Even the keenest of observers are growing weary of the constant twists and turns in the story of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's succession.
On ZTV recently, a melodramatic South American soap opera came on just after a rerun of an interview with President Robert Mugabe. It may well have been one show. Just when you think you have it all figured out, it takes another turn, and then another.
It may take a while, drawing you with its twists and turns. But like all B-grade soapies, there comes a time when you simply have to stop watching, and just wait until they show the series finale.
The race to succeed Mugabe has, over recent years, provided entertainment and intrigue with its endless plots and subplots, shifting characters and scripts.
But the long-running drama is getting a bit tedious, and even the keenest watchers now just want to skip to the end.
At the centre of it all is Mugabe himself, happy to confuse everybody by weaving a complex script to his own benefit. Nobody, even those who claim to be in his inner circle – if there is such a thing – know what new plot twist he will come up with next.
“To understand who will be the future Zanu-PF leader is by definition to guess Mugabe’s intentions,” says political analyst Simukai Tinhu.
The last few years have seen him making promises and abandoning them, giving support to different candidates and withdrawing it, and generally confusing everybody.
In an interview with the BBC last weekend, Mugabe gave perhaps his strongest hint yet that he will step down before the next election in 2018.
Mugabe was asked if he had someone in mind to succeed him. “I have people in mind who would want to be,” Mugabe replied. “But I have looked at them. I have not come to any conclusion as to which one, really, it should be. I leave it to the choice of people.”
But it is unlikely Mugabe will want to take the risk of trusting ordinary party “riffraff” with such a decision.
He could “have someone in mind” in time for the next election, he disclosed. Which, in effect, means the people will not actually get to choose at all, as he claims.
He has said party hierarchy will be followed in his succession, but he also says it is free for all.
Just as Mugabe appeared on the BBC saying he was still making up his mind, his administration secretary Didymus Mutasa was declaring that succession was in fact a done deal. Party rules say the second in command, Joice Mujuru, should take over, he said.
“Those harbouring succession thoughts ahead of Mai [Joice] Mujuru are daydreamers,” Mutasa declared.
Not so, says Mugabe. In fact, anyone can run. Mujuru and her rival Emmerson Mnangagwa were far from certainties for his seat, he says. “It may be neither of the two. People will choose whoever they want to lead them,” Mugabe told a family gathering last month.
In 2004 Mugabe led Mujuru by the hand and helped her ascend to her post, publicly urging her to “aim higher”.
All and sundry took it as a public endorsement, and a quick end to the soap – the victorious hero riding into the sunset to music in the final scene.
‘I’m still here’
But then Mugabe changed his mind. He is not so sure Mujuru should aim higher any more. It was “terrible even to have your name mentioned as leader of a faction”, Mugabe said recently in direct reference to her.
Asked why the succession issue was not being discussed openly, he said: “But why should it be discussed when it’s not due? Is it due? I’m still there.” But yet he had earlier appointed a “succession committee” to “set the parameters to be followed when talking about succession”.
He has said people should be free to debate succession. But wait, he says, he cannot trust his lieutenants to debate his future.
Did they not plot against him in 2008, he asked.
To add to all these, there are different interpretations, even within Zanu-PF itself, as to what the Constitution says should happen once the president resigns.
The new Constitution states that the first vice-president would finish off the president’s term, if the latter quit. But Zanu-PF had worked in special provisions that would mean that the vice-president only holds the seat for 90 days until the ruling party picks a replacement.
The dark horse
Desperate for new angles to maintain readers’ interest in the battered succession story, the press is sniffing outside the Mujuru-Mnangagwa axis.
What of Sidney Sekeramayi, the defence minister? He could be a “dark horse” in the race, one newspaper wrote. Or army boss Constantine Chiwenga – he is powerful too. First Lady Grace Mugabe apparently now leads another faction, too.
Another report threw Gideon Gono’s hat into the ring. Did Mugabe not praise Gono’s chicken farming exploits and order journalists to give him more coverage? A law is being railroaded through Parliament to help Gono to Senate. So Gono it was, but if only for a day.
Eldred Masunungure, a political commentator, says Gono is not “politically astute” enough to navigate the “crocodile-infested waters in Zanu-PF”.
Meanwhile, Mujuru is obliged to frequently declare her support for Mugabe. Last year, after her remarks that “there are people who now can lead the party” landed her in hot water, she declared Mugabe had, at age 10, been anointed by God to rule.
According to Mutasa, leaders should be left to die in office. “They are retired by God. That’s how things are done in Zanu-PF.”
Which, perhaps, is how Mugabe wants the increasingly tedious episode to end.