Four key figures within Zimbabwe’s ruling party will determine how the battle to succeed him plays out:
Mnangagwa, 75, has been a close ally of Mugabe’s since 1974, when the two were leading members of the political wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union liberation movement.
A veteran of the country’s war of independence from 1964 to 1979, when Zimbabwe was known as Rhodesia, Mnangagwa is known by his nomme de guerre Ngwena, or crocodile in the Shona language.
Mnangagwa narrowly escaped being hanged after being convicted by a Rhodesian court under the country’s terrorism act. The court gave him an 11th-hour reprieve after determining he was under 18.
Mnangagwa went on to become the chief securocrat of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, now known as the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. Over the past 37 years he’s headed both the intelligence and defense ministries, as well as the ministry of justice.
He became vice president in 2014 – a short-lived appointment brought to an end by the enmity of Mugabe’s wife, Grace, who heads a faction of mainly younger Zanu-PF officials loosely known as Generation-40. Mnangagwa’s faction is known as Lacoste, named after the French clothing company’s crocodile logo.
Chiwenga is the overall commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, or ZDF. Born in 1956, he joined the war for liberation in 1973, a year after it began in earnest.
Zimbabwe’s Army commander General Constantine Chiwenga (left) and commander of the Zimbabwe National Army Lieutenant-General Philip Valerio Sibanda. (AFP)
He rose through the ranks to become a brigadier when, after the war ended, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army and the Rhodesian army merged into a single entity known as the ZDF.
In 1994, he was promoted to lieutenant-general and in 2004 replaced General Vitalis Zvinavashe as the head of the ZDF. Beneath him, Lieutenant-General Philip Valerio Sibanda commands the army, and Air Marshal Perence Shiri the air force.
Sibanda fought with the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army during the liberation war before rising to command Zimbabwe’s land and special forces.
Sibanda also commanded a combined international force of United Nations peacekeepers that oversaw the disarming of Angolan combatants after that country’s 30-year civil war ended in 2002. Unusually in Zimbabwe, Sibanda hasn’t previously been seen to be in an overtly political position.
Shiri, born in 1955, commanded Zimbabwe’s notorious Fifth Brigade, a special army unit trained by North Korean instructors that was deployed in Zimbabwe’s Midlands and Matabeleland provinces in the 1980s.
The brigade carried out atrocities including torture and the extrajudicial execution of more than 3,000 people between 1982 and 1987, according to New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Shiri became commander of the air force in 1992.