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Mystery Fire Fuels Zimbabwe Power Struggle

HARARE, Zimbabwe, Aug. 18 (UPI) — The death of a former army chief, a key political power broker, in a mysterious fire has fueled a struggle within Zimbabwe’s ruling party to succeed ailing dictator Robert Mugabe as the once-prosperous country verges on ruin.

The dead man was Gen. Solomon Mujuru, a veteran of the guerrilla war against British and white rule that brought independence in 1980.

There has been talk that the fire involved political skullduggery by a regime that has a reputation for brutality and corruption as the ruling ZANU-PF party prepares for national elections and finding a successor to Mugabe, 87.

Mujuru, a hero of the independence war, helped propel Mugabe to power in the former Rhodesia in 1980. The country soon became a dictatorship under Mugabe, who eliminated his opponents, and ruled through ZANU-PF backed by a military dominated by his old guerrilla comrades.

Mujuru headed a ZANU-PF faction that was determined to push his wife, Joice, currently Mugabe’s vice president, into the presidency against a faction led by Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa another wartime crony.

Police say Mujuru, whose power base was the foundation of his wife’s political fortunes, was killed Tuesday in a fire at a farm he owned 35 miles southwest of Harare.

The farm was part of a vast business empire he built up over the years to become one of Zimbabwe’s wealthiest and most influential figures in the ZANU-PF.

He wanted Mugabe to make way for a younger generation. Mnangagwa favors the old guard.

Mujuru’s farmhouse reportedly caught fire and he was killed when the roof collapsed. It remains unclear what caused the blaze, although police blame an electrical fault.

“His death leaves the party in a shambles,” said political scientist John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe. “He was holding it together and we’ll now see more infighting.”

Makumbe said the manner of Mujuru’s death, amid serious divisions with ZANU-PF, has raised questions about how the fire started.

“His death was likely not an accident and fire is an effective way of destroying evidence of foul play” observed U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor.

“Solomon Mujuru, with his experience in the power politics of ZANU-PF, would be familiar with the ruling party’s ability to kill, main or ‘disappear’ rival politicians.”

Mujuru’s death leaves the field open for Mnangagwa, supported by most of the armed forces and the intelligence apparatus, to dictate who will succeed Mugabe unless Mujuru’s widow can rally her forces.

Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe underwent steady economic decline because of rampant corruption and calamitously inept governance. It became an international pariah.

The mining of diamonds, controlled by the generals, is about the only source of income, even though much of that is siphoned off by the army for illegal trading.

In the last election in 2008, Mugabe was forced to enter a coalition with the only real political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change.

That was because it had made greater gains than expected despite a nationwide campaign of intimidation and violence by ZANU-PF and its security organs.

This shotgun alliance, dominated by Mugabe, was a reluctant and highly uneasy match.

Its main purpose was democratic camouflage for Mugabe to obtain desperately needed foreign aid to head off complete ruin rather than be a genuine move toward sharing power.

The MDC has been powerless within that alliance and has lost support. These days, it is unlikely to secure the same kind of popular support it won in 2008. Even so, Mugabe wants to end the coalition.

Elections aren’t scheduled until 2013, but ZANU-PF wants to have them as soon as possible because of Mugabe’s poor health. Stratfor noted that “if Mugabe were to die before 2013, ZANU-PF would only retain the presidency until then.

“If elections were held this year, however, a new term would start and would last until 2016, giving ZANU-PF more time in power should Mugabe die in office.”

Both ZANU-PF factions are jostling for advantage, selling diamonds from mines they control, while government intimidation is rising again.

“Whether or not Mnangagwa’s faction had a direct hand in it, Solomon Mujuru’s death means the defense minister’s only rival bloc within ZANU-PF has been eliminated,” Stratfor concluded.

UPI - United Press International, Inc.

Since 1907, United Press International (UPI) has been a leading provider of critical information to media outlets, businesses, governments and researchers worldwide.

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