HARARE, ZIMBABWE —
Pugnacious and proud, a politician named Mugabe is making waves in Zimbabwe.
Not Robert, the president. These days, it's his wife Grace who is grabbing attention in this southern African country.
In the past year, she has spent much of her time crisscrossing the country, addressing supporters in the blazing sun in remote areas. She hands out food parcels, clothing and farming equipment, most paid for by the government and some by her family. She tells farmers that they should be loyal to her.
She is referred to as “Mother,” and cars and T-shirts are covered with her image and the slogan, “Everyone Belongs to Mother.”
Most of these events and speeches are duly carried live on state television, magnifying their impact, to the dismay of the opposition which accuses the country's sole television broadcaster of partisan reporting.
In December, she claimed seniority over Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“He has more experience in politics than me,” she conceded at a rally attended by thousands of villagers in south-eastern Zimbabwe, but then added: “It does not mean the first lady is below the VP.”
Usually dressed in elegant toe-length dresses accessorized by flashy rings and jewelry, the feisty 50-year-old Mugabe's rise began only a year ago. In December 2014, she was appointed by her husband to head the Women's League of the ruling ZANU-PF party after becoming instrumental in the downfall of former Vice President Joice Mujuru. She used a string of political rallies to publicly accuse Mujuru of corruption, power mongering and vowed to get her husband to fire the VP for attempting to usurp power.
Robert Mugabe, who turns 92 in February, has backed the rise of his former secretary and second wife. His first wife died in 1992.
“She is the most powerful politician in ZANU-PF at the moment. She is wearing her husband's robes and she is ruthlessly using that borrowed power to destroy her rivals,” said human rights lawyer Gabriel Shumba, who heads the South Africa-based Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.
Those who have dared to criticize Mugabe have felt her growing power in this country.
“You are not going to gag me. You can only silence me by killing me,” she said at a Harare rally in November, taking a page from her husband's playbook.
“I may be 90 years old but you see this fist of mine?” he said in 2014, warning the opposition against violent demonstrations. “It's 90 tons and I will not hesitate to use it.”
One Cabinet minister, Chris Mutsvangwa, faces suspension after he hinted in a privately-owned newspaper that Grace Mugabe owed her political rise to her marriage to the president. His predecessor, Jabulani Sibanda, was kicked out of the party in 2014 and is facing criminal charges after describing Grace Mugabe's swift political rise as a “bedroom coup.”
Justice Wadyajena, a member of parliament allied with vice president Mnangagwa, was arrested in early December for allegedly calling a fellow party member an idiot for covering his car with posters supporting the first lady. He was charged with conduct likely to cause a breach of peace and released on $800 bail.
In a separate incident, a member of the Women's League was suspended for two years for interrupting Mugabe when the first lady was accusing her of factionalism.
Mugabe has rebuffed speculation on her political future as “mischievous,” but has made clear she'll do all she can to see her husband's 35-year rule continue.
“Some say he is old,” she said at a rally in November. “I am getting a special wheelchair for him. He can rule from that wheelchair.”
But at the ZANU-PF annual conference last month, even though the party once again endorsed Robert Mugabe as its presidential candidate in the 2018 national elections, speakers also praised the first lady and shouted slogans in her honor.