, HARARE, Zimbabwe, Dec 4 – Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe sought Thursday to shut down a bubbling succession battle at a key party congress, warning that his embattled deputy and onetime heir apparent could face criminal charges.
The 90-year-old firebrand sought to draw a line under years of unrest within the ruling ZANU-PF, that have seen key lieutenants jockey for position in anticipation that his days in power are coming to an end.
But Mugabe – who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980 – is likely to emerge from this week’s congress as the undisputed party leader, the next presidential candidate and with his enemies purged.
On Wednesday, he slapped down speculation he would stand down as “foolish” and idiotic”.
A series of top officials, including former spokesman Rugare Gumbo, have been expelled, but it is Vice President Joice Mujuru who has taken the brunt of the cull.
Seen as a relative moderate, she has endured a sustained campaign led by Mugabe’s wife Grace, who publicly accused her of corruption and even of plotting to assassinate Mugabe. READ: Zimbabwe ruling party to boost Mugabe’s powers.
Last week Mujuru failed to win a seat in ruling party’s central committee, and was not present on Thursday to hear Mugabe describe her as a “thief” and “crook”, while hinting at possible police action.
“As you can see here are gaps here,” Mugabe said referring to Mujuru’s seat.
“Some of our colleagues did not turn up even though we have not chased them away,” Mugabe told some 12,000 delegates gathered at Robert Mugabe Square in central Harare.
He said there had been no explanation for Mujuru’s absence. “That’s the way of crooks.”
“If cases against them are proved, they will be charged,” he said, hinting at a further crackdown.