Africa

Mugabe holds on – but for how much longer?

By Simon Allison 21 January 2014

There was a death in the Mugabe family this week – it just wasn’t Robert’s. Defying the rumours yet again, the octogenarian put in a public appearance at his sister’s memorial service on Sunday. This might have proved that he is alive, but Mugabe looked dreadful, fuelling even more speculation about the state of his health. One of these days, those rumours will be true. By SIMON ALLISON.

The king is dead! Long live the…wait, hold it. Not so fast. This is Zimbabwe, after all, where rumours spread even faster than the Zim dollar inflates (that’s very fast indeed), and where Robert Mugabe continues to defy age, ill health and an impressive array of enemies to hold onto both power and his corporeal existence.

Despite what you may have heard via Twitter, Facebook, and that Zimbabwean car guard you tipped R2 outside Shoprite (you cheapskate), Comrade Bob is still very much an active party member. While it may be beckoning, ever more furiously, he has yet to make the journey to the Great Presidential Palace in the Sky.

The rumours started a couple of weeks ago on Facebook, on the page of “anonymous party insider” Baba Jukwa, who delights in spreading salacious (and occasionally accurate) gossip. He described how State House aides were furiously covering up the president’s ill health.

Then Mugabe went to Singapore, for medical treatment – why Singapore, and exactly what kind of treatment, is a long-running mystery in its own right. When he returned to Harare, he avoided all the fanfare that usually accompanies his arrival, sneaking quietly through the airport and into a well-deserved “annual leave” at his home.

Mugabe is a not a man who usually avoids fanfare. Something, then, must be seriously wrong – at least that’s what’s fuelling the rumours.

Despite its popularity, rumour-mongering can be a dangerous business in Zimbabwe. Already there has been one victim. Pity poor Gumisai Manduwa, an 18-year-old from Manicaland, who was picked up by police and jailed for two days. His crime? Insulting the president by claiming on Facebook that Mugabe was already dead and his body being kept in a freezer somewhere. Manduwa has since been released on $30 bail, and is being represented by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

Manduwa’s version of events is not as outlandish as it sounds. In 2012, it took Malawi a scarcely credible 48 hours to confirm the death in office of President Bingu wa Mutharika. Ministers and spokesmen brazenly lied to the country, promising that Mutharika was alive and well even as his decomposing body was being flown to South Africa. Eventually, the South African government issued an ultimatum: tell the people, or we will. Eleven officials have subsequently been arrested for their role in the deception, which was intended to lay the groundwork for a constitutional coup.

As it happens, however, there was a death in the Mugabe family this weekend – it just wasn’t Robert’s. The president’s sister, Bridget, passed away after three years in a coma at Parirenyatwa Hospital. She was 79. The siblings were close, and Mugabe would visit her in hospital often.

At a memorial service for her on Sunday, the president made an appearance – putting to bed, for now, the exaggerated reports of his death. Having said that, he didn’t look like he’s got much longer left. According to media reports, he was very tired, and fidgety, and unable to sit up straight. He couldn’t keep his eyes open during the singing. Pictures and video from the event show a sick man, not someone chilling out during his annual leave.

The President’s obvious ill health forces us to confront a sensitive reality: one day, the rumours will be true, and Zimbabwe will have to figure out a post-Mugabe future.

There is still intense debate over what this will look like. In the short term, one thing is clear: post-Mugabe does not mean post-Zanu-PF, and the ruling party will likely continue to do just that. But this is where it gets interesting: who will lead Zanu in Mugabe’s absence, and will he or she be able to exert the same degree of control?

There is no obvious answer. Right now, two broad factions are thought to be jockeying for position. The moderates, led by vice-president Joyce Mujuru, dominate key positions within the party leadership and seem to have significant grassroots support. The hardliners, under the direction of perennial eminence grise Emmerson Mnangagwa (now the justice minister), have the advantage of ruthlessness and a tight grip on the all-important security services.

On Think Africa Press, Simukhai Tinhu has an excellent analysis of the potential outcomes. Whatever happens, further uncertainty for Zimbabwe is virtually guaranteed.

“Mugabe has yet to explicitly name his preferred successor, and over the coming year, a political civil war is likely to wage between the two hopefuls. In this fight, Mujuru may have won the provincial election battle, but Mnangagwa arguably has behind him the country’s most canny strategists with the experience and vision to devise an overall victory… whichever group triumphs, it is unlikely to drive the other into obscurity. It is more likely that the two leaders will share power to a large degree, at least in the short-term, resulting in a dual power regime within the party, with the leadership role itself being largely nominal. It seems the political tale of Mujuru vs. Mnangagwa is destined to drag on for quite some time yet.” DM

Photo: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe looks on during a rally marking Zimbabwe’s 32nd independence anniversary celebrations in Harare April 18, 2012.REUTERS/Stringer

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