Zimbabwe's Mnangagwa vows new path for 'desecrated' party

Harare (AFP) –


Zimbabwe's new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, drew a firm line under the 37-year reign of Robert Mugabe in a keynote speech to the ruling ZANU-PF party on Friday.

Mnangagwa took office last month after Mugabe was forced to quit when the military took power and ZANU-PF lawmakers launched impeachment proceedings against their veteran leader.

Until recently, the new president was one of Mugabe's closest allies and critics say he is another authoritarian hardliner.

But Mnangagwa used his much-awaited speech to an extraordinary congress of the ZANU-PF to declare the party had been defiled, and was now on a "new trajectory."

"The party ideology, rules and regulations were being desecrated daily," Mnangagwa, 75, told the one-day gathering in Harare.

"Clearly this was no longer the ZANU-PF you and I pledged loyalty to. We must never lower our guard again."

Mugabe's final years in power were marked by a bitter inter-party succession battle between Mnangagwa, who was covertly backed by the military, and supporters of Mugabe's wife Grace.

Mnangagwa has appointed military officials to key government positions, and pledged to revive the shattered economy by boosting farm production and luring foreign investment.

"Party work must not be in the old mould. Now we must be about politics and economics," he said, wearing a jacket decorated in party colours and images of himself.

"We must embrace each other and other nations. This congress must define a new trajectory for the party."

The conference was also to confirm Mnangagwa as the party's presidential candidate in next year's general elections.

Lawyer and opposition politician David Coltart said the meeting was "to consolidate President Mnangagwa's position within the party and to ensure that (Grace's supporters) are put firmly in their place."

"Many people see this administration as a thin veneer over a military junta and the question is whether the veneer is going to get thinner," he added.

- Mugabe abroad -

Mnangagwa is referred to as "The Crocodile" for his ruthlessness, while Grace's younger supporters were known as the "G40" (Generation-40) group.

"The congress signifies his triumph over G40," Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist at Masvingo State University, told AFP.

"It's a show of force, and we will also see more people with a military background within the ZANU-PF structures."

Mnangagwa has been keen to avoid any public sign of friction within Zimbabwe's ruling elite, and he paid tribute both to Mugabe, 93, and the army chief who forced him out.

"I would like to salute the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces General Constantino Chiwenga for standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow Zimbabweans," Mnangagwa said.

He also paid homage to "party comrade Robert Mugabe, who steered the ship of our party and its government."

Mugabe was photographed by AFP walking out of a lift at a hospital in Singapore on Friday, the first time he has been seen since his shock resignation on November 21.

The former president was undergoing a routine medical check-up, government spokesman George Charamba told AFP.

Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe from its independence from Britain in 1980, is in increasingly frail health and has reportedly battled prostate cancer.

Many elated Zimbabweans took to the streets to celebrate the end of Mugabe's long rule, but have expressed fear that Mnangagwa could also oversee a repressive regime.