HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s wife once said the 93-year-old leader should run “as a corpse” in the 2018 elections if he dies before the vote. Now politically ambitious Grace Mugabe is positioning herself as a possible successor, saying one of the ruling party’s two vice presidents should be a woman.
Her remarks on Thursday inject extra intrigue into a succession debate that has featured fighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party and a widespread sense of uncertainty in a country with debilitating economic problems. Grace Mugabe, who heads the ruling party’s women’s league, has sent mixed signals, saying she has no problem becoming president but on other occasions saying she has no such ambitions.
The world’s oldest head of state, who recently returned from medical treatment in Singapore, is holding campaign rallies around the southern African nation but has slowed down considerably in recent months as his advanced age takes a toll.
The comments by the first lady, plucked by the president from his secretarial pool decades ago to become his second wife, could set the stage for a transition.
Zimbabwe’s ruling party should restore a provision in its constitution stating that one of the party’s vice presidents should be a woman, the 52-year-old Grace Mugabe said, according to state broadcaster ZBC.
Her comments to a meeting attended by her husband also challenged him publicly for the first time to name a successor, wading into a subject that he has regarded as taboo. Mugabe did not directly respond, though he said for the first time that the ruling party would consider appointing a third vice president.
The ruling party had scrapped the clause requiring a female vice president in 2014 when the president fired Joice Mujuru, a former ally who was harshly criticized by Grace Mugabe, and replaced her with Emmerson Mnangagwa, the justice minister.
If the clause is restored, it could mean one of the president’s two male deputies should step down. Mugabe, who has been in power since independence from white minority rule in 1980, has traditionally appointed the ruling party’s vice presidents to the same positions in government.
Mnangagwa is the more prominent of Mugabe’s deputies and has been touted as a leading candidate to succeed him. He leads a ruling party faction that is supported by the military veterans of the independence war.
“A lot of people, I am sure including Mnangagwa himself, thought the appointment to vice president by a president in his twilight was the anointing. Suddenly, everything has changed,” said Gabriel Shumba, a political analyst and chairman of the South Africa-based Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.
The other vice president, Phelekezela Mphoko, is from the minority Ndebele tribe and has criticized those who suggest he cannot lead because of his ethnic background. He and Grace Mugabe are associated with a youthful faction in the ruling party that is called G-40, or Generation 40.
Squabbling over the presidential succession has intensified, with Cabinet ministers and military generals trading insults in the press and on social media.
Mugabe previously criticized those he says have anointed themselves as his successors, and it was not immediately clear whether he condoned his wife’s comments about a succession plan. Earlier this year she fiercely defended his tenure, saying that “if God decides to take him, then we would rather field him as a corpse” in the 2018 election.
Grace Mugabe’s shift on the issue of succession likely was made with the president’s approval, even if he is unlikely to publicly name a successor as long as he can go on, political analyst Alexander Rusero said.
The succession comments indicate “that something is happening in the dark corridors of power,” Rusero said. “And by virtue of her privilege as the wife, she knows it.”