HARARE – After 33 years in power, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is back on the campaign trail, where his advancing years are subtly starting to show.
Zimbabweans will go to the polls on July 31 to elect a president. One name, a permanent feature on ballot papers since independence in 1980, will again appear.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe — born as the Ottoman Empire drew its final breath and when Calvin Coolidge was still in the White House — has promised an election “fight for our lives.”
In the first 10 days of the campaign season, he has criss-crossed the country to address four rallies. But the 89-year-old’s long innings have prompted some subtle changes.
His trademark walkabout has been dropped in favor of a wave to supporters from the back of van and as he harangues, berates and blusters, his elbows now lean heavily on a podium for support.
The adjustments — a shift from the last election in 2008 — stand in contrast to a man who a few years ago reportedly climbed several flights of steps with ease to get to his party office.
Although Mugabe appears vibrant and puffed up on his campaign posters, his slow step and demeanor tell a different story, adding to speculation about the health of Zimbabwe’s most influential politician.
Analysts say he will rely on the machinery of state as he tries to ward off a challenge from long-time rival and presidential aspirant Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
“It’s going to be taxing for him considering his age, but what will mitigate that is the state machinery that he has at his disposal,” said Dumisani Nkomo, a political analyst based in Bulawayo.
That includes “unlimited” access to the state media.
Official details of Mugabe’s health are closely guarded. Frequent medical trips to Singapore are purportedly for eye treatment linked to cataracts.
Two years ago, however, WikiLeaks published a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable that pointed to more serious problems. Back then, central bank chief Gideon Gono told the U.S. ambassador that Mugabe had prostate cancer and had been told by doctors that he had less than five years to live.
Syd Eckley, chairman of the South African Gerontological Association in Pretoria, describes Mugabe as “extraordinary.”
Addressing large audiences especially in election crusades is a “major strain” on the body of an old man, Eckley said. “The one question I have is, ‘Are we certain he is 89?’ Because (he) is extraordinary.”
“But he sees himself like many other older persons and one problem with older persons is that . . . they don’t want to relinquish control, especially men,” Eckley said.
That is just fine with Mugabe’s staunchest followers, who vow to back the liberation war hero to the very end.
“I will continue to vote for him until amen,” said Melody Shumba, a 23-year-old mother of three from the northeastern Chiweshe farming district.
For his political foes, however, Mugabe’s longevity, coupled with a determination to stay in power at all costs, is a constant thorn in the side.
Shadrack Gutto, professor at the University of South Africa’s Center for African Renaissance Studies says there are no signs that Mugabe will give up power.
“Mugabe has shown that he’s not ever willing to leave that seat until he dies. And that is the problem,” Gutto said. “If he goes for elections and wins, Zimbabwe will have a president with mental limitations and really getting worse and worse.”
If he is re-elected, Mugabe will finish his new term at the age of 94.
If, as the law allows, he wins another five-year tenure, he will be done at 99. He once joked that he would retire at 100.
The only other African leader known to have ruled into his 90s was Malawi’s former “life president,” Hastings Kamuzu Banda.