It was just after 4am on a Sunday and not only was President Robert Mugabe awake, he was banging the podium and ranting at thousands of his warring followers.
This had to be one of two things – either Mugabe had finally lost control or he was again working his old wizardry on his party.
It was the Zanu-PF Youth League congress election. Much of Zimbabwe was in bed, but not the 3?000 party cadres who were up all night, exchanging bribes and fighting for their factions.
Mugabe had arrived the previous evening. He found the meeting in disarray. Groups aligned to the various factions of Zanu-PF were fighting and mystery voters were being bused in to swell the ranks of rival factions.
Mugabe could have gone back home but he stayed up all night, while his party members fought outside.
“Clearly, he cannot trust his own leaders to leave them to oversee what’s happening,” a senior Zanu-PF politburo member mused on the day.
It was only just before dawn that the election results were announced and Mugabe took to the podium. For an hour, he berated officials for the chaos. It was everyone else’s fault; the party administration for failing to organise the congress and party youths for taking bribes for votes.
“If you allow other people to buy you, goodness me, you are rubbish. You are as, moreover, just as rubbish as the person who has given you the money; both of you, the giver and the given alike,” he thundered.
The long game
To his critics, this showed he had lost control. But, in truth, this is just stepping up the long game Mugabe has played for years.
He revels in watching his followers fighting over power, allowing them to continue before stepping in to play the only unifying force in the party, the only one who is above reproach. In that way, he keeps sending the message to his party that they can never do without him, heading off any potential challenges.
But this time, amid the chaos, Mugabe brought in his wife, Grace, to take the prime spot. And last weekend, it was she who stood in front of thousands of party supporters and declared that her ascendancy to the top of the women’s league was just what the party needed to “end this animal called factionalism”.
During recent weeks, Zimbabweans have watched Zanu-PF leaders taking each other apart in public. At the women’s league congress, Vice-President Joice Mujuru and Oppah Muchinguri openly traded barbs.
Chris Mutsvangwa, the foreign affairs deputy minister and a war veteran, said Mujuru’s struggle credentials were not as great as she claimed – among them that she had downed an enemy helicopter in combat – which was a lie, he told state media.
Didymus Mutasa, the Zanu-PF administration secretary and a Mujuru ally, was a “very inept man with a very shallow mind”, Mutsvangwa said.
Mutasa, in turn, described Mutsvangwa as “bogus”.
The political analyst Rashweat Mukundu, of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, said Mugabe should allow an open debate about succession to prevent a descent into violence for the party and the country.
“The future of Zimbabwe and Zanu-PF has long slipped out of the hands of Mugabe,” Mukundu said. “Mugabe can do Zimbabwe a huge favour by beginning the process of facilitating a smooth handover of power to whomsoever Zanu-PF chooses so that the peace we enjoy now can be sustained.”
Last Friday, Mugabe summoned senior officials to State House. Many thought the meeting was about a Cabinet reshuffle to bring fresh energy to the government to stem the economic slide. But, according to accounts by several sources who attended the meeting, which lasted more than nine hours, it was called by Mugabe to berate officials over their poor handling of both the youth league and women’s league conferences.
“It was a long lecture. There was a suggestion that the outcome of the youth league elections be set aside. There are many with a lot to fear now,” said a Cabinet minister who attended the meeting.
That is how Mugabe has survived for so long at the helm of a fractious party. Once in a while, he lets everybody fight it out. Then he joins in, siding with one faction one moment, then jumping to support the other the next.
Earlier this year, it was Mutasa celebrating when his nemesis Jonathan Moyo was called the “devil incarnate” by Mugabe. This weekend it was Mutasa in the dock, with Mugabe threatening to sack him for failing to run the party properly.
According to the political analyst Ibbo Mandaza, this is what keeps Mugabe’s rivals at bay.
“When he accepts the nomination to be the sole candidate of the party for 2018, it’s all about himself, regardless of the political and economic consequences of Zimbabwe,” Mandaza was quoted as saying.
With his minions fighting over positions and the opposition in disarray, Mugabe feels as secure in power as ever and he continues to make it known that he is not going anywhere.
At the Southern African Development Community summit this week, Armando Guebuza, the Mozambican president who is stepping down in October, bade farewell to other leaders, noting how Mugabe was the only one to have attended all previous 34 summits.
Mugabe basked in the applause. Then, with no hint of irony, he stood up, took to the podium and bade Guebuza farewell.