The crocodile, a £7bn will, and a fast food war – the bizarre backdrop to a crucial vote

Published in The Mail on Sunday (July 21st, 2013)

As the warm winter sun beat down, newspaper editors and businessmen dined on crispy chicken and fat steaks cooked  on the barbecue. The restaurant, opened just months ago in the gorgeous grounds of the old colonial bowling club, symbolises both the changes in Zimbabwe and hopes of a peaceful future after such a tumultuous past.

It was hard to envisage a more idyllic scene. Yet it is deceptive. For discussions at the tables centred on the crucial few days ahead in the life of this beautiful, battered nation. First comes the hastily called election in ten days’ time amid grotesque ballot-rigging and rising violence. It is a short campaign, designed so it can be endured by a doddery dictator whose body is riddled with cancer, face is frozen with Botox and hair is coloured with dye.

Then comes the critical aftermath – and whatever the result, things could get nasty. If Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC wins despite losing some of its sheen in office, there are fears hardline elements in the security forces could unleash another reign of terror, torture and mass murder – or simply mount  a military coup. If Robert Mugabe retains his presidency, there will  be jostling for succession between rival Zanu-PF camps that could turn violent.

Curiously, despite his dreadful record, Mugabe’s biggest weakness is that he cares deeply about his reputation, which is why he is desperate to appear to win the election and get the last Western sanctions lifted. ‘He wants to end his career with dignity and win back respect,’ said one well-placed observer. ‘But most of all, he does not want to end up in The Hague.’

After the blood-stained ballot in 2008, foreign diplomats threatened Mugabe and his circle with the International Criminal Court in order to force them into coalition with their enemies. It has been an uneasy union – one minister told me senior civil servants in her department were barred from speaking to her, let alone sharing policy – but it salvaged the country.

Some of those close to Mugabe suspect this cold and calculating man is so weary of party infighting he would privately prefer to lose;  he is thought to have offered to step down after losing the 2008 vote until told to stay put by his generals. 

‘He knows everyone is giving him fake smiles when they really want him to go,’ said a source. ‘And he also knows that if he wins the factions start fighting and there will be terrible bloodshed.’

The two key camps revolve around ‘The Crocodile’ – feared defence secretary Emmerson Mnangagwa, currently in  the ascendancy – and his comparatively moderate rival, vice-president Joyce Mujuru. Her husband, a former army chief said to be the only man to stand  up to Mugabe in meetings, died in  a suspicious fire two years ago. Gunfire was reported to have been heard beforehand.

It is rumoured Mujuru’s will was worth £7 billion, demonstrating obscene levels of corruption among the supposed communist comrades while most of the population struggles in poverty.

Such is the dislike between the two camps, their families even feud over rival fast-food outlets, with Mujuru’s nephew positioning his chain of chicken bars close to Mnangagwa’s Nando’s restaurant franchises. The defence minister also has massive gold and diamond mining interests.

These are what make the election such a high-stakes affair. For after the last election the security forces began milking the world’s biggest diamond minefields in Marange, earning billions for the generals and funding a Chinese-fuelled arms build-up. A government insider told me that in 2010 these mines alone should have earned the state £1.07 billion, yet only £23 million ended up in the exchequer.

One well-connected Harare businessman gave me an insight into Zanu’s tactics. He is having  to dress in party regalia to attend rallies five times a week and lasting several hours at a time as the election looms, a legacy of Mugabe’s revolutionary past.

‘They call Tsvangirai every name going and then we must sing songs and shout slogans,’ he said. ‘They check names and if you don’t go or the next day don’t know the latest slogan you are in trouble.’ 

Yet after 33 years of Marxism, murder and mayhem, Mugabe might be undone by one of his few successes: the creation of perhaps Africa’s finest education system. 

‘I can’t tell you how boring these rallies are,’ the source said. ‘Many of us there have degrees and these people shouting at us are not well educated. I sit there checking my Blackberry, trying to do business.’

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