PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe’s reported health problems have raised serious concerns within Zanu PF circles and in the corridors of power, with cabinet ministers saying the situation was now disrupting government operations.
Ministers who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent off the record this week said they were becoming increasingly worried that Mugabe’s health situation could end up badly compromising critical government operations and how the country is run.
Ministers spoke in the wake of reports that Mugabe is in Singapore for an eye-related medical procedure and the failure of cabinet to meet on Tuesday.
Cabinet, an important government policy-making body, generally meets every Tuesday from 9am in the cabinet room at Munhumutapa Building in Harare.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has been fighting with Mugabe over the chairing of cabinet, said yesterday government business should not be disrupted by the president’s absence.
“The prime minister’s view is that government business should not be sacrificed due to the absence of any one of the leaders of the country. We should follow constitutional mechanisms when it comes to the sitting of cabinet and council of ministers,” Tsvangirai’s spokesman Luke Tamborinyoka said. “This means in the absence of the chair, the deputy must preside over the relevant body to allow government business to proceed uninterrupted.”
Senior ministers said this week it was important for Mugabe to clarify his health situation to reassure the public that he was not in danger as often rumoured. Mugabe has always insisted he is well and in good shape.
One senior minister told the Independent yesterday: “The president’s health has become an issue of public concern and even we as ministers don’t know what exactly is going on. There is need for clarity on this issue in the public interest because it is now beginning to affect government operations.”
Another minister said he had spoken to his colleagues and they were worried.
“I have spoken to three colleagues across the political divide and they are anxious about it,” the minister said. “This issue needs to be addressed properly.”
One minister said at this rate Zimbabwe could end up with a Woodrow Wilson or Kamuzu Banda situation where First Ladies ended up running countries from behind-the-scenes due to health and age conditions of their husbands respectively. In 2009 Nigeria was plunged into a crisis when the late president Umaru Yar’Adua went to Saudi
Arabia for medical attention, leaving government in paralysis until his death.
Since the beginning of this year, cabinet has only met once. The whole of January it did not meet because Mugabe was on holiday. It resumed sitting on February 8 but failed to meet on Tuesday as the president was away on medical grounds.
While Mugabe is away, the country is currently facing urgent problems related to civil servants’ salaries, ghost workers, controversial diamond sales and revenues and fuel issues, among others, which cabinet would normally be expected to discuss.
The faltering Ziscosteel deal and current agricultural season as well as food security are also issues which require cabinet attention.
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said the issue of Mugabe’s health must be clarified.
“The health of a head of state the world over is an issue of serious concern and of public interest. I have been speaking to ministers and they are concerned about it. There is need for clarification of that issue and to put mechanisms in place to ensure the government continues to run smoothly even if the president is not there,” he said. “We can’t have a country and government almost held to ransom because the leader is not there.”
Although Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba has tried to calm nerves by announcing at the weekend that his boss had flown back to Singapore for a “small medical procedure” related on his eye, Zimbabweans, including ministers, are anxious about his health situation.
The anxiety has been worsened by reports last month that Mugabe actually has prostate cancer and had undergone surgery during his annual holiday. Government denied this, but was forced for the first time to confirm over the past weekend that Mugabe had travelled to Singapore on health grounds.
“He went for a review following a small medical procedure he underwent while on holiday,” Charamba told a government-controlled newspaper. “He had a cataract in his eye, so that was removed and he was asked to return by opticians.”
Mandaza said he wondered why Mugabe had to go all the way to far-flung Singapore for cataract surgery when Zimbabwe has some of the best specialists in that field.
Dr Solomon Guramatunhu, a renowned eye specialist and founder and chairman of Eyes for Africa, has restored thousands of Zimbabweans’ eyesight through free cataract surgery.
A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects sight, normally in older people, and can lead to blindness. Cataracts, clouding of the lens in the eyes, develop for a variety of reasons, including long-term exposure to ultraviolet light, exposure to radiation, secondary effects of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and advanced age, or trauma.
If untreated cataracts typically progress slowly to cause vision loss and are potentially blinding. The condition usually affects both eyes, but almost always one eye is affected earlier than the other. A senile cataract occurs in the elderly.
Mugabe’s eyesight problems were unwittingly disclosed in 2009 by former Information minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu when he said the president struggles to read newspapers because of the font size.
While Charamba said Mugabe’s problem was a cataract on his eye, reports persist that he is suffering from prostate cancer.
Prostate cancer is a form of cancer that develops in the prostate, a gland in the male reproductive system. Most prostate cancers are slow growing, although there are cases of aggressive prostate cancer.
The specific causes of prostate cancer remain unknown. The primary risk factors are age and family history. Prostate cancer is very uncommon in men below 45, but becomes more common with advancing age. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 70.
Mugabe’s co-vice-president Joshua Nkomo died of prostate cancer at Parirenyatwa Hospital in 1999 aged 82.