Harare (AFP) – Robert Mugabe, Africa’s oldest leader and Zimbabwe’s ruler since independence, turns 90 on Friday, but high-profile celebrations risk being overshadowed by rumours of ill health and a raging succession battle.
While Mugabe’s aides insist he is fighting fit, another medical trip to Singapore this week — ostensibly for eye surgery — has rekindled suspicions.
He is not expected back in Zimbabwe until shortly before an elaborate stadium birthday celebration on Sunday that is said to be costing around $1 million.
The man who took power in 1980 on Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain has long been rumoured to be seriously ill.
He has travelled to Singapore for medical checks several times in the past five years.
A leaked 2008 US diplomatic cable cited then central bank governor Gideon Gono as saying Mugabe had prostate cancer, a claim denied by officials.
Whether true or not, the run-up to this year’s birthday bash has seen ample evidence that the politburo of his ruling ZANU-PF party are readying for “life after Bob”.
In an interview to be broadcast by state television channel ZBC later Thursday, Mugabe insisted talk of succession was unnecessary.
“Why should it be discussed when it is not due? Is it due?” he was quoted as saying by state newspaper The Herald.
“The leadership still exists that runs the country. In other words I am still there.
“The people can discuss it if they want, but the moment they start discussing it they go into factions and then you find the party dividing itself and so why discuss it when it is not due?
“When the day comes and I retire, yes, sure, the day will come, but I do not want to leave my party in tatters. I want to leave it intact.”
Mugabe also used the interview to castigate groups supporting would-be successors, accusing them of stoking factionalism.
It is “terrible even to have your name mentioned as leader of a faction. It is shameful,” he said.
During his 34-year rule Mugabe has studiously avoided naming a successor and often moved against those, like independence hero Joshua Nkomo, who fly too close to the sun.
Possible successors Vice President Joice Mujuru and former defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa have strenuously denied they are possible candidates.
– A lasting legacy –
Born on February 21, 1924, Mugabe won disputed elections last year when he beat his arch-rival, former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Last month, Mugabe, the only survivor amongst his immediate siblings, credited “God’s will” for his longevity.
Political analyst Earnest Mudzengi said with his advancing years Mugabe seems to increasingly feel a need to reshape his image.
“At 90 Mugabe must be concerned about his legacy as a person and leader. There is a need to do something urgently for his legacy,” Mudzengi told AFP.
But factionalism within ZANU-PF and signs that the already struggling Zimbabwean economy is heading for more pain will hasten that urgency.
“We are expecting a lot from his government in terms of economic turnaround, fighting poverty and corruption,” said Mudzengi.
Annual birthday celebrations have been used to boost Mugabe’s image, in what critics describe as a bread and circuses strategy to distract Zimbabweans from their daily troubles.
Sunday’s event will see thousands of people gather at a stadium in Marondera, a town 75 kilometres (45 miles) east of the capital Harare.
As in past years there will be music, dance and food, with speakers showering praise on Mugabe, who will later address the gathering.
And a soccer tournament dubbed “Bob at 90” is currently under way with top-flight soccer teams competing.
Last year’s birthday event saw a giant cake and gold coins minted in Mugabe’s honour.
Mugabe normally uses public addresses to push for his nationalisation and black empowerment policies as well as digging at the West for imposing sanctions on him and his top party supporters.