Ever since colonial cartographers drew their common frontier across the Zambezi River, the two lands 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 contest 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 G. 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. Mugabe moved 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, while 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 from the one-man rule of former President Kenneth Kaunda, which came to end in 1991, to multiparty democracy.