Political broker’s death in house fire opens door for party power struggle

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HARARE, Zimbabwe — A raging house fire killed one of Zimbabwe’s main political brokers, raising questions Tuesday about the battle within longtime President Robert Mugabe’s party over who will succeed the ailing 87-year-old leader.

Gen. Solomon Mujuru, the 62-year-old former military chief and guerrilla leader, died in an overnight fire at one of his homes, the nation’s army commander said Tuesday.

Gen. Mujuru headed Zimbabwe’s military for more than a decade after independence in 1980. His widow, Joice Mujuru, has served as the country’s vice president since 2004, and her supporters are vying for supremacy within their party should Mr. Mugabe die or retire.

Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has been plagued by disputes over who will succeed him.

Mrs. Mujuru leads a powerful faction in Mr. Mugabe's party, but she counted on the support of her husband, who still commanded loyalty in the military for his role in helping sweep Mr. Mugabe into power at independence in 1980.

His power base was seen as the foundation of her political fortunes.

After his retirement, Gen. Mujuru acquired an empire of farms, properties, mines and other interests that made him one of wealthiest and most-influential figures in the top echelons of Mugabe’s party and its policymaking politburo.

“His death leaves the party in a shambles. He was holding it together and we will now see more infighting,” said John Makumbe, a political scientist at Zimbabwe’s main university.

Reporters at the scene of the farm some 35 miles southwest of Harare saw the building burn to the ground. Police said Gen. Mujuru’s body was “burned beyond recognition.”

Stephen Harineyo, an employee at the farm, said Gen. Mujuru went to bed Monday during a power outage, a common occurrence in Zimbabwe. It was not clear if an electrical fault may have ignited the blaze when the power came back on later.

Firefighters arrived without water, with even outages of emergency water supplies common in the embattled economy. Workers at the farm attempted unsuccessfully to stop the blaze with water collected from a stream about nearly 2 miles away.

Simon Khaya Moyo, the fourth-ranking official in Mr. Mugabe's party, said Gen. Mujuru had long fought for unity in Zimbabwe.

“He was the glue to our future,” he said. “None of us would have the audacity to betray him.”

Mr. Mugabe did not immediately comment on Gen. Mujuru’s death.

Mr. Makumbe, the political scientist, said the fire raised rumors of foul play as news of Gen. Mujuru’s death slowly spread in the capital, Harare, before an official announcement was made.

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