Zimbabwe's 'Crocodile' cements position as Mugabe heir

This comes after he had allies appointed to posts and secured tasks of reforming the economy and legal system.

Zimbabwe Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Picture: AFP.

HARARE - Zimbabwe Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa has cemented his status as heir apparent to 91-year-old Robert Mugabe, after getting close allies appointed to important cabinet posts, and securing the tasks of reforming the economy and legal system.

A secretive confidante nicknamed 'Crocodile' in the Shona language, Mnangagwa was appointed Mugabe's official deputy in December after the sacking of Joice Mujuru, who had held the position for 10 years.

Mugabe has reshuffled his cabinet three times in the last nine months to purge Mujuru supporters and end factional fights over an eventual successor. Each time, Mnangagwa allies have secured cabinet posts.

With his right-hand-man, July Moyo, leading operations at Zanu-PF party headquarters and with what is believed to be the backing of the military top brass, Mnangagwa is the closest to power.

"He will have to contend with various forces...he has many obstacles to overcome. Having said that, he is the most strategically located to take over," said Eldred Masunungure, political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.

Under Mugabe, the only leader Zimbabwe has known since independence in 1980, the economy hit a deep recession from 1999-2008, with inflation reaching 500 billion percent amid widespread food shortages. It has yet to fully recover.

Critics accuse Mugabe's government, which has been seizing white-owned commercial farms since 2000, of trampling on basic rights, undermining the rule of law and ignoring court judgements against the veteran leader's administration.

Now overseeing efforts to revitalise the moribund economy and align laws to a new constitution, Mnangagwa's supporters say he is undergoing a presidential apprenticeship.

"He is well set to be the next president. It is a matter of time now," an insider in Mnangagwa's group, who has known him since the 1970s independence war, told Reuters.

THE PRESIDENT'S WIFE

Over the last year, Mugabe's wife Grace has burst into politics and emerged as a Zanu-PF power broker in her own right.

A group of younger ZANU-PF politicians, known as G-40, is floating the idea of a Mugabe life presidency while urging Grace to enter the succession race to thwart Mnangagwa.

"Grace operates in the shadow of the president. She should be regarded as a king, or queen-maker and it would be imprudent if Mnangagwa was to cross her path at this stage," said Masunungure.

Another big concern for the Mnangagwa camp is Mugabe's seeming ability to defy the ageing process, including his professed wish to contest the next election in 2018, by which time he will be 94.

If he completed that term, Mugabe would be 99 and Mnangagwa 81, hardly the ideal age at which to take up the reins.