The president’s health is in the spotlight – and it is hardline generals who are set to determine the face of Zimbabwe’s future
By Blessing-Miles Tendi
During August, Robert Mugabe was pictured walking unsteadily and requiring the assistance of aides when going up and downstairs at various summits. The images sent long-running speculation in Zimbabwe about the state of Mugabe’s health – he is said to have a form of cancer – into overdrive.
Mugabe appeared healthy at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) Heads of State Summit in Swaziland this week, but his characteristically sprightly demeanour was absent.
Mugabe’s health has been a closely guarded secret for decades. He has made a point of displaying power through the appearance of good health and youthfulness. Rich and deeply dyed hair, an enviable physique for a man of his age, Botox treatments and pristine dress are some of Mugabe’s many expressions of power.
He cannot appear to be unhealthy or ageing, because that is a sign of weakness, and weakness encourages ambitious, younger and better-looking political vultures to strike.
Over the past year I have posed questions about Mugabe’s health to three ministers in his cabinet: the energy and power development minister, Elton Mangoma, regional integration and international co-operation minister, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga and minister of education, sports and culture, David Coltart.
All three ministers have spoken in glowing terms of the 86-year-old’s remarkable sharpness of mind. However, they are not as forthcoming on the subject of Mugabe’s physical health. “He is an old man,” was their refrain.
The views of informed sources and the images of a frail Mugabe lend credence to reports that he is losing his physical powers. It is time to start thinking seriously about a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.
It is unlikely that Mugabe will be able to unilaterally handpick and impose a successor in his Zanu-PF because the party is rife with factionalism surrounding two powerful party figures: the minister of defence, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and the most senior living guerrilla figure from Zimbabwe’s liberation war, retired military general Solomon Mujuru.
Mugabe has to negotiate a compromise successor with these factions, lest Zanu-PF fall apart. But after years of avoiding the succession issue while internal fissures have deepened, Mugabe may be unable to manage and settle the matter effectively in his lifetime. If this happens, military generals are likely to have the most influence over Zimbabwe’s future.
Many of these generals are hardliners who have actively supported the seizure of white-owned commercial farms since 2000 and controversially waged political violence to prop up Mugabe and Zanu-PF after they lost the March 2008 elections.
The military generals fear prosecution for their grave human rights violations since 1980 and have amassed breathtaking quantities of ill-gotten wealth they risk losing in a post-Mugabe era. They have a fervent interest in guaranteeing that the post-Mugabe political scene will be sympathetic to them.
This leads us to four possible scenarios. The first is that the generals negotiate immunity from prosecution and loss of wealth in exchange for not blocking a democratic transition.
A second scenario is that they stage an outright military coup that would see them take direct command of Zimbabwe, shielding themselves from prosecution and securing their economic interests. A return to constitutional rule would probably see the installation of a civilian leader chosen from the Zanu-PF party, which the generals are strongly aligned with.
A third scenario is that the military will intervene by backing one of the Zanu-PF faction leaders, and move to enforce party discipline in order to prevent defeat at the hands of the opposition MDC parties in the next elections.
A fourth is that the rival factional loyalties in Zanu-PF are also present in the military. This last would paralyse the party and the military amid self destructive and violent infighting that would spell the end for Mugabe’s once-dominant political party.
The great leader seemingly appears healthy and unflappable in public. But all is not well with Mugabe, and we must ready ourselves for his departure.