Mugabe, who turned 88 in February, arrived on a chartered flight around 7am, amid speculation he was critically ill and had been battling for his life in a Singapore hospital.
The online publication which originated or fuelled the reports yesterday admitted they were unfounded and apologised to Mugabe and his family while firing its editors, although that would not stop the storm of speculation on his health, especially ahead of elections. Senior Zanu PF officials close to him say he has prostate cancer and other complications.
Mugabe landed at the Harare International Airport accompanied by his wife Grace. He was met by several senior government officials including Vice-President Joice Mujuru and service chiefs.
Unusually, Mugabe did not address reporters to clear the air on arrival, raising fears he wanted to avoid scrutiny. He chatted with Mujuru and officials before being whisked away. Media, Information and Publicity minister Webster Shamu remained behind scolding journalists for spreading “lies” and wishing the president ill. Shamu on Wednesday summoned editors over the issue.
Upon his arrival, Mugabe proceeded to chair cabinet which did not meet last week and this week on Tuesday as scheduled. Ministers who attended cabinet said he looked relatively well and largely ignored reports of his failing health.
“The president was calm and did not raise the issue at the meeting,” a senior minister said. “He appeared not bothered at all and it seems those stories were just much ado about nothing.”
Another minister indicated that the media was allegedly “taken for a ride” by “cunning intelligence operatives” who wanted to manage the situation through spreading intentionally inaccurate or false information.
“This has happened before. The media was duped. This was a planned and deliberate act of deception through spreading false information to manage Mugabe’s health situation. It’s called black propaganda and is often widely used by intelligence services when they want to deal with certain situations,” one minister said. “By so doing they have managed to discredit the media and, at least for now, kill the story.”
Mugabe — who has visited the Asian country eight times last year for medical check-ups — has often declared himself as fit as a fiddle after such reports and ridiculed his opponents. However, yesterday he did not.
The international media has been awash with reports that Mugabe was on his death-bed in Singapore. Most media houses picked the story from an online publication, The Zimbabwe Mail, which yesterday apologised for the inaccurate report.
Leighton Mushaninga, the executive chairman of Zimbabwe News & Media (Pvt) Ltd, which runs the media house yesterday announced his company had made senior editorial changes.
Despite the arrival of the seemingly fit Mugabe, doubts about whether he would be a viable candidate for Zanu PF in the next election have continued because of the combined effects of advanced age and ill-health.
Mugabe is understood to be suffering from various ailments, including prostate cancer which has spread to other parts of the body.
Sources this week revealed he had had gone to Singapore for eye pressure treatment. Eye pressure is caused by a build-up of fluids inside the eye.
He has also been spotted with swollen ankles – a condition medical experts say is common in the elderly, especially after standing for a long time.
Despite his advanced age and ill-health, Mugabe and his backers in the Joint Operations Command (JOC) and hardline politburo members want elections held this year.
JOC brings together the army, police and intelligence service chiefs who were widely blamed for the bloody presidential election run-off in 2008.
One of the reasons Mugabe’s backers are calling for elections this year is partly because they fear he may not be fit enough to run for office if elections were held next year, particularly in the third quarter.
Mugabe reportedly ran for office in 2008 against the advice of his personal doctor insisting he would retire after winning the election. His doctor said to have been flown into the country to monitor his health during grueling campaign period as it was feared he could falter in the process due to fatigue.
Zanu PF secretary for administration Didymus Mutasa said Mugabe would remain the party’s candidate, insisting he was strong enough to run for another five-year term.
“If the president was unwell we would be worried about his health but those reports are totally false,” said Mutasa. “The reports of his illness are exaggerated and nauseating. Those who say he is ill are the ones who are sick in their minds. The president is raring to go.”
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza believes running again would be too taxing for Mugabe. “First of all, I don’t believe there will be elections this year because the processes which have to take place before elections would take at least a year,” said Mandaza. “When the elections are held, it’s highly unlikely that Mugabe would be able to survive the hectic campaign. In fact, it is madness for anyone to want him to run,” he said.
Mandaza said “deep inside” most people in Zanu PF did not want Mugabe to run for office in the next election.
Another political analyst and University of Zimbabwe lecturer Professor Eldred Masunungure said Zanu PF was taking a major risk by placing Mugabe as its candidate.
“Certainly on age alone, I would imagine that anyone at 88 would have difficulties running around in a presidential campaign,” said Masunungure.
“If you consider the rigours in campaigning nationwide, even for a young person who is fully fit, it’s an onerous and difficult task. It’s a mentally and physically taxing exercise and, therefore, Zimbabweans are justified to question if he is capable.”
MDC-T spokesman Douglas Mwonzora said while it was not his party’s responsibility to choose a candidate for Zanu PF, Mugabe was now “too old” to run.
“The next election is about the future of Zimbabwe and Mugabe cannot be trusted with the future,” said Mwonzora. “At 88, Mugabe represents the past and this is how he should be viewed by any serious-minded Zimbabweans.”