Emmerson Mnangagwa and Robert Mugabe. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/JEKESAI NJIKIZAMA
Emmerson Mnangagwa and Robert Mugabe. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/JEKESAI NJIKIZAMA

Harare — Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe signalled a worsening split in his ruling party ahead of elections in 2018 by announcing that he was prepared to fire his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mugabe issued the threat at a rally in Bulawayo on Saturday, a day before his wife, Grace Mugabe, announced she was prepared to succeed the president, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980.

"If I made a mistake by appointing Mnangagwa, tell me," Mugabe said at the rally, which was broadcast on national television. "I will remove him." Tension in ruling party Zanu (PF) has grown as the nation gears up for elections in 2018 when it may face a seven-party opposition alliance that’s capitalising on public discord over cash shortages, crumbling infrastructure and a collapse in government services. While the ruling party has named 93-year-old Mugabe as its presidential candidate, he’s grown increasingly frail, sparking concern among his supporters that he may be unable to see out another five-year term.

Fifty-two year old Grace Mugabe accused Mnangagwa of attempting to "carry out a coup" against the president and said at a rally in Harare on Sunday that she had told her husband that he should leave his position for her. The first lady is head of Zanu-PF’s Women’s League and the leader of the party’s so-called Generation-40 faction that opposes Mnangagwa as a possible successor to Mugabe.

"Have no fear, if you want to give me the job, give it to me freely," she said.

Zanu-PF will probably amend its constitution at a congress in December to ensure a woman is appointed to its top body, according to a draft document sent to senior members of the party by its secretary for administration, Ignatius Chombo. The party’s presidium currently comprises the president, Mnangagwa and Zimbabwe’s other vice-president, Phelekezela Mphoko.

Mnangagwa has suffered setbacks in recent weeks, including losing his position as justice minister in a cabinet reshuffle. He was replaced by Happyton Bonyongwe, the country’s former top spy. Mnangagwa is known as Lacoste, taken from the French sportswear company’s Lacoste’s logo, a crocodile — the nickname he earned during the liberation war against white-minority rule.

The current divisions are the worst since 2014 when Mugabe fired Joice Mujuru as vice-president. She’s now part of the opposition alliance that includes former finance minister Tendai Biti and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

"There is no doubt that Mugabe is on his way out and his attempts to shape the future of Zanu (PF) according to his will are facing resistance," Rashweat Mukundu, an analyst with the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, said by phone. "As things stand Mugabe has control of this struggle as he has both political and state power on his side."