When Mugabe left for Singapore this week, spokesman George
Charamba maintained the official denial of reports that Africa's
oldest president was suffering from prostate cancer, saying the trip
was for a "routine and long-planned" cataract operation.
Charamba assured Zimbabweans that Mugabe would be back home for his
official birthday celebrations on Sunday, but the timing of the trip — just days before the milestone — has fired up speculation that
Mugabe's health is failing.
In an interview with state television, his traditional mouthpiece,
Mugabe claimed to be "as fit as a fiddle" but his slow speech and
puffy appearance only made tongues wag harder.
"I know he's a very old man and we should not expect him to look
like a 25-year boxing champion or rugby player, but it's exactly for
that reason that he should be retiring," said one 50-year-old
currency trader after seeing the interview.
As with many Zimbabweans discussing a leader accused of staying in
power by force, he did not want his name to appear in print.
A June 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks said Mugabe
had prostate cancer that had spread to other organs, and had been
urged by his physician to step down from office.
But Mugabe went on to win another five years in power at an election
last year that he says will allow him to quell factional fighting in
his ZANU-PF party over who will one day fill his shoes.
"When the day comes and I retire, yes, sure, the day will come. But
I do not want to leave my party in tatters. I want to leave it
intact," he said in the state television interview.
JOICE VS. THE CROCODILE
Joice Mujuru, Mugabe's deputy in both the government and the ZANU-PF
party, is leading the race to replace him, analysts say, closely
followed by Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa — a powerful former
defense minister nicknamed 'The Crocodile'.
If Mugabe dies without
resolving the succession issue, there are fears ZANU-PF could
implode in a factional fight with the potential to suck in the
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The constitution says if the president dies mid-term, the ruling
party will elect a successor. ZANU-PF's charter says this must be
done at a party congress where, technically, any aspiring leader can
Mujuru has consolidated her support base with newly-elected
provincial executives but she needs Mugabe's open endorsement to
overcome reservations in the top ranks of the army about her
capacity to lead, analysts say.
"It's fair to say nothing is given, that there will be no coronation
but a contest for power," said Eldred Masunugure, a political
science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.
"It is also very likely that this fight will get into the last round
in Mugabe's absence," he said.
Besides fears of outright political unrest, many of the southern
African nation's 13 million people worry that Mugabe and ZANU-PF
big-hitters are preoccupied with succession at the expense of an
economy desperate for revival.
In an commentary titled "Echoes of the end of an era," the private
Zimbabwe Independent newspaper said Mugabe was struggling to address
serious problems, not least capital flight since last year's
election and a plunge in business confidence.
"Zimbabwe now seems to be running on auto pilot," the paper said.
"There appears to be some loss of control."
(Editing by Ed Cropley and Andrew Heavens)
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