Who Will Lead Zimbabwe When Robert Mugabe Finally Cedes Power?

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (C) arrives at the presidential airport in Abuja, Nigeria, May 28, 2015. At 91 years old, the President's 34-year reign is coming to an end and national talk has turned to who will succeed him. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

On a Friday afternoon in the leafy northern suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, white, sunbaked former farmers gather at the Tin Cup restaurant for a lunch of barbecued ribs and cold Castle lagers, and to talk about the good old days. The owner, Leith Bray, was run off his Tengwe farm in 2002 by a baying mob intent on killing him, but he now laughs that off as part of life's rich tapestry.

Half a mile away, past the desperate, ragged street-corner vendors selling everything from mobile phone airtime to rhinos made from beer cans, a younger crowd is dining on fusion cuisine in four acres of lush landscaped gardens. It's called Amanzi Restaurant, and it's owned by Andrew and Julia Mama, a gregarious Nigerian-British couple who fled sectarian violence in Nigeria to settle in what they regard as a relatively peaceful African country. Amanzi draws diplomats, nongovernmental organization employees, aid workers and visiting European doctors, all of whom give the Zimbabwean capital a veneer of prosperity and normality.

But Zimbabwe is anything but prosperous and normal. The country's economy is a disaster after three decades of dictatorial rule by President Robert Mugabe, a former independence leader who has long been a pariah in the West, and his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Zimbabwe faces a devastating famine this year, with a shortfall of more than a million metric tons of maize.

These days, the 91-year-old Mugabe's role as president of the African Union has him spending most of his time jetting from one AU constituency to another. Meanwhile, at home, for the first time in 35 years of totalitarian rule, Mugabe's political party is starting to tear itself apart, purging former stalwarts and breaking into warring factions as leadership contenders position themselves for the moment the Old Man dies.

I have just spent a month traveling around Zimbabwe, and in the wilderness areas, the rural communities and the major cities, the phrase that prefaces almost every conversation is "When the Old Man goes..." Uncertainty about the future alarms David Coltart, a former cabinet minister in the now defunct Government of National Unity. He says that since the country's independence from white minority rule in 1980, "we have never had a situation where you've got weapons under the control of so many different entities—ZANU is fragmented, the army is fragmented, the Central Intelligence Organisation is fragmented, the police are fragmented—and there is a leadership vacuum. As a country, as a people, we are at our lowest ebb."

Major contenders to take power after Mugabe include 60-year-old Joice Mujuru, a former vice president and widow of the assassinated General Solomon Mujuru, and 69-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, the current vice president and a living embodiment of ZANU-PF's Stalinist old guard. Mujuru was expelled from the party at its National Congress last year, accused of planning a coup. She retreated to the farm bequeathed to her by her husband, and from there she is apparently planning the first post-Mugabe government. Eddie Cross, a member of parliament with the Movement for Democratic Change party, says she is in great danger.

Mujuru knows that critics of the Mugabe government have ended up dead in suspicious circumstances. Most recently, in late March, the journalist and human rights activist Itai Dzamara was bundled into an unmarked car and has not been seen since. It is assumed that he is dead. After making a statement on corruption associated with the Marange alluvial diamond fields, Edward Chindori-Chininga, a former ZANU-PF chairman of the mines committee, was killed in a car crash on a distant country road. The official version is that it was a road accident, but opposition politicians insist he was shot in the head while he was driving. Chindori-Chininga was buried within 24 hours of his death, and there was no autopsy. Cross remembers congratulating Chindori-Chininga on a brave parliamentary speech. "He said, 'They're going to come after me.' Ten days later, he was dead."

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe rests on his forearm during the funeral of president Michael Sata at Heroes Stadium on November 11, 2014 in Lusaka. Chibala Zulu/AFP/Getty

The overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans Newsweek spoke to want a new president, and a new government, as soon as possible. They dread the idea of another rigged election in 2018 that, given past form, could give Mugabe yet another presidential term at the age of 94. One name kept coming up: Simba Makoni. In 2008, he ran against Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in the presidential election and came in a distant third.

I meet Makoni at his Galleria KwaMurongo, an arts center and restaurant in Harare. He has supported Tsvangirai in the past and recognizes the need to form what he calls a "grand coalition" to oust Mugabe and his party. Makoni was educated at Leeds University during the 1970s Rhodesian War and returned to Zimbabwe to take his place in the ZANU-PF political machine in the early days of independence. Then, he says, Mugabe and a small circle of insiders began to betray the ethical base of the liberation struggle. "Today, the rulers are so far away from the visions, ideals, principles, ambitions of the liberation movement I was proud to be part of," he says with a bleak smile.

Makoni left ZANU-PF in 2008, "and the day I announced I was leaving, somebody in the party promised me I would be buried within a week." Seven years later, he is still around, a man several foreign diplomats described to me as "the most ethical politician in the country."

Today, the voice in Mugabe's ear, according to Makoni and others, is that of his wife, Grace. Her rise to political prominence over the past 12 months has been spectacular, even by Zimbabwe's warped standards of dynastic entitlement. She was a typist in the president's office when she and Mugabe began an affair, apparently sanctioned by his dying first wife, Sally. Now approaching 50, she has been transformed from first lady and mother of Mugabe's two children to leader of ZANU-PF's Women's League, which secures her a place in the ruling party's politburo.

Makoni is sure the end of the Mugabe era is very close, and "when he goes the door will open for us to rebuild and restore a modicum of esteem and decency and respect for ourselves." However, he does fear a desperate attempt by the Mugabe dynasty to hang on to power. "Grace wants to be there," he says. "It's unbelievable, but it's true. She wants to be president. That's how irrational we have become."