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Why SADC needs to keep an eye of Zimbabwe’s succession drama

“The Zimbabwe political process remains fragile and precarious and consequences of chaos could threaten regional peace and stability, hence the need for SADC to remain vigilant”.

It is common knowledge that Zimbabwe has been on SADC’s radar since the start of this millennium, although it has been relatively quiet since the watershed elections of 2013. SADC appeared relieved to be rid of the Zimbabwe issue, after acting as curator of the Inclusive Government between 2008 and 2013.

Nevertheless, the 2013 elections failed to provide a lasting solution to the problems affecting Zimbabwe. The vague and potentially contentious succession provisions are a cause for concern and require SADC to maintain a watchful eye over events in Zimbabwe. This is important given the risks associated with President Robert Mugabe’s advanced age and increasingly frail state. This note explains the challenges inherent in the succession provisions.

Succession is governed by Section 14 of Schedule 6 of the current Constitution. People often make the mistake of referring to section 101 of the Constitution, without realising that this provision is suspended for the first 10 years of the constitution. Although it appears simple, the procedure under Section 14 has potential for complexity and chaos. It provides that in the event of a vacancy in the presidency, two things must happen: first, since Zimbabwe has two Vice Presidents, the Vice President who last acted as President immediately takes over as Acting President until a new President assumes office. Second, the ruling party has up to 90 days, to nominate a permanent successor to finish the departing President’s term of office. This means under the current system the ruling party, namely ZANU PF, has the power to choose a successor. Although this appears simple, there are some potential pitfalls.

The first is determining the Vice President “who was last nominated to act” because it is this person who will fill the immediate void following the death or resignation of the President until a new leader is nominated by the ruling party. While the interpretation of the words “who was the last nominated to act” should be straightforward as it would simply require looking at who was the last Vice President to act, it could take something very simple to complicate matters, such as a claim that the President nominated another Vice President just before his demise. This could become a point of dispute and conflict, with the two Vice Presidents and their allies fighting to fill the void.

The major pitfall however is over the nomination of the permanent successor by the ruling party. The problem with this provision is that it does not provide a procedure by which the ruling party makes this nomination. This means the nomination has to take place in accordance with the rules and procedures of the ruling party. However, just what these rules and procedures are is vague. Presumably this will be done through an Extraordinary Congress but this is by no means guaranteed. The fact that everything is left to the party rules makes it indeterminate and vague and this could be a recipe for chaos and confusion.

The problem is made worse by the fact that ZANU PF is severely divided along factional lines. Already the factions have been fighting bitterly over the succession issues, with one group, the so-called Lacoste - supporting Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa and another group, the so-called G40 opposing him. The climax of this bitter conflict could be when a vacancy arises in the presidency and it has to be filled. It is this that could result in chaotic conditions which would have severely negative implications for the entire country.

There are other institutions besides the party that are likely to play a role in the succession saga. The judiciary is one of them, given that the Chief Justice has a role in performing the swearing-in ceremony. The Speaker of Parliament also has a role, since he is the one who receives the nominations of the new President. However, by far the most important and influential institution is likely to be the military. The military has played an important role in Zimbabwean politics for many years, but more visibly since the 2002 elections when they made it clear that they would only back Mugabe for the presidency. They have repeatedly stated that they would not support Morgan Tsvangirai or any other person without liberation war credentials. Likewise, whatever faction the military supports in ZANU PF is likely to have an advantage over others. In this regard, the Lacoste faction backing Mnangagwa seems to be well-placed, given its proximity to key sections of the military and the broad support from the war veterans. It cannot be overemphasised here though that the military needs to stay away from civilian affairs.

It is thus important for SADC to keep a watchful eye over Zimbabwe, just in case there are attempts to subvert the constitutional process, in the event of a succession battle. ECOWAS showed the way in the case of the Gambia a few months ago when its former leader threatened to subvert the constitution. SADC can draw lessons from that experience. The Zimbabwe political process remains fragile and precarious and consequences of chaos could threaten regional peace and stability, hence the need for SADC to remain vigilant.

Dr Alex T. Magaisa is a former advisor to Morgan Tsvangirai, former Prime Minister of Zimbabwe and leader of the MDC-T. He is currently based at Kent Law School, the University of Kent and maintains a blog on law and politics in Zimbabwe at

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