LONDON — Ever since colonial cartographers drew their common frontier across the Zambezi River,Zambia and Zimbabwe have shared an uneasy destiny: landlocked nations, onetime adversaries and now mirror images of political uncertainty.
In Zambia on Tuesday, a split in the governing Patriotic Front after the death in October of President Michael Sata deepened as a faction supporting the acting president, Guy Scott, Africa’s only white leader, chose a 44-year-old economist, Miles Sampa, as its candidate to run in elections in January.
Another faction had already appointed Edgar Lungu, the defense minister, to the same position.
In Zimbabwe, also on Tuesday, the governing ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe prepared for a congress that is expected to rewrite the party’s profile, endorsing Mr. Mugabe’s 34-year grip on power and anointing his wife, Grace Mugabe, to high office while sowing uncertainty over a choreographed contest to become his heir apparent.
In both countries, the maneuvers among the elite risk alienating ordinary people and political figures such as Rugare Gumbo, a former ZANU-PF spokesman, who was purged last month as Mr. Mugabemoved against supporters of the country’s vice president, Joice Mujuru, a former guerrilla fighter once seen as his likely successor.
If, as expected, the congress enables Mr. Mugabe to choose the party leadership, Mr. Gumbo said: “Where is democracy? It is not a congress at all. It is a charade.”
The congress, lasting most of this week, will most likely be seen as one more political masterstroke by the 90-year-old Mr. Mugabe to buttress his dominance, as he has done through a blend of guile and brutality since the nation gained independence from Britain in 1980.
Before then, Mr. Mugabe led a fractious guerrilla movement fighting white minority rule in the former Rhodesia; just to the north, copper-rich Zambia — already independent — was one of the so-called front-line states supporting the insurgents by providing rear bases, political backing and the imposition of economic sanctions.
Since then, Mr. Mugabe has pursued a ruthless quest for power, reinforced on many occasions by violence. By contrast, Zambia, known as Northern Rhodesia before its independence in 1964, has nurtured a relatively peaceful transition to multiparty democracy from the one-man rule of former President Kenneth Kaunda, which came to an end in 1991.
That change enabled Mr. Sata to become president in 2011 after a series of electoral setbacks, with Mr. Scott, an economist and former farmer, as his vice president. The question now is whether the divisions in the Patriotic Front will weaken its prospects at elections set for Jan. 20.
The fissures opened within days of Mr. Sata’s death after months of illness. Mr. Scott sought to suspend Mr. Lungu from his party position, but the move provoked street protests. Mr. Lungu was reinstated, and a faction loyal to him then said it had suspended Mr. Scott.
Both groups have since chosen their rival champions for the election: Mr. Sampa and Mr. Lungu.
“My priority will be to reunite the party,” Mr. Sampa said, according to Reuters, while Sylvia Masebo, who heads the party’s election committee, rejected Mr. Lungu’s appointment as illegal.
Mr. Lungu demurred.
“I am the party president, and the only person who can presently nullify an election is me,” he told reporters.
The struggle in the party has raised questions about whether voters will turn away from the Patriotic Front next month. Various figures, including former President Rupiah Banda, or Hakainde Hichilema, another opposition leader, have been mentioned as contenders for the top job.
“Whilst their squabbles continue, Zambians across the country continue to suffer,” Mr. Hichilema said in an email response to a question about the crisis. “There is a total absence of government leadership, and it is our children, farmers, workers and students paying the price.”
“Zambia has huge potential,” he added, “but we need to unite our nation to unlock this and get our country back on track.”
Former Vice President Nevers Mumba, another presidential contender, said in an email that the “anarchy” within the Patriotic Front is “now affecting the security of the state,” adding that “the Zambian people are paying the highest price for a non-functioning government.”
Article in New York Times here