Grace Mugabe denies plotting to poison rival for Zimbabwe presidency

Jason Burke in Johannesburg
Grace Mugabe at a rally in Gweru, Zimbabwe. Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

The wife of Robert Mugabe, the 93-year-old president of Zimbabwe, has publicly denied that she was behind the attempted poisoning of her biggest rival to succeed her husband.

In remarks broadcast on state TV on Friday, Grace Mugabe, 53, said the charge was “nonsensical”.

Her remarks – described as “extraordinary” by observers – followed the claim a day earlier by one of Zimbabwe’s vice-presidents, Emmerson Mnangagwa, that he had been poisoned when he fell ill at a rally in August and had to be airlifted to hospital in South Africa.

Though the incident was widely reported in Zimbabwe’s media at the time, officials in Zanu-PF, the ruling party, have largely refrained from commenting on it or the suspicions it generated.

But the increasingly obvious weakness of Mugabe, who delivered a halting and often rambling speech on a visit to South Africa this week, appears to have intensified the bitter contest to win power.

Mnangagwa, 75, was appointed vice-president in 2014 and has long been considered the most obvious candidate to take over from Mugabe, who has led the former British colony for 36 years.

In recent weeks, Mnangagwa, nicknamed the Crocodile, and the first lady have faced significant setbacks in their pursuit of power.

Mugabe has made a series of disparaging remarks in public about the former intelligence chief at meetings, while his wife has suffered from the fallout of her alleged assault on a model she found partying with her spendthrift sons in a luxury apartment in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Granted diplomatic immunity after the incident, Grace Mugabe was allowed to leave South Africa despite a police inquiry and denies all wrongdoing.

Reports of extravagant purchases including property in South Africa and a Rolls-Royce have made Grace a deeply unpopular figure in Zimbabwe, where an economic crisis has deepened.

The Zimbabwean vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

Fears of a return of hyperinflation seen in 2008 have led to panic buying and rocketing prices, while confidence in the parallel “bond note” currency, launched by the government nearly a year ago, has collapsed.

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

This week, a journalist who reported that underwear was among used clothes distributed by the first lady to supporters in Zimbabwe was arrested and charged for criminal nuisance. Lawyers for Kenneth Nyangani, a reporter from NewsDay newspaper, said authorities hoped to deter other journalists.

At a press conference on Thursday, Mnangagwa said doctors had concluded that poisoning was to blame for his illness and not inadvertent food poisoning.

An audio recording of Grace Mugabe’s speech to a public gathering on Thursday night reveals that she said Mnangagwa and his allies were plotting a power grab that amounted to a coup.

“We are being threatened day and night that if this one does not become president, we will kill you,” she said without stating the origin of the threats.

The first lady denied having any motives to eliminate her rival. “Why should I kill Mnangagwa? Who is Mnangagwa on this earth? Killing someone who was given a job by my husband? That is nonsensical,” she said in footage aired on Friday on state television.

One commentator in Harare, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said the situation was extreme. “Whatever the truth of the allegations, when you have the first lady denying that she poisoned the vice-president then things have gone pretty far,” he said.

The ruling party’s next leadership congress is due in 2019 and Mugabe, who plans to contest next year’s elections, has said he is staying put for now.

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 South Africa.

Zimbabwe’s constitution says that if the president dies, resigns or is removed from office, the vice-president who last stood in as acting president takes over for 90 days, after which the ruling party must appoint a person who takes over until the expiry of the former president’s term.

Mnangagwa, who has received the support of veterans of Zimbabwe’s 1970s guerilla war, was acting president during Mugabe’s trip to the United Nations last month.

He is also seen as broadly acceptable to the international community despite charges of involvement in atrocities in the early 1980s.

In 2014, Mugabe claimed that assassins had tried to kill Mnangagwa, then recently appointed as the president’s deputy, by sprinkling poisonous powder on his desk.

His secretary inhaled the poison and was taken into intensive care.