On the eve of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s 88th birthday, public support for a proposed law that would bar him from standing again in elections has once again showed how weary Zimbabweans have grown of his 32-year rule.
But the clause has served only to harden the resolve of his supporters, who now want the constitutional reform process — a key step towards elections — brought to a halt because they see it as targeting their leader.
A draft document published by Copac, the interparty committee tasked with writing a new constitution, proposes to bar anyone who has ruled for a total of 10 years from standing for president.
“A person is disqualified for election as president if he or she has already held office for one or more periods, whether continuous or not, amounting to 10 years,” the draft document states.
In a week in which state media had begun the countdown to festivities to mark Mugabe’s birthday, the clause found resonance on social-media platforms and in the local press.
For many Zimbabweans it was a brave step by the drafters of the proposed Constitution and a challenge to a leader who has vowed to stand in the next election and would be 94 at the end of his next term.
But in a show of the kind of resolve that has helped keep Mugabe in power for so long, Zanu-PF hardliners soon forced the committee into retreat.
Paul Mangwana, the Zanu-PF co-chairperson of Copac, found himself attacked for “treachery” and was forced to publicly state his opposition to the clause. He said Mugabe would refuse to sign a draft that disqualified him from running for another term.
“President Mugabe has already said he is contesting the next elections. As long as I am in Copac, there is no way we are going to allow a draft which is detrimental to my party and its leader,” he said.
Zanu-PF has tried to disrupt the drafting of the new Constitution and regards the “Mugabe clause” as a chance to put an end to the process.
The state-owned Herald called it “an orchestrated attack on the country’s moral, cultural and revolutionary pillars” and quoted unnamed Zanu-PF officials as calling for the sacking of the committee.
Jonathan Moyo, a member of Mugabe’s politburo, said: “The drafters have failed and if they are not changed, it means there won’t be any Constitution to talk of.”
Chris Mutsvangwa, a former diplomat and Mugabe loyalist, called it treachery. “Within Zanu-PF ranks, that is the worst form of treachery. It is surprising that some within us are avoiding such revolutionary luminaries and hiding in the pants of MDC political neophytes.”
Zanu-PF members well know the consequences of being viewed as revolting against their leader and will now be under pressure to oppose any proposal that would curtail Mugabe’s powers.
Under pressure from Zanu-PF, the committee insisted the controversial draft was only one of several that would be considered before it was sent to a referendum. Future drafts may well exclude the clause.
The published draft will also weaken presidential powers, curtailing the president’s right to make senior appointments in the government and the army. In recent weeks, Mugabe has fought his coalition partners over the right to appoint members of the security force, which is led by strong Mugabe backers. The new draft would require the president’s appointments to the military to be approved by Parliament.
Political commentator Charles Mangongera believes the publication of the draft might have been a deliberate strategy by Zanu-PF hardliners to pre-empt the “Mugabe clause” and harden party positions against the proposed reforms.
“It is part of their agenda for the process to collapse as a precursor for Mugabe to call snap polls,” he said.