AS Zimbabwe’s 2018 election draws closer, important questions are emerging with regards President Robert Mugabe’s state of health and fitness to vie for re-election.
By Hazel Ndebele
The leader’s growing struggle with old age, including his infamous fall at the Harare International Airport last year in January, has become a serious topic of discussion for both his allies in the ruling Zanu PF and political opponents who, after trying unsuccessfully to remove him from office, are envisaging an endgame centred on his inevitable old age and ill-health-necessitated exit.
Mugabe’s candidacy in the crucial election will be compared and contrasted with those of his rivals, the relatively youthful former Vice-President Joice Mujuru and perennial arch-rival Morgan Tsvangirai.
While Tsvangirai also has health concerns, Mugabe, who turns 93 in three months and has over the years boldly declared that he is fit to stand in national elections, must contend with a hectic campaign schedule in his bid to consolidate waning support triggered by a floundering economy and bare-knuckled factional fights within Zanu PF.
Zimbabwe’s economy is this year seen sliding into recession due to unfavourable commodity prices on the global market and predatory government policies such as the indigenisation law compelling foreign investors to cede at least a 51% stake to locals.
Senior Zanu PF officials are already angling to succeed the nonagenarian who has not hinted on stepping down anytime soon.
Mugabe, who has been showing signs of frailty for a long time, struggled to climb very low steps to the podium at the Harare International Conference Centre last week at the inaugural session of the South Africa-Zimbabwe Bi-National Commission.
Mugabe was surrounded by more than six security aides, who were literally trying to block a clear view of the leader’s unsteady and laboured walk to the podium.
As he trudged from the VIP lounge of the Harare International Conference Centre to the podium, just a few metres away, it was plain for everyone to see the nonagenarian had reached his twilight years.
The South African delegates, some of whom last saw him at the end of August in Swaziland at the Southern African Development Community summit and in September at the United Nations in New York, stared with dismay and amazement at the marked deterioration in Mugabe’s physical appearance and fitness.
One South African delegate remarked to the Zimbabwe Independent last week: “You just have to feel pity for the old man and ask yourself why he is putting himself through all this and why he doesn’t just rest.”
Top Zanu PF and government sources this week said as Mugabe’s health continues to deteriorate, there is growing uncertainty about his candidature in the 2018 elections.
Some senior party officials feel he is unlikely to have the stamina for a typically energy-sapping campaign owing to advanced age. Mugabe will be 94 in 2018.
“We can’t really say at the moment, but all I can say is that it is now in God’s hands what happens between now and 2018,” a top government official, who just last year was part of a group together with the Zanu PF Women and Youth leagues pushing for Mugabe to be declared the party’s presidential candidate in 2018.
As he addressed the Bi-National commission, the inaudibility of his low-pitched voice underlined his advanced age.
Mugabe frequently travels to Singapore for treatment at the state-of-the-art Gleneagles Hospital.
Government sources also said he has been spending less time in his office due to a combination of old age and ill-health which have slowed him down over the years.
Mugabe’s infirmity has been amplified in recent times since his dramatic fall at Harare International Airport in January last year while returning from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he had taken over the rotational African Union chairmanship.
After the fall, Mugabe stunned the nation in September last year when he read a wrong speech during the official opening of the Third Session of the Eighth Parliament. Blissfully unaware, he read the same speech he had delivered during the State of the Nation Address that he had presented before Parliament in August last year.
He also showed signs of worsening frailty when he stumbled backwards before being assisted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and aides to scale a small step while attending the India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in October last year.