PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe has of late become the centre of attention in Zimbabwe’s political sphere, not because of soaring rhetoric which he was once famous for, but for his increasingly deteriorating health ahead of the crunch 2018 general election.
By Hazel Ndebele
A video showing a visibly frail and tired Mugabe at the National Heroes’ Acre on Saturday has gone viral on social media — generating more debate on his health and old age. This has become a regular occurence. The video, recorded by the South African Broadcasting Corporation at the burial of former Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, shows the 93-year-old president, who has been in office for 37 years, struggling to climb a small staircase.
Mugabe tried to climb the staircase while balancing on the railings with one hand, but still failed to maintain his balance such that he had to hold on to the railings with both hands as if he was climbing Mount Everest.
First Lady Grace Mugabe, who used to walk side-by-side with Mugabe, is seen walking closely behind her husband in the video, obviously to rescue him if he happens to miss a step and fall. One of Mugabe’s aides is also seen closely behind him on his right side as he climbs the staircase.
Mugabe’s aides have been more careful around him ever since his infamous fall at the Harare International Airport in January 2015, while returning from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he had taken over the rotational African Union chairmanship.
While those images may evoke pity for some, others deride and blame the 93-year-old for desperately clinging onto power despite evident frailty.
Although it is expected for elders in their nineties to struggle to walk, among other old age and health complications, Mugabe’s case is different because he is still holding onto power despite his age, making it an issue of serious national concern.
Hence, those in politics are watching Mugabe’s steps closely and carefully, albeit for different reasons. Mugabe’s health has become the biggest single factor in Zimbabwean politics; it has a bearing on his succession, general elections and the country’s future.
From an election point of view, politicians are watching to see if his health will allow him to contest in the 2018 polls as a Zanu PF presidential candidate. Last week, the Zimbabwe Independent revealed that it is no longer business as usual for Mugabe as ill-health and old age take a serious toll on him. Those close to him confirm his frailty and how he no longer has the stamina to function properly given the strenuous demands of his position.
Politicians hope that Mugabe’s health could be a factor which will bring the succession race to an end, with Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and others reportedly waiting in the wings to take over as from him.
Political analysts say Mugabe’s health has also become an important factor on the security services’ role in local politics. On Mugabe’s watch, the military has become entrenched in politics with vested interest in the nonagenarian leader’s failing health.
Mugabe’s health is important to the securocrats who are desperate to protect their material gains accumulated during the 93-year-old’s reign.
The opposition parties are hoping that Mugabe’s deteriorating health will eliminate him from the presidential race and give them a chance to defeat Zanu PF. However, various studies on dictators have shown that if a dictator dies or is removed by other means (for instance, through a coup) — in other words other than through elections, nothing changes politically.
Mugabe’s removal through death may be celebrated by some, but it has high chances of leading to a replay of dictatorship as Zanu PF will just field a different candidate to replace him.
Political analyst Eldred Masunungure said if the opposition hopes that Mugabe’s departure will enhance its chances of winning elections, it might be disappointed.
“When Mugabe’s health deteriorates, it has a clear negative implication in politics, policies and governing in general. His ill-health becomes a destabilising factor in Zimbabwe politics and the trajectory towards the 2018 elections and beyond,” said Masunungure.
“However, if the opposition hopes that the departure of Mugabe due to ill-health will enhance their electoral prospects, they will be bitterly disappointed. They probably think that Zanu PF and Mugabe are one and the same thing, therefore exit Mugabe exit Zanu PF, but that is not the case; it is not as simple as that.”
Masunungure said if the opposition has Mugabe’s health factor as part of its strategies, then it will be sorely disappointed as Zanu PF has become an institution in its own right with deep roots in Zimbabwe’s society.
“The opposition needs to revisit its thinking in that regard because in any case we have two of the most powerful leaders (in the country’s body politic) battling ill-health. Both Mugabe and (MDC-T leader Morgan) Tsvangirai are not well, so does it mean that exit Tsvangirai exit MDC-T?” he asked.
According to analysts, Mugabe plays the role of unifier of his party. They say even if Mugabe is ailing, he remains Zanu PF’s electoral trump card as he keeps the party together and running. Some argue that Mugabe is even more popular than his party. So severe are the ructions in Zanu PF that the only person uniting the party is him. Those fighting are united by one shared belief: that Mugabe should be their leader.
Analysts say Mugabe is more feared than respected, hence he has managed to remain the Zanu PF unifier. An indication that Mugabe is feared is that his deputies never show their ambition to become President as they are afraid of being eliminated like what happened to former Vice-President Joice Mujuru.
But Mugabe’s infirmity can no longer be hidden no matter how much government officials try to play propaganda.
Another video of him taken during the Independence Day celebrations shows Mugabe failing to light the Independence flame on his own and had to be helped by a youth, giving further evidence of increasing dotage.
Commentator Maxwell Saungweme said it is unfortunate that the political focus is now on Mugabe’s health.
“It is so sad that Zimbabwe political actors’ focus is on an ailing man. He has become a national liability”, he said.