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For much of January, Harare, the charming if somewhat faded capital of Zimbabwe, was awash with rumour. While Robert Mugabe, the president who has dominated the country for 36 years, was on a break in Southeast Asia, a toxic succession battle within the ruling Zanu-PF party erupted into view.

First, there was a mysterious break-in at the office of his vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a political veteran nicknamed the “Crocodile” and a frontrunner to succeed Mr Mugabe, who turned 92 last weekend. Then, a live bullet was reported to have been found in the hotel room of a government minister seen to be a Mnangagwa loyalist in the tussle for power.

And last week, police fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse war veterans who were planning to march on the Zanu-PF headquarters after the veterans publicly criticised a faction within the ruling party affiliated to Mr Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

Throughout it all, amid routine speculation that Mr Mugabe was at death’s door, there was nervous whispering: what happens to Zimbabwe once “Bob”, as the president is widely known, departs the scene?

Zimbabwe’s is no ordinary succession. Whoever replaces Mr Mugabe will inherit power from a leader who, for good or ill, has towered over African politics.

At Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Mr Mugabe made an apparently seamless transition from guerrilla leader to international statesman. In Britain, where he had once been seen as a dangerous Marxist, he was embraced as a visionary leader who could build on his country’s prosperous legacy to create a rare success story of African liberation.

It was not to be. After a promising start marked by progressive social policies and attempts at reconciliation with the formerly ruling white minority, Zimbabwe descended into a political and economic abyss, culminating in violent land seizures and destructive hyperinflation.

Mr Mugabe used thuggish tactics to cling to power and turned his powerful invective against Britain, the former colonial power, which he accused of reneging on a deal to compensate white farmers for confiscated land. The west treated both him and Zimbabwe as pariahs and what had once been one of Africa’s most promising prospects sank into poverty.

Didymus Mutasa, a veteran of the liberation struggle until his expulsion from Zanu-PF in 2014, had spent decades by Mr Mugabe’s side. He accuses the president of destroying his own legacy. “Thirty-six years of our slogging under Mugabe and we have not produced anything worthwhile,” he says. “He’s produced the situation we are seeing now, the decay of our country, and that is what we are trying to rescue.”

Mr Mutasa, who once hung a portrait of the leader in his sitting room, says Mr Mugabe has become “unpredictable” and should have retired years ago.

Defying age

Mr Mugabe shows few signs of going anywhere. Four weeks ago he returned to Harare looking healthy. He then headed to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, where he marked the end of his year-long stint as chair of the African Union by delivering a speech in which he lambasted the lack of reform at the UN, complained of former colonialists being “everywhere in Africa”, and told those who moan about ruling parties being in power too long to “shut their mouths”.

“As long as I’m still alive, I pack the punch,” he said.

Returning to Harare in early February, he lashed out at “factionalists” within Zanu-PF. “Mugabe will not step down,” says Ibbo Mandaza, a Zimbabwean political analyst. “He does not have the word ‘retire’ in his vocabulary.”

Whether he retires or not, most observers accept that the Mugabe era is drawing to a close. Political allies say the president is still alert and lucid, though some say he occasionally dozes at meetings. Last year, he stumbled in public on more than one occasion and last autumn he read the wrong statement at the opening of parliament.

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The prospect of life after Mugabe is concentrating minds. The international community, which has treated Zimbabwe as an outcast for years, is cautiously preparing to welcome it back into the fold.

Talks have intensified with multilateral institutions with the aim of helping Harare clear nearly $1.9bn of debt in arrears in the hope that it will be able to gain international funding to repair its battered economy. Reaching an agreement with the IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank would end 15 years of exclusion from international lending.

Predicting a struggle for power in the post-Mugabe era between pragmatists and more radical elements, international donors are seeking to use financial leverage to gain influence.

“There’s nothing more dangerous than a political transition on an economic minefield,” says one diplomat involved in the talks, voicing concern that the country risks factional, or even ethnic, conflict without Mr Mugabe holding things together. Westerners hope that their re-engagement can help “turn around the situation, or at least stabilise the economy, and then prepare for the future”, he says.

As part of any financing deal, Harare would be expected to tackle issues such as reducing the public sector wage bill, which accounts for nearly 90 per cent of the budget. It would also have to convince donors that it will be more pragmatic in its efforts to “indigenise” the economy, which at its most radical could mean taking majority control of foreign companies, particularly miners, and banning foreign investment in certain parts of the economy.

Economic travails

There are signs that foreign investors are dipping their toe in the water in anticipation of a better environment in the post-Mugabe era.

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Aliko Dangote, the Nigerian tycoon who is Africa’s richest man, said last year that he planned to build a $400m cement plant in the country. Officials and diplomats say French and other European companies have recently shown more interest.

Yet Zimbabwe’s economy remains in a precarious state. Although the hyperinflation that peaked in 2008, when the price of goods practically doubled every day, has been quelled, the cost of stability has been high.

Zimbabwe has stopped printing its worthless currency, relying instead on the US dollar, which is virtually the only currency accepted by shopkeepers and businesses. Dollarisation has effectively ended the central bank’s ability to affect monetary policy or to create credit. With acute electricity shortages and political uncertainty, economic activity has screeched to a halt.

Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs last year as companies ran out of cash to pay wages, according to the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries. Industrial capacity utilisation has fallen from 57 per cent in 2011 to a 34 per cent in 2015, as factories stop producing goods that many people struggle to afford.

Once a regional exporter, Zimbabwe has been rapidly deindustrialising. Only 6 per cent of the working population are employees of either large companies or the government with taxable income. With its once enviable infrastructure in decay and the worst drought in decades gripping the region, the outlook for this year is bleak.

“There’s no demand in our economy. Many companies have closed so people are not employed and there’s no disposable income,” says Ngoni, a manager at a minimarket, who was nervous about giving his surname.

“Since the election, things just started to tumble,” he says, referring to the 2013 national poll in which Zanu-PF saw off the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai.

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Ngoni’s colleague, Ranga, who also wished to remain anonymous, says the economy is in an even worse state than when it was beset by hyperinflation. “It was crazy [back then] but at least we had cash, so psychologically it felt better,” he says. “Now we have stuff on the shelves but no money to buy it.”

Opposition parties question the wisdom of the international community re-engaging with Mr Mugabe’s administration, saying it risks emboldening Zanu-PF at a time when it is vulnerable.

Piers Pigou, a senior consultant at the International Crisis Group, dismisses as cosmetic some of the improvements on human rights and economic management. “There’s been a rhetorical shift from the government but it’s theatre,” he says.

Stepping up

In Harare, various political actors are jostling for pole position. Among them is believed to be Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, who is four decades his junior and his former office secretary. For most of their marriage, Mr Mugabe’s second after the death of his first wife, she has stayed clear of politics, preferring to stick to shopping trips that earned her the moniker “Gucci Grace.”

She had no liberation credentials and little grass-roots support, so few people took her seriously as a potential challenger.

That began to change at the end of 2014 when she toured the country, making attacks on senior party members thought to be preparing to usurp Mr Mugabe, including Joice Mujuru, then a vice-president. Ms Mujuru, until then seen as a possible successor, as well as other senior Zanu-PF loyalists, were purged from the party.

There is a whispering campaign from within Zanu-PF suggesting that Grace is fast gaining influence. Opposition members talk of a “palace coup”. Senior Zanu-PF members say Grace controls access to the president. One close ally of Mr Mugabe quietly expresses concern about her ambition. “People talk about it, debate it,” he says.

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The succession battle within Zanu-PF is seen as a fight between younger-generation officials around the first lady, collectively known as the G40, and Mr Mnangagwa, the vice-president.

Outside Zanu-PF, the opposition is fragmented. One group is the MDC, the party of Mr Tsvangirai, who has challenged Mr Mugabe three times at the ballot box and who became prime minister in a joint administration after disputed elections in 2008. His party splintered after a crushing defeat in the 2013 election, which Mr Tsvangirai claims was stolen.

Another group that is emerging is a breakaway group of the loyalists expelled from the ruling party in 2014 and led by Ms Mujuru. Analysts say that party, called People First, which unlike Mr Tsvangirai’s party has strong liberation credentials, could challenge Zanu-PF, particularly after Mr Mugabe is gone.

Yet despite his advancing years, few underestimate the president. Mr Mugabe is adept at using a combination of intimidation, violence and abuse of state resources to cling to power. Even opposition members are not ruling out the possibility of him leading Zanu-PF at the next election in 2018.

“We want to believe differently, but Mugabe has surpassed all our expectations,” says Nelson Chamisa of the MDC. “Mugabe is his own successor. He has succeeded himself successively.”

Mr Mutasa, once considered one of the president’s most powerful enforcers and an important player behind People First, says everything could change when Mr Mugabe leaves the scene.

“It can happen any time,” he says. “We don’t have concrete answers about what might happen,” he concedes, alluding to the uncertainty that is bound to accompany the end of the Mugabe era. “It might not be the worst. It might be the one thing Zimbabweans are waiting for.”

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