers say the “unanimous” endorsement, which in the past has been marked by muffled rebellion by some provinces, reflected recognition among those eyeing Mugabe’s post that it would be futile to challenge him.

Mutsvangwa was the Zanu (PF) candidate for the Norton House of Assembly seat in the March 2008 general elections, but lost to the MDC-T. He was recalled from China several years ago under unclear circumstances, but remains influential in the party where he is part of the think tank and has become enormously wealthy.

While his remarks make it clear that there will be no leadership renewal ahead of the conference, tension within the party was highlighted by its secretary for information, Rugare Gumbo, who said the party would die if it continued to frustrate the Young Turks.

“Obviously, the party needs re-generation, otherwise we run the danger of becoming extinct. We don’t want the party to die by keeping out young blood; the so-called Young Turks will guarantee our survival,” Gumbo told The Zimbabwean.

“We are actively encouraging the young crop to contest in primary elections and to be brave enough to challenge their older colleagues where they feel they have a chance of winning. Many have taken up the message,” added Gumbo, who was beaten by a Young Turk, Makhosini Hlongwane for the Mberengwa East seat in 2008.

He said Zanu (PF) needed “new thinking, new ideologies and new means of carrying the party forward”.

But he was careful to defend Mugabe’s stay in power, saying his recent endorsement showed that he was the most popular leader in Zanu (PF), and called for careful blending of old and new blood.

“Even if, as a senior member of the party I might want Mugabe to go, who am I to go against the will of the people? Let the people decide,” he said.

Mugabe is considered a shrewd strategist who has, over the decades, managed to pit party heavies against each other, taking advantage of the dirty history and ill-gotten wealth of his lieutenants. They are said to be wary of challenging him openly because he can expose them and cause their arrest.

Even though there was evidence of revolt, the provinces finally endorsed him as their leader yet again in 2004 and 2007. Meanwhile the Young Turks are increasing their pressure to push out the veterans in order to gain a better position on the gravy train.

Mugabe seems set to follow the trend whereby Zanu (PF) leaders die in office. High profile lieutenants and former Vice Presidents, Joshua Nkomo, Simon Muzenda and Joseph Msika, all remained office holders until their death, despite being ill for long periods. Vice President Nkomo is critically ill in South Africa.

Mugabe has led the party since the mid-1970s when he toppled Ndabaningi Sithole in a palace coup. At the time the then Zanu, together with Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu, was fighting the Rhodesian Front government of Ian Smith that had unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965.

Mugabe’s strongest contender in next year’s poll, which he insists should be in March despite strong local, regional and international opposition, will be MDC-T’s Morgan Tsvangirai, who for the first time since independence in 1980 beat him in 2008 but pulled out of a run-off in protest at widespread violence and victimisation of his supporters.

Past opponents

In the past, Masvingo, Midlands, Mashonaland East and Harare provinces stood out as the dark sheep in the Zanu (PF) pen when they showed signs of opposition against Mugabe’s continued stay at the helm.

Numerous Zanu (PF) heavies, who have openly challenged Mugabe’s rule, have fallen by the wayside, either being expelled from the party or relegated to insignificant positions.

Dzikamai Mavhaire, who has now bounced back as a senior member in Masvingo, is a classic example. He spent long years in the political wilderness when, in the 1990s, he openly called on Mugabe to go.

He was reportedly fronting for the late outspoken politburo member and Lancaster House negotiator, Eddison Zvobgo, who at that time was also eyeing the party’s presidency.

On the eve of 2008 general elections, other senior members, particularly Dumiso Dabengwa and Simba Makoni, who had failed in their backroom attempts to have Mugabe step down, pulled out, later forming a loose coalition of independent candidates, Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn.

Makoni, who for years was touted as an heir apparent, was reportedly convinced to pull out of the party by the late General Solomon Mujuru, who then led one of the prominent factions in the party.

Mujuru is said to have promised that he and his supporters would join Makoni – but apparently developed cold feet at the last moment, and then died in a mysterious fire.

New blood

A number of new young leaders are reportedly making frantic efforts to stamp their presence in the constituencies they are eyeing. These include former advisor to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor, Munyaradzi Kereke, and ZiFM head and journalist, Supa Mandiwanzira.

Among the Young Turks who have already had a taste of power are Mugabe’s nephew Patrick Zhuwawo, Mhondoro-Ngezi MP Bright Matonga, Youth and Empowerment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere, Tourism Minister Walter Muzembi and former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo.

The likes of Eddison Zvobgo Jnr, former journalist Kindness Paradza, former Zifa CEO Henrietta Rushwaya and past Masvingo Provincial Chairperson Daniel Shumba, are also reported to have thrown their hats into the ring.

They will be competing against the old guard that seems reluctant to let power go because of the massive wealth they acquired through their positions in the party.