x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Zimbabwe mourns loss of deputy to Mugabe

The death of Joseph Msika is likely to create an intense political battle of succession in the Zanu-PF leadership.

HARARE // Never before had the National Heroes' Acre, a cemetery for Zimbabwe's political icons, hosted such a crowd as the one that gathered for the burial of Joseph Msika, the vice president, this week. With no space left in the grandstands, some people found perches in trees from which to watch Monday's proceedings that tens of thousands are thought to have attended, including leaders from other parts of the continent.

"He is our hero," said Muchada Nzou, 20, of Kambuzuma suburb in Harare, who was sitting on a tree branch. "He was honest, brave and loathed corruption, unlike some of our leaders." Msika died last Wednesday aged 86, 10 years after Robert Mugabe, the president, appointed him his second-in-charge. He had been in poor health for years following a stroke in 2005. His death is expected to spark a succession battle.

Known as much for his forthrightness and humility as for his love for whisky and use of expletives, Msika was among the pioneers of the liberation struggle in the 1950s. "Joe had given himself over to his people through the liberation struggle, to this very soil to which we commit his remains," said Mr Mugabe in a speech at the funeral. Msika was born on December 6, 1923 in Chiweshe, north of Harare, and trained as a carpenter. He later worked as a cabinet maker in Bulawayo where he launched a political career that spanned 52 years.

By 1930s standards, the late vice president had a decent upbringing - his polygamous father owned more than 100 cattle, ran a wagon transport business and paid his children's school fees in eggs. Msika's political activism landed him in trouble with colonial governments. He was arrested in 1964 while attending a political meeting at the house of a fellow nationalist, Josaih Chinamano, in Harare and jailed. He was released in 1974 after which he left for neighbouring Zambia to support the independence war. He was a member of PF- Zapu, a political party that amalgamated with Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF in 1987.

"As we inter his remains, we do so with both gratitude and acknowledgement that here lie the remains of one who saw it all, fought for it all and lived to see it all from the beginning to the end; the alpha and omega of our struggle for independence," Pathisa Nyathi, a historian, wrote in an opinion piece in The Chronicle, a newspaper published from Bulawayo Msika was respected across the political divide and related with all, said a former employee, Edson Ntalawe, 67, who is originally from Malawi.

"It is sad especially for me that he is gone," said Mr Ntalawe. "I am originally from Malawi and have worked for him for more than 20 years. Where will I go now? I cannot return to Malawi now, where will I start from?" Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, who sent his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe to Msika's funeral, extolled the late vice president, saying his death was a blow to Zimbabwe's six-month-old inclusive government which needed someone of his experience.

Msika's death means Mr Mugabe, 85, has lost three vice presidents in 10 years. The first, Joshua Nkomo, died in 1999 aged 81, followed by Simon Muzenda in 2003 at the age of 80. The Independent weekly said Msika's death could see a bitter succession battle in Zanu-PF, already divided by a parallel war among rivals eyeing Mr Mugabe's post. John Nkomo, 75, Zanu-PF's chairman and a former PF-Zapu official, is favoured to succeed Msika, though analysts say he could face a surprise challenge.

"A briefing to the Independent by senior Zanu-PF officials indicates that jostling for Msika's position started to escalate when it became clear his health was rapidly deteriorating ahead of the party's congress in December," the Independent said last Friday. "Sources said Msika's death would fuel battles between Zanu-PF chair John Nkomo, [Minister of Mines] Obert Mpofu and Bulawayo governor Cain Mathema to succeed him. Nkomo is seen as the frontrunner."

Mr Mugabe religiously follows the terms of the 1987 unity agreement his Zanu-PF party signed with PF-Zapu, under which both share equally the top four posts in the party and government. The top four, called "the presidium", are the president, his two vice presidents and the party chairman. After Msika's death, the "presidium" has Mr Mugabe, Joice Mujuru as the remaining vice president, and Mr Nkomo as national chairman.

"So in terms of the 1997 accord, I expect Nkomo to rise to the vice presidency," said Madock Chivasa, political commentator and spokesman of the National Constitutional Assembly, an organisation that is campaigning for a new democratic, people-driven constitution. "He is the most senior former PF-Zapu member still in Zanu-PF. I do not see much debate there. The debate will be who replaces him as national chairman. For that post, I do not see any favourites, but the successor will have to come from the old PF-Zapu as dictated by their unity agreement."

tmpofu@thenational.ae