10 Apr 2012

Ill-health or just ill-will? Zimbabwe ponders Mugabe's mortality

Zimbabwean newspaper reports of the ill-health of Robert Mugabe have sparked a wave of speculation over his condition in the country that the 88-year-old president has ruled since 1980.

Plenty of excitement on the internet today as Zimbabwe-watchers speculate – with feeling – on the health of the country’s president, Robert Mugabe, who may – or may not be lying on Singapore hospital bed as we speak.

Many of course are hoping that this seemly immovable, 88 year-old dictator, is about to make the move towards the next life. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 and stands accused of a litany of crimes – like murdering his own people, brutally suppressing all opposition and turning ‘Africa’s bread basket’ into an economic basket case.

With that in mind, an article published on the Zimbabwe Mail website entitled “Mugabe battling for life in Singapore”, was obviously going to attract attention. The report quoted a senior official from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, saying the president was “undergoing intensive treament” with family members joining him at his bedside.

In fact, rumors about his health have been circulating for a while now. The whistleblower website WikiLeaks released a diplomatic cable last year, detailing a conversation between  Zimbabwean Central Bank governor Gideon Gono and the then-US Ambassador in 2008. Gono said that Mugabe had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and said doctors thought he had “less than 5 years to live”.

Speculation about the Zimbabwean President’s health intensified further when a government spokesman said that he had visited Singapore 8 times last year – his need for ‘cataract surgery’ and a number of ‘private visits’ were given as justification.

Robert Mugabe celebrating his birthday in February 2012

This time, Mugabe’s officials explained away the trip as an “Easter holiday” and an opportunity to make arrangements for his daughter Bona, to begin post-graduate study in the city-state. Critics pointed out that such arrangements could surely have been made by underlings – and the university year doesn’t start until September.

The Zimbabwean Information Minister moved more forcefully into the arena this afternoon however, describing such claims about the president’s health as “a lot of hogwash”.  Information Minister Webster Shamu continued; “This is not the first time we have heard these rumors. If anything like that had happened, we would have issued a statement.”

The root cause of much of this may lie in a series of cancelled cabinet meetings that Mugabe was scheduled to chair. The next cabinet meeting is set for this Thursday. If the Zimbabwean president does not make it back to Harare for that one – well, people will really start to wonder.