Can president Mugabe, 93, hang on six more years?

March 9, 2017

HARARE, Zimbabwe — When Robert Mugabe held his 93rd birthday bash last month, he didn’t serve his guests elephant meat, as he did two years ago. Instead, he ordered up a 200-pound cake shaped like his Mercedes limousine. And a photographer snapped him enjoying American potato chips, an import he’s banned.

The party was an opportunity for Mugabe to let everyone know that retirement is far from his mind. The only president this impoverished southern African country has known since it won independence from Britain in 1980 vowed to run for another five-year term in 2018.

Never mind that he would be approaching the century mark should he serve out a new term. Mugabe — long dogged by accusations of corruption, voting fraud and mismanagement of Zimbabwe’s economy — has maintained a tight grip on power and refused to groom a successor from his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front.

“The majority of people feel that there is no replacement … as acceptable as I am,” Mugabe told the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper late last year, proof of his desire to be president for life.

“He is not ready to leave office during his lifetime,” said political analyst Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.

Even so, plenty of party members are angling to replace him when he dies. Mugabe’s vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, leads a faction that seeks to control the party and country in the future. Mugabe’s wife, Grace, 51, is linked to a group of young turks in the party who oppose Mnangagwa and want her to replace her husband.

While the political jockeying occurs quietly, both Mnangagwa and Grace have publicly denied harboring presidential ambitions.

Some residents here are ready for a new leader who can revive a shrinking economy that forces many Zimbabweans to survive on less than $1 a day, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, a workers group.

Businessman Killian Nyoni, 56, said Mugabe should have retired long ago and is too old to stay in office. The 2018 election provides an opportunity for leadership change, but Nyoni said he fears Mugabe and his partisans will rig the results.

“We need a young and energetic leader to take over from him,” said Nyoni, who runs a grocery store in central Harare.

Fibion Chabarika, 49, an accountant, accused Mugabe of spending lavishly on foreign trips. He pointed to a January investigative report by the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper that found Mugabe spent $36 million in the first 10 months of 2016 on excursions that did not result in trade deals or other diplomatic agreements.

“How can he spend about $36 million during his annual vacation when we have a typhoid outbreak that only requires less than $1 million to contain? That’s being insensitive for a leader who is supposed to prioritize human life,” Chabarika said.

With unemployment at 11%, Mugabe promised to create more than 2 million jobs even though employers are cutting hours or shutting down, as corruption stifles the private sector and scares off new investments.

“Close to 1,000 companies have shut down since the last elections in 2013,” said Peter Mutasa, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. “And the situation is even worse for most workers because some of these companies that are closing down have not paid exit packages to their employees.”

Some pro-democracy groups recently held protests against Mugabe’s administration. The government responded with a police crackdown, arresting activists and charging them with public violence.

Promise Mkwananzi, one of the leaders of the anti-government protests, vowed to continue pushing for Mugabe to resign. “We are determined to see change in Zimbabwe,” Mkwananzi said. “We will not be cowed into submission by an old and frail Mugabe.”

Universities still churn out thousands of graduates annually, but Rufaro Shonhiwa, 26, said his diploma is worthless. “I have an economics degree, but here I am selling cellular phone recharge cards when I am supposed to be in formal employment doing what I went to school to study,” Shonhiwa said. “I am considering going out of the country to look for a job like my former classmates.”

After Zimbabwe banned a range of imports — like potato chips — in recent years to lower its trade deficit, the country began importing maize from neighboring nations last year to avert hunger caused by a severe drought.

The largely agricultural economy could improve this year because of recent heavy rains.

“Most of our farmers are expecting a very good harvest, but there will be some grain imports,” said Basil Nyabadza, chairman of the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority.

Many Zimbabweans pin their hopes on a coalition that the Movement for Democratic Change and other opposition parties have vowed to form to run against Mugabe’s party next year.

Still, Mugabe has his staunch supporters, such as farmer Ronald Chindedza, 36, who benefited from Mugabe’s move in 2000 to displace thousands of white commercial farmers and give their land to black Zimbabweans, mostly ruling party supporters.

“We voted for him and we will continue to vote for him, because he represents our ideals,” Chindedza said.