GREETING SUPPORTERS—Zimbabwean Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa greets party supporters in Gweru about 300 kilometres south west of the capital Harare in this Sept, 1 photo. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — He was viewed as a likely successor to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, a longtime ally whose close association with the 93-year-old leader dates to the struggle against white minority rule. Now Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa appears to be falling out of favor, deepening the mystery over who will take over from a man who has ruled since independence in 1980.

“He was told to make a choice between sitting on a hot stove or jump out of the window. He chose to jump and now he is disabled. He could have refused both options but I guess he was afraid.”
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Mugabe has led attacks on his old friend, reflecting turmoil within the ruling ZANU-PF party in a country where political uncertainty has fueled problems in a deteriorating economy and increased hardship for many Zimbabweans. The criticism of the vice president, one of two presidential deputies, comes ahead of Mugabe’s re-election bid next year and amid a rise in prominence of Defense Minister Sydney Sekeramayi, whose name is popping up more often as a possible successor.

On Thursday, Mnangagwa pledged his “unflinching loyalty” to Mugabe following accusations from Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, and others that he had misled the country by saying recently that he fell ill because he was poisoned.

The fractured opposition, meanwhile, has been unable to channel national discontent into a strong play for power. The main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has health problems and recently received treatment in neighboring South Africa.

“Mugabe survives on pitting one faction against the other. He elevates one faction, discards it when it begins to feel comfortable and props up another one,” said Gabriel Shumba, a Zimbabwean political analyst and human rights lawyer based in South Africa.

The machinations are eerily similar to those that augured the 2014 dismissal of Vice President Joice Mujuru, another former ally of Mugabe who is now an opposition figure. A dominant figure in the ouster of Mujuru who has now set her sights on Mnangagwa is Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe, whose calls for the appointment of a female vice president intensified talk that she eventually wants to take over the top spot from her husband.

So Mnangagwa has dutifully sat through political rallies where the Mugabe couple accused him of leading a faction that seeks power and has endured humiliating barbs from his boss. President Mugabe, for example, told a crowd about allegations that the vice president once left a rival for a woman’s affections paralyzed after forcing him to jump from a multi-story building.

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