A bombshell hit Zimbabwe's tense political situation Tuesday with the death of Gen. Solomon Mujuru, one of the country's main political power brokers and the husband of Vice President Joice Mujuru.
Mujuru, 62, died in a fire at his house in Beatrice, Zimbabwe's army commander announced. The farmhouse in Beatrice, about 40 miles southwest of Harare, is on a 3,500 acre property seized from a white farmer in 2001.
Mujuru's death will intensify turmoil in President Robert Mugabe's party over the question of who will succeed the 87-year-old president.
Mujuru and his wife together led a powerful faction in Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF. Mujuru was the leader of Mugabe's guerrilla fighters who fought in the 1970s to end white-minority-ruled Rhodesia. He went by the nom de guerre of Rex Nhongo.
At Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, Mujuru became commander of the nation's army. He led the army for more than 10 years and still commanded loyalty of many in the military. His influence in the military backed up his wife's political career and Mujuru was widely viewed as a kingmaker who would influence the selection of who will succeed Mugabe.
When Mujuru retired he went into business and acquired an empire of farms, properties, mines and other interests that made him one of Zimbabwe's wealthiest men and he became even more influential in the top echelons of Mugabe's party and its policymaking politburo. Good looking with a winning smile and an impressive physical presence, it was easy to see how Mujuru held considerable influence in the army and throughout Zanu-PF. Mujuru was also known as a heavy drinker, sometimes seen drinking whisky in public.
The Mujurus are the are the chief rivals in Zanu-PF to Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is known as "the Crocodile." The Mujurus have competed with Mnangagwa over who will succeed Mugabe. It is not known how Vice President Joice Mujuru will fend in Zimbabwe's political turmoil without her husband's muscle to back her up. She is now exposed and more vulnerable, according to Harare analysts.
Joice Mujuru is seen as leading a moderate, reformist side of Zanu-PF that is open to working with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Mnangagwa has a more hardline position against Tsvangirai.
Zimbabwe's state media have reported Mujuru's death as the result of an electrical fire, but many in political analysts in Zimbabwe suspect that Mujuru was murdered. Whether his death was accidental or not, his death leaves a vacuum in Zimbabwe's political setup that will create more tumult.
"It's a huge shock. The suspicion of a power play is everywhere. Everybody's talking about it. If that was involved, it's a huge event and could spark violence between factions of Zanu-PF," said Eddie Cross, policy co-ordinator general of the MDC.
"We've been saying for a long time that if there's a civil war in Zimbabwe, it won't be between Zanu-PF and the MDC, it will be between factions of Zanu-PF," said Cross, according to the Guardian.
"There is so much fighting in Zanu-PF now that, if it's foul play, it's anybody's guess who might have done this," said John Makumbe, professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe. "I think we are going to see a severely fractured party because there is going to be finger pointing and allegations from one side against another. The two factions, Mujuru and Mnangagwa, have been fighting for crumbs from the rich man's table. Mugabe will not find it easy to handle. It will make him age a little faster again."
Mujuru's death is likely to strengthen Mnangagwa's hand, according to the Zimbabwean media entrepreneur Trevor Ncube. "It certainly weakens Mrs Mujuru's chances of succeeding Robert Mugabe," he said. "All their supporters will have to regroup and consolidate. It strengthens Emmerson Mnangagwa's chances in a big way. I suspect there may be celebrations in that camp."
Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, the current military chief, told state radio he visited the site of the fire.
"The way he has gone is difficult to comprehend. He was such a fine fighter," Chiwenga said of the former guerrilla leader who helped sweep Mugabe into power at independence in 1980.
Joice Mujuru also visited the scene of the fire, according to Zimbabwe's state radio. The radio reporter said the farmhouse was burned to the ground and police said Mujuru's body was "burned beyond recognition."
A worker at the house said Mujuru went to bed and later neighbors were awakened as fire swept through the house, state radio reported. Mujuru had evidently tried to escape but was overwhelmed by flames and smoke, police told state radio.
No response was immediately available from Mugabe's party or his office.
Mugabe has acknowledged deep divisions in his party and has said he will not leave office until he has resolved them and unified the party. Mugabe wants elections as soon as possible to end a shaky coalition with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, his longtime opponent.
The power sharing coalition between Mugabe and Tsvangirai was brokered by neighboring leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) after disputed and violent elections in 2008.
Mugabe is scheduled to attend a summit of leaders of the 15 SADC nations this week in Angola. Zimbabwe's political crisis is high on the SADC agenda. Regional leaders have recently taken a firmer stance against violence and other obstacles to democratic reforms blamed on Mugabe and his party leaders.