At 93 years of age, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has shambled into an alley of history that is exclusively his own. Not only is he the world’s oldest head of state, outpacing United Kingdom’s famously enduring Queen Elizabeth II by more than two years, he will be the oldest candidate in electoral history anywhere when he stands, as he looks set upon, in his country’s next general election due next year. He has said he wants to live till 100 years and plans to rule for life.
The Zimbabwe leader turned 93 penultimate Tuesday. And as in previous years, he celebrated the milestone with a weeklong fiesta that climaxed in a lavish birthday party at the weekend that followed. Speaking at the bash in a public school in Matobo, on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo, the nonagenarian slapped down widespread expectation that he would now give some hint of his retirement plans. “People are busy forming their own groupings saying ‘Mr. Mugabe must go.’ I ask myself, where should I go?” he said in a speech that was broadcast on state radio and television.
Pa Mugabe wouldn’t even contemplate anointing a successor at this time because that, in his rulebook, would amount to undemocratic imposition. “Others are saying ‘President, choose a successor before you retire.’ Is that not imposition? Me, imposing someone on the party? No, I don’t want that,” he said in his address at the Matobo bash.
The aged ruler allowed a gambit, though, saying his retirement, if it must happen, would be the ruling Zanu-PF’s call. But he as well foreclosed such a call by the party because the question, as he holds, was already decided by the people. “This is an issue for the congress to choose. We can have an extraordinary congress if the president retires. But you already said I should be your candidate in the next election,” he noted.
Not that the old man was unmindful of his mortality, saying: “It’s not always easy to predict that, although you are alive this year, you will be alive next year. It does not matter how healthy you might feel. The decision that you continue to live and enjoy life is that of one personality we call the Almighty God.” But then, he had earlier also signalled there was no alternative to his candidature for the 2018 presidential poll. “If I feel that I can’t do it anymore, I will say so to my party. But for now I think I can’t say so. The majority of people feel that there is no replacement,” he said in a commemorative interview aired on Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) television penultimate week to mark his birthday.
Well, give it to the liberation struggle hero: he is uncommonly strong for his advanced years. He yet ambles around on his own feet, and manages to give long speeches – the address at the birthday party in Matobo, for instance, lasted over an hour. Truth also is, even though he has been ruling Zimbabwe since 1980 and has seen the southern African country from a promising regional economic power to what clearly now is a basket case, Mugabe yet commands cult following among a huge number of his country folk, largely owing to a historical national debt for his liberation legacy – he led Zimbabwe in guerilla warfare to snatch independence from Britain’s colonial stranglehold, remember? Besides, opposition players in Zimbabwe are too far in disarray to offer any coordinated challenge to his incumbency, and lone crusaders like #ThisFlag protest movement leader, Pastor Evan Mawarire, are readily leashed with insurgency charges.
Still, Mugabe is inexorably slowing down with age. He stumbled notably on the red carpet in 2015, fuelling frantic questions about his physical fitness. At other times, he has appeared increasingly frail and less than steady on his feet. In the pre-recorded birthday interview penultimate week, the nonagenarian paused at lengths between sentences and spoke with his eyes barely open. He frequently groped for the right word, looked visibly tired and was scarcely audible, with his famed oratory eloquence mostly absent. By late last week, he was reported to have headed out to Singapore for medical checks and is being expected back in his country early this week.
But despite the invading debility of age, Mugabe remains a reference point for the 2018 presidential run. And he is being egged on by close allies who apparently have hitched their political wagons to the nonagenarian’s slowing engine head. The ace player in this club is Mugabe’s 51-year-old wife, Grace, who once said if need be, the aged ruler would be taken to campaign rallies in a wheel chair to make a stump for votes. Grace Mugabe escalated that rhetoric lately by saying her husband could contest the next election even as “a corpse.” She accused some members of the ruling party of plotting to oust her husband, saying if he dies, supporters should still put his name on the ballot and
vote for him to show their loyalty.
Grace was in 2014 installed head of Zanu-PF Women’s League and a member of the party’s politburo by President Mugabe; and speaking at a rally south-east of Harare to kick off the League’s campaign for the 2018 presidential poll a couple of weeks back, she said: “One day when God decides that Mugabe dies, we will have his corpse appear as a candidate on the ballot paper. You will see people voting for Mugabe as a corpse. I am seriously telling you – just to show how people love their president.”
There were, of course, apparent connotations to the First Lady’s statement. She is viewed by many as a major contender to succeed her husband, even though she faces bitter opposition from a faction of the ruling party aligned to the current Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa. And she refuses to rule the speculation. “They say I want to be President. Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?” she once said.
Her latest suggestion that Mugabe could run for election as a corpse is widely construed to imply the possibility of proxy rule by the old man, if he dies, through her. And you could say she made that much clear at the recent rally when she told challengers who belonged to the war era – like Mnangagwa – that while Mugabe might be advancing in years, they are in the same age bracket and too old to take power. “Anyone who was with Mugabe in 1980 has no right to tell him he is old. If you want Mugabe to go, then you leave together. You also have to leave. Then we take over because we were not there in 1980,” she said.
I would say the unfolding scenario in Zimbabwe is a shame; but then, it is illustrative of the power disease that is quite notable in Africa. And let’s be clear: this disease isn’t restricted to just presidential offices, it applies to many other public offices too. It is the reason people cling to public office, with scant regard for public accountability and a warped notion of entitlement and indispensability. And it is such mentality that bred the Nguema Mbasogos, Eduardo dos Santoses, Paul Biyas, Yoweri Musevenis and others in their African clan.
Here is the catch: it is as well such mentality that informs pervasive claim by elected officials in our context to sanctity of their right to a second term when they are yet to justify the mandate by voters for a first term. This mentality is a strain of the Mugabe disease.