The deaths of the three key men behind President Robert Mugabe's coercive electoral strategy has left the embattled Zimbabwean leader and his ruling Zanu-PF party in disarray and confusion.
Mr Mugabe and his ministers appear to believe these deaths are not natural or accidental. His officials have openly said they believe their party is haunted, some even saying that "the gods must be angry". Others have blamed the deaths on black magic.
"We don't know what is hitting us. Something unnatural must be behind all this," said Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mr Mugabe's right-hand man, who is also speaker of parliament.
Another senior ruling party official said: "The party is haunted ... We fear the hand of Lucifer is at work."
Although analysts say that Mr Mugabe's use of terror tactics remains his only trump card in presidential elections next year, they agree that the deaths of the three ruling party firebrands is a huge drawback.
The three Chenjerai Hitler Hunzvi, 51, the war veterans' leader, Moven Mahachi, 52, defence minister, and Border Gezi, 36, youth affairs minister had all played prominent roles in formulating Mr Mugabe's terror tactics. Mr Mugabe himself has acknowledged the role of the three, ahead of some of his ministers.
He recently said the three had remained steadfast in their support of his compulsory confiscations of white farms at a time when some "doubting Thomases" within cabinet had shown signs of relenting.
Mr Hunzvi, the latest victim of suspected black magic, was buried at the national heroes' shrine on Friday. He led the militant war veterans in the field, while Mr Gezi was responsible for their upkeep and logistics in various parts of the country. Mr Mahachi, in turn, was responsible for converting the war veterans into a reserve force of the Zimbabwe National Army.
Mr Hunzvi led vicious attacks on commercial farmers, industries and factories, opposition parties and aid agencies. In the process, he carved his place among Mr Mugabe's most trusted lieutenants. His onslaught killed six white farmers and 31 opposition supporters.
Mr Hunzvi, who died of cerebral malaria according to the government, revelled in his 1970s independence guerrilla war nom de guerre of Hitler. To many, the official middle name reflected his racism as much as his militancy. During his election campaign rallies in the Chikomba constituency which he won for Mr Mugabe's ruling party in parliamentary elections last June, he was asked what he liked in a name that depicted the worst murderer in the history of mankind. He replied: "My hatred for white people."
Mr Mahachi's conversion of the war veterans into a reserve force of the army was meant to give them access to military weaponry for their terror campaign. And Mr Gezi is alleged to have been on a mission to distribute the cash to war veterans based in Masvingo province when he died in a car accident. Apart from his role in maintaining the war veterans in the field, Mr Gezi had started dissolving the ruling party's provincial committees opposed to Mr Mugabe's attempt to cling to power.
"The three were key to Mr Mugabe's terror strategies," said Lovemore Madhuku, an analyst at the University of Zimbabwe. "No wonder Mr Mugabe and his guys are shocked and short of words to describe the deaths, which they now foolishly blame on black magic," he said.
Mr Mugabe's failure to quickly replace Mr Gezi and Mr Mahachi has been interpreted as showing his lack of confidence in some of his party officials. It also underscored the confusion within the party, as some potential candidates shunned appointments by Mr Mugabe. Nkosana Moyo, the trade and industry minister, who resigned over a month ago and fled to the US with his family, has not been replaced.
"The feeling among some is that accepting an appointment by Mr Mugabe is to invite bad luck. The man has spilt a lot of innocent blood," said one junior official of the ruling party.
A number of prominent personalities declined an invitation by Mr Mugabe to stand as the ruling party's candidate in executive mayoral elections in Bulawayo. The move forced Mr Mugabe to postpone the mayoral elections indefinitely.
Although Mr Mugabe's campaign for re-election has suffered a major blow in the loss of his three key allies, his use of violence looks set to continue. "The violent use of the militant war veterans remains his only trump card," said Masipula Sithole, another University of Zimbabwe analyst. He said Mr Mugabe would never allow a free and fair election.
Addressing mourners at Mr Hunzvi's burial on Friday, Mr Mugabe vowed to continue with his confiscations of white farms without compensation. He said the land redistribution crusade would not be stopped by "small boys" such as Britain's Prime Minister. "Perhaps Tony Blair was too young ... to appreciate what his predecessors did [in dispossessing blacks of their land]," he said.
"He should learn a bit about our history, at least now that the British people have returned him to power."Reuse content