The President Robert Mugabe who sat in front of reporters for his birthday interview appeared very different to the confident man who has lorded over Zimbabwe for the past 36 years, weathering the challenge of a robust opposition at home and loud Western pressure.
Mugabe looked pale and frail in his choreographed interview with ZBC TV, unusually weak and with a troublesome right eye and a slurred speech; the apparent tribulations of advanced age, which has seen him increasing his Far East jaunts for reported medical attention.
His message, delivered in a sometimes inaudible tone, contained some defiance: he vowed to fight increasing calls to hand over the baton, saying he was not ready to step down, insisting he would not groom a successor either and hit out at an opposition that has expressed exasperation with his feared declining health while Zimbabwe is falling deeper into economic crisis, with the uncertainty risking backward slippage towards political disorder and economic collapse.
He even rehashed his old line to Tazzen Mandizvidza during the two-hour long interview, held symbolically at State House: “The majority of the people feel that there is no replacement, a successor, who to them is acceptable, as acceptable as I am.”
But, that touch of toughness aside, his tone was more one of hurt by increasing calls for him to step down, self-pity and incomprehension.
In the rambling interview, Mugabe — once dubbed the “thinking man’s guerrilla” because of his bookish demeanour and the academic degrees he earned in jail in Rhodesia — used his speech to fire fresh barbs at his “neo-colonialist” foes that contend he no longer has the physical and mental stamina to be fully and always in charge.
“The call to step down must come from my party, my party at congress, my party at central committee. But then what do you see? It’s the opposite,” he said.
“They want me to stand for elections. Of course, if I feel that I can’t do it anymore, I will say so to my party so that they relieve me. But, for now, I think I can’t say so…”
Mugabe said his Zanu PF was pressing ahead with preparations for general elections next year, likely against MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, with the nonagenarian — backed party hardliners — sounding as defiant as ever.
The 93-year-old, dressed in a dark suit, cut a brittle figure, a shadow of the strongman who has led Zimbabwe since independence.
His cheeks sunken, he appeared tired and expressionless, occasionally yawning, but giving full indication that he fully understood what was being said in the interview. He appeared mentally alert.
The image-conscious former teacher has always prided himself on his physical robustness and has often referred to himself as “fit as a fiddle”.
The once-dominant Zanu PF leader has seen his physical strength and popularity erode sharply over the last couple of years in the course of economic collapse, poll defeats and political reforms that have whittled down his power.
This comes as senior government officials are scoffing at the furore over Mugabe’s health, saying it shows the moral paucity of his enemies in right-wing media and political circles.
Observers said there was no need to conduct the interview “which showed himself as weak in public.”
Critics say while Mugabe might still manage to hang onto power, he would have to contend with rising anger on the streets despite his readiness to crack down hard on dissent, a readiness that has drawn repeated accusations of human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions and torture.
Food, fuel and foreign currency shortages show no signs of easing in an economy which many said was destroyed by Mugabe’s seizure of white-owned farms ti parcel out to landless blacks.
“At a practical level, and given Mugabe’s advanced age and increasing frailty, he is not likely to have the physical and mental stamina to be fully and always in charge,” University of Zimbabwe political scientist Eldred Masunungure said .
“This is actually already happening and will be accelerated during this period. In a way, by the end of the period, it will resemble the ‘wheelchair scenario’ where Mugabe will be governing from a wheelchair.”
His wife told thousands of supporters at a rally in Buhera, last Friday that if Mugabe dies, his supporters should put his name on the ballot to show their love for him.
“If God decides to take him, then we would rather field him as a corpse,” she said.
Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president Tendai Biti said: “The suggestion that Zimbabweans will vote for a corpse is contemptuous, cynical, abusive and arrogant. What is wrong with these people? 93 not out despite being bowled out by virtually every ball?”
Were Mugabe to be incapacitated, resign, removed from office or die, the new Constitution states that until 2023, the vice president who last acted as president assumes office as president for the next 90 days until the party nominates a replacement for consideration by Parliament.
“This is a very scary situation as those 90 days may be a period of weeping and gnashing of teeth within the party,” Masunungure warned.
“In any case, things might not work out as per the Constitution as the realities of power politics may circumvent constitutional niceties; this may see someone from outside the party presidium leapfrogging everybody into State House.