Robert Mugabe is facing his biggest political challenge in almost two decades as opposition to his authoritarian 37-year rule over Zimbabwe gathers strength around the vice-president he fired this week.
Mugabe sacked his long-time ally Emmerson Mnangagwa on Monday for showing “traits of disloyalty”, abruptly removing a favourite to succeed the 93-year-old leader and boosting the likelihood of Grace Mugabe, the first lady, becoming his next deputy and and potential successor.
A close ally said on Wednesday that Mnangagwa had fled “assassins” for “a safe place” and would arrive in neighbouring South Africa later this week.
Mnangagwa, who fought alongside Mugabe in a guerrilla war and went on to become a feared security chief, said he had been “vilified beyond measure” and was being “hounded by minnows who have no liberation credentials”.
“I will return to Zimbabwe to lead you,” Mnangagwa said in a statement.
Chris Mutsvangwa, the chair of Zimbabwe’s association of war veterans, told reporters in Johannesburg that Mnangagwa, 75, would lead a campaign to “restore democracy” in the former British colony. The war veterans – former combatants in the wars of the 1970s – have been a key support base for Mugabe.
Analysts said the threat to the president and those close to him was unprecedented because it came from within the ruling Zanu-PF party.
“Mugabe has faced challenges from outside before, but never an internal challenge. This time it is the machinery that has kept him in power that is now shuddering,” said Piers Pigou, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Johannesburg.
Zimbabwe amid a deteriorating economy and the vicious struggle around Mugabe’s succession. The sacking of Mnangagwa appears to have settled that contest in favour of the first lady, who is 52.