INDEPENDENCE Day this week was supposed to be the most important occasion on Zimbabwe’s annual calendar, but to thousands of Zimbabweans who thronged the National Sports Stadium the unsettling spectacle of an overly frail President Robert Mugabe is what will remain imprinted on their minds.
The 93-year-old, who has led Zimbabwe since the fall of colonial rule in 1980, was laboured in his movements and struggled to light the Independence flame on Tuesday.
This week, a video exposing Mugabe’s frailty went viral on social media platforms at a time his 37-year hold on power is looking increasingly shaky as his beleaguered government is besieged by an imploding economy and bitter factional fights in the ruling Zanu PF triggered by his unresolved succession crisis.
In a clear sign of Mugabe’s advanced age, the presidential limousine, a Mercedes Benz S600 Pullman, drove into the stadium, onto the football turf and straight to the podium where he inspected a guard of honour mounted by the security forces. In his heyday, the long-time leader would disembark from his car on the sports track and perform a lap of honour in the stadium while waving at the multitudes in attendance.
The video shows Mugabe surrounded by more than a dozen of his close-security unit bodyguards who not only blocked journalists from capturing the spectacle as he laboured to light the Independence flame, but also lent him a shoulder to lean on to prevent him falling.
His aides had to literally hand-hold him as he struggled to take one step up the small staircase before he reached up to light the flame. Once upon the staircase, an unstable Mugabe could barely maintain his balance and was rescued by his aides who kept him even-keeled to avoid another embarrassing fall.
The circulating video also shows how he failed to firmly grip the torch, and the youth who had handed him the torch ended up assisting. In the footage, Mugabe ungainly walks back to the podium after lighting the flame.
This is not the first time the world’s oldest president has shown signs of advanced age.
Mugabe’s aides have been more careful around him ever since his infamous fall at Harare International Airport in January 2015 while returning from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he had taken over the rotational African Union chairmanship. Due to old age and ill-health Mugabe frequently travels to Singapore for medical check-ups at the state-of-the-art Gleneagles Hospital.
While Mugabe occasionally tries to sound energetic, his slurred speeches, his body movements and ungainly walks in recent months have continued to tell a different story: that old age and attendant frailty has caught up with the only leader Zimbabwe has ever known for 37 years.