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Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends the 20th anniversary of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) in Harare, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends the 20th anniversary of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) in Harare, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

In Mugabe's entourage, suspicion of a political murder Add to ...

As he prepares to celebrate his 88th birthday next week, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is battling to keep his grip on his country for another year at least.

Despite his advancing age and shaky health, Mr. Mugabe still controls the key levers of power: the military, the police, the intelligence agency, informal militias of violent young thugs and a flow of new money from a controversial diamond field.

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But he cannot rule forever. Reports from Zimbabwe suggest that Mr. Mugabe intends to win one more election – by hook or by crook – and then step aside in favour of a hand-picked successor who would shield him from prosecution for human rights violations.

The election is expected this year or next, and Mr. Mugabe is already building his war chest. A new report suggests that he and his military and police allies are profiting from their control of the vast Marange diamond field, believed to be the biggest in the world.

The report on Tuesday by Global Witness, a London-based organization, found a heavy presence of senior military and police officers, along with a top bureaucrat in the Defence Ministry, on the board of directors of Anjin Investments, a joint Chinese-Zimbabwean venture that controls much of the diamond field.

The Zimbabwean army seized control of the diamond field in 2008 with the use of troops and helicopter gunships, killing and injuring many small-scale miners at the site.

Meanwhile, factions within Mr. Mugabe’s ruling party are jostling for influence in the unofficial contest to succeed him. But as the feuding grows more intense, Mr. Mugabe may be haunted by questions over the mysterious death of a key figure in the backroom power struggle.

Testimony at an inquest this month has failed to allay suspicions about the puzzling death of General Solomon Mujuru, the wealthy husband of Zimbabwe’s Vice-President, Joyce Mujuru, who is seen as a potential successor to Mr. Mugabe.

And while the country awaits the inquest report, the Mujuru family is considering whether to exhume the remains of the late general – a move that could heighten the pressure on Mr. Mugabe if evidence of foul play is found.

Many Zimbabweans suspect that Gen. Mujuru was assassinated. A longtime kingmaker in the ruling ZANU-PF party, he was reportedly pushing for his wife to become president after Mr. Mugabe steps down. This may have provoked the wrath of a rival faction that is promoting the Defence Minister, Emerson Mnangagwa, as the replacement for Mr. Mugabe.

Gen. Mujuru, a former guerrilla commander who helped Mr. Mugabe in the liberation war against the white-ruled government in Rhodesia, died in a mysterious fire at his farmhouse near Harare last year.

Witnesses at the inquest have revealed a long list of oddities about the night of his death. Testimony showed that Gen. Mujuru took 40 minutes to drive from a nearby town to the farm – normally a 10-minute drive. A maid at his farm said he left groceries and his cellphone in his car – something that he had never done before. She and a security guard said they heard gunshots at midnight, about two hours before flames were seen at the farmhouse.

His body was found on the ground floor, where there were many large windows that should have allowed him to escape the fire. Witnesses reported seeing a strange blue flame rising from his remains.

Equally suspicious, firefighters and police were incapacitated by vehicle and phone problems. The fire truck arrived late and had no water because its tank was leaking. The police said their radio was broken and they had no airtime on their cellphones. The nearest police station had no vehicle.

The autopsy on Gen. Mujuru was conducted by a recently arrived Cuban pathologist who did not have proper equipment. Experts could not determine if accelerants were used in the fire because the police had mishandled a sample of ashes. Witnesses said the fire started in two separate parts of the house, suggesting that arson was more likely than an electrical fault.

And while the country awaits the inquest report, the Mujuru family is considering whether to exhume the remains of the late general – a move that could heighten the pressure on Mr. Mugabe if foul play is unearthed.

Many Zimbabweans suspect that Gen. Mujuru was assassinated. Gen. Mujuru, a longtime kingmaker in the ruling ZANU-PF party, was reportedly pushing for his wife to become the president after Mr. Mugabe steps down. This may have provoked the wrath of a rival faction that is promoting the defence minister, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as the replacement for Mr. Mugabe.

Gen. Mujuru, a former guerrilla commander who helped Mr. Mugabe in the liberation war against the white-ruled government in Rhodesia, died in a mysterious fire at his farmhouse near Harare last year.

Witnesses at the inquest have revealed a long list of oddities about the night of his death. Testimony showed that Gen. Mujuru took 40 minutes to drive from a nearby town to the farm – normally a 10-minute drive. A maid at his farm said he left groceries and his cellphone in his car – something that he had never done before. She and a security guard also said they heard gunshots at midnight, about two hours before flames were seen at the farmhouse.

His body was found on the ground floor, yet there were many large windows on the ground floor that should have allowed him to escape the fire. Witnesses reported seeing a strange blue flame rising from his remains.

Even more puzzling, the local fire and police were unable to fight the fire because of vehicle and phone problems. The fire truck arrived late and had no water because it was leaking. The police said their radio was broken and they had no airtime on their cellphones. The nearest police station had no vehicle.

The autopsy on Gen. Mujuru was conducted by a recently arrived Cuban pathologist who did not have proper equipment. Experts could not determine if accelerants were used in the fire because the police had mishandled a sample of ashes. Witnesses said the fire started in two separate parts of the house, suggesting that arson was more likely than an electrical fault.

Meanwhile, a new report suggests that Mr. Mugabe and his military and police allies are profiting from their control of the vast Marange diamond field, believed to be the biggest in the world.

The report today by Global Witness, a London-based organization, found a heavy presence of senior military and police officers, along with a top bureaucrat in the Defence Ministry, among the board of directors of Anjin Investments, a joint Chinese-Zimbabwean venture that controls much of the diamonds.

The Zimbabwean army seized control of the diamond field in 2008 with the use of armed soldiers and helicopter gunships, killing and injuring many small-scale miners at the site.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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