DESPITE frantic attempts by President Robert Mugabe’s publicists to convince the public the president is still fit to govern, latest information gathered from his family and inner circle shows that behind the scenes it is no longer business as usual for him — his situation is fast deteriorating and panic is rife.
By Owen Gagare
Insiders say the harsh reality emerging shows the President, currently in Singapore for medical review and treatment, is now barely able to function. They say Mugabe’s worsening ill-health problems have now become a clear and present danger to government functionality and the security of the nation.
“Bureaucrats like George Charamba (the president’s spokesman) can say whatever they want, but the truth is Mugabe is now hardly able to function properly given the strenuous demands of his position,” a senior government official, close to Mugabe’s family, said yesterday.
“The old man is facing so many problems; diminished eyesight or vision impairment, a serious loss of vision in other words. This has greatly decreased his ability to see to a point where this is no longer fixable by usual means, such as glasses or contact lenses.
“Because of old age and associated complications, there has been a noticeable decline in his cognitive abilities, including thinking, memory and speech skills.”
Those inside Mugabe’s circle also say on top of waning vision, he is barely able to walk and needs support most of the time. This has led to his family and close security aides beefing up support around him.
These days Mugabe is often seen in public surrounded by a mob of security aides – at least five — moving closely around him. Insiders say this is a new security strategy designed to prevent him from stumbling or falling due to aggravated frailty. It is also aimed at protecting him from close public scrutiny, over and above providing him with normal security, insiders say.
Although government insists Mugabe is mainly suffering from eye cataracts, which have greatly diminished his eyesight and severely degraded his capacity to work, the story of him having prostate cancer which has metastasized has refused to go away, particularly given his increasing shuttles to Singapore.
Since last December when he went for his annual holidays in South East Asia, Mugabe has increased his public and below the radar visits to Singapore. While he was on holiday in China and later in Dubai, it is said he went for medical treatment out of the public eye. He also made several public visits there since January.
Besides the eyesight problems, insiders say Mugabe is increasingly finding it difficult to walk, get out of a car without assistance and unable to climb even very small steps.
In order to stop him from falling in public, like he did at Harare International Airport in February 2015 shortly after his arrival from the African Union summit, the number of close security aides around him has been increased.
“While a decade ago, he used to climb Air Zimbabwe flight boarding steps almost running, he is now unable climb very small or low steps. As a result a lift has had to be installed for him to be able to attend cabinet and access his offices on the first floor of Munhumutapa Building,” another official said. “The situation is very serious and his aides (especially his nephew Wonder) are the ones who keep him going.”
Government officials say Mugabe’s health problems have become a national security issue and a major political factor, especially on his succession battles.
“If the First Lady (Grace Mugabe) is around, her role is to hold his hand to support him,” one family member said.
“Otherwise, his aides have to play that role in a professional way; they don’t hold his hand, but stick very close to him.”
Zanu PF senior officials say the rising agitation in the party for an extraordinary congress this year is mainly fuelled by Mugabe’s deteriorating health and fears he may not be able to be a viable candidate in next year’s elections.
“His health is no longer just a medical issue, it is now a security and political matter,” a Zanu PF official said.
“It impacts on the political and security situation in the country, and hence it has become the main factor in determining decisions on the extraordinary congress and who will be the party’s candidate in next year’s elections.”
Zanu PF officials say Mugabe’s heightened frailty is unsettling his wife Grace who has reportedly been putting pressure on him to resolve the long-standing Zanu PF succession crisis. Insiders say Grace wants Mugabe to anoint her as his successor or support a friendly force like Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi to take over from him.
“Grace is in a quandary; she has to deal Mugabe’s health challenges and political issues as well. She wants him to resolve this issue urgently by either helping her in or supporting Sekeramayi,” one official said.
“This is motivated by her power and security calculations. It’s about survival for her family and kids. There is also the issue of her business interests and their future. She is scared of a future without him, hence her anxiety and agitation.”
The official said Mugabe is, however, scared of rocking the boat by imposing his wife as that could be resisted and backfire on him, leading to an ignominious endgame and unceremonial exit.
Insiders say Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his allies in the military are also closely monitoring Mugabe’s health situation with the strategy of “sliding into the vacuum” should he become incapacitated or dies.
“Even if there are constitutional arrangements of what happens when Mugabe retires, is incapacitated or dies, Mnangagwa and his security sector backers are geared to budge their way in after Mugabe. Even if (Vice-President Phelekezela) Mphoko becomes the acting president for 90 days, thereafter they see themselves using their security infrastructure and institutional control to seize power — not in a coup but a military tutelage situation. These are no longer just hypothetical scenarios among succession actors, but empirical strategies.”
Following public quarrels between Mugabe, his wife and the military, army commanders are said to have resolved to support Mnangagwa’s presidential bid although they remain loyal to the commander-in-chief.
The military’s stance has been a great source of discomfort for Grace and her G40 allies.
Mugabe’s deteriorating health has also fuelled conflict among the two main Zanu PF factions, one led by Mnangagwa and the G40 faction which has coalesced around Grace.
The two factions are said to be itching for an extraordinary congress as fears mount that the president may not have the stamina to stand in next year’s elections.
“The Mnangagwa faction wants the extraordinary congress so that a new party leader may be chosen before elections next year. The faction believes Mnangagwa will win given that the G40 faction appears not to have a solid candidate at the moment and is merely relying on Grace’s proximity to power,” said one official.
“The G40 faction has been pushing for an extraordinary congress, hoping Mugabe would be strong enough to stand but it is increasingly seeing that the chances for him to stand are diminishing with each passing day. The faction wants a congress at which vice-presidents would be elected to remove Mnangagwa and even replaced him with Grace.
“The Mnangagwa camp simply wants the elective congress to put its leader to become the party’s candidate in next year’s elections.”
Remarkably, Mnangagwa and his allies are confident Mugabe will not stand in 2018. The faction also believes an extraordinary congress at which Mnangagwa would be catapulted into leadership is in their interest as it ensures he becomes a shoo-in for the presidency, insiders say.
Officials say the G40 faction thinks Mugabe’s prolonged stay in power would give them a chance to reverse the gains made by Mnangagwa in the succession race, although it carries serious risks. Mnangagwa is considered a front-runner to succeed Mugabe as he has the support of most Zanu PF politburo and central committee members. He is also controlling cabinet and vocal constituencies like war veterans. His trump card, though, is widely seen as the military.