, HARARE,Jul 16 – After 33 years in power, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is back on the campaign trail, where his advancing years are subtly starting to show.
On July 31 Zimbabweans will go to the polls to elect a president. One name, a permanent feature on ballot papers since independence in 1980, will again appear.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe — born as the Ottoman Empire drew its final breath and when Calvin Coolidge was still in the White House — has promised an election “fight for our lives”.
On the stump his rallies still draw in crowds fired up by his trademark hour-long speeches that spit fire at his political opponents.
In the first 10 days of the campaign season, he has criss-crossed the country to address four rallies. But the 89-year-old’s long innings have prompted some subtle changes.
His trademark walkabout has been dropped in favour of a wave to supporters from the back of van and as he harangues, berates and blusters, his elbows now lean heavily on a podium for support.
The adjustments — a shift from the last election in 2008 — stand in contrast to a man who a few years ago reportedly climbed several flights of steps with ease to get to his party office.
Though Mugabe appears vibrant and puffed up on his campaign posters, his slow step and demeanour tell a different story, adding to speculation about the health of Zimbabwe’s most influential politician.
Analysts say he will rely on the machinery of state as he tries to ward off a challenge from long-time rival and presidential aspirant Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
“It’s going to be taxing for him considering his age, but what will mitigate that is the state machinery that he has at his disposal,” said Dumisani Nkomo, a political analyst based in Bulawayo.
That includes “unlimited” access to the state media. Official details of Mugabe’s health are closely guarded.
Frequent medical trips to Singapore are purportedly for eye treatment linked to cataracts.
But two years ago WikiLeaks published a 2008 US diplomatic cable that pointed to more serious problems.
Back then, central bank chief Gideon Gono told the US ambassador that Mugabe had prostate cancer and had been told by doctors that he had less than five years to live.
Rumours about his health remain a subject of constant discussion on the streets of Harare.