President Robert Mugabe appears to have entered what can be termed the “Hastings Kamuzu Banda phase” at this stage of his long career, what with the frequent stumbling in public and — by his own admission — at home, embarrassing gaffes and other manifestations of physical and mental frailties he has been displaying at public events.
Banda ruled Malawi for 31 years from 1963, inspiring fear and a cult-like devotion among his Malawi Congress party supporters. He also styled himself the Ngwazi (meaning chief of chiefs) and life president, ruling well into his 90s — pretty much like Mugabe who has ruled Zimbabwe since Independence in 1980.
Banda and those around him ignored the increasing evidence of his physical infirmities which often saw him suffer the embarrassment of losing his balance and falling at public fora. He was only spared worse public embarrassment by his defeat in the 1994 elections that ushered in Bakili Muluzi. He was to die in 1997 at the ripe age of 99, although there were frequent whispers that he could have been much older than that.
In some aspects, Mugabe’s political longevity mirrors Banda’s as the nonagenarian’s overt manifestations of infirmity have become a talking point and the butt of social media jokes despite his loyalists’ best attempts to downplay mounting concerns, as evidenced by his latest near-fall during the India-Africa summit last week. Last Thursday, Mugabe stumbled backwards before being timeously assisted to keep upright by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and aides to scale a small step in New Delhi, India. After his speech, a wary Modi again helped Mugabe to descend from the podium.
The incident, which went viral on social media, is reminiscent of Mugabe’s dramatic fall at the Harare International Airport in January on arrival from the African Union (AU) summit where he had assumed the continental body’s chairmanship.
He made international headlines for tumbling while getting down from a podium after addressing ministers, security service chiefs and Zanu PF supporters upon his arrival from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he had taken over the rotational AU chairmanship.
In September, President Robert Mugabe stunned the nation when he read the wrong speech during the official opening of the Third Session of the Eighth Parliament, instead reading the same speech which he had delivered during his State of the Nation Address he presented before parliament three weeks earlier.
Publicly, government officials are in denial mode, with aides and spin doctors close to Mugabe saying he is still fit to rule and the falls are mishaps that could happen to anyone, with a few examples cited for good measure. Even when he goes on his frequent and costly health trips to the Far East, his acolytes describe them as “routine check-ups” or “minor eye operations”.
Mugabe appears to share this delusion, declaring his fitness as he did during his party’s congress last December. “I am here for as long as I am still sane, with good memory and will power. I thank God for giving me extra strength. I still have a bright mind; I still have will. I know our history more than you do. I know the wishes of those heroes and those who lie elsewhere more than you do. I know the wishes of the chiefs, dead and alive,” bragged Mugabe.
So what will it finally take for Mugabe and those around him to concede the proverbial writing on the wall that it appears to be time to finally pass on the baton, as age and attendant physical infirmities take their toll?
Alex Magaisa, neither Mugabe nor his handlers are covering themselves in glory through their repeated, spirited denials of what is clear for all to see.
“Normal people understand that President Mugabe is human and that at almost 91 and after a hectic career, he is at an age where he is susceptible to problems related to old-age. There is nothing wrong or abnormal with that,” wrote Magaisa of Mugabe’s increasingly public frailties.
“What people hate is for someone to pretend that President Mugabe is an exception to these rules of nature. The people around President Mugabe must get used to the fact that he is human and that these things happen, especially at his age. They cannot pretend that this is not happening because the more it happens, the more it exposes the President to unnecessary ridicule.”
These sentiments seem not to be shared by the country’s war veterans who this week declared that they want Mugabe to continue ruling the country even if he were to be confined to a wheelchair, arguing he does not “need to be an athlete to govern”, and they were preparing to nominate the 91-year-old leader as the ruling party’s candidate for the 2018 presidential elections.
Another political commentator Dumisani Nkomo said most 91-year-olds are “enjoying their last days in dignity, some in old peoples’ homes”. He said while Mugabe may not be “an average 91 year-old, it is however, very worrying that he has chosen to cling on to power and allow those around him to make him a public spectacle of failing health”. “A nonagenarian should not be forced to fight against the inevitable decline of mental faculties and physical capability,” said Nkomo.
It would not be so tragic if the impact of Mugabe’s failing health was limited to his family and friends, but as head of state and government, the implications are toxic for the country’s political and socio-economic well-being. The uncertainty surrounding Mugabe has fuelled vicious succession battles in his party, with the two main protagonists being a faction led by Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and another comprising young Turks who enjoy the support of Mugabe’s wife Grace, as well as Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko.
Political analyst and University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure said: “When the cat is not alert or when it is no longer as agile as it used to be, then the mice will play all sorts of games like we are currently witnessing”.
Indeed, the mice are playing and frail Mugabe appears powerless to rein in Grace and her Generation 40 cohorts who have taken advantage to embark on whirlwind countrywide tours, abusing state resources as they seek to consolidate their power. This is at the expense of the ailing economy which shows no signs of recovery.
As noted by Nkomo, “aspirants for succession are popping up everywhere and Mugabe’s continued stay is accentuating the in-fighting in his party”. Masunungure concurred with Nkomo, saying “the factions of the various leaders in the party are repositioning themselves and their followers for the succession battle”. The country is the biggest loser in all this as the economy continues on its downward spiral while focus is on the in-fighting, Masunungure points out. “This has a destabilising effect for his (Mugabe’s) party and that paralysis goes on to play itself out in government as well. When the party sneezes, it is the government and the state that catches a cold.