Visited Dubai to see son

Mugabe: Back from the dead (again)

Politicsweb by Jan Raath – News and analysis

7 September 2016


Jan Raath says the Zimbabwean president is sick and frail, but still alive and in control

Harare - The rumours went like a veld fire. Excited voices, knowing looks. The long wait’s over. Different sources tweeted it repeatedly: Mugabe is dead, or fatally ill.

He was one of the delegates to the summit in Swaziland of Southern African leaders on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. Then without warning late on the first day, he left the meeting, headed for the airport, boarded the presidential aircraft – UM1 (Air Zimbabwe’s international flight registration, plus a 1 to indicate its presidential status) – and flew back to Harare.

There it stopped over for three hours, long enough to refuel, and then flew off again, to God knows where. We are not told. But reporters on Harare’s independent Newsday were able to follow him on an online aircraft tracking website. UM1 landed at Dubai International Airport, and stayed there, in bay AE, for three days. And then late on Friday night it flew off again.

Speculation was gathering momentum. He was ill and would be on his way to Singapore where he’s been sighted previously, entering the Gleneagles Clinic (top rate – US$,5,020 a night for the top suite) for treatment, for who knows what ailment.

The most common narrative ran like this: he suddenly fell ill at the Swazi summit, was flown back home for the aircraft to refuel and then headed for Singapore for the attention of Gleneagles’ highly skilled gerontologists. But on the plane his condition deteriorated and he was judged to be too ill for further travel, so the pilots diverted to Dubai. It is a favourite haunt of the Mugabe family and there would be plenty of top-notch medical attention.

And somewhere along the line, he died, the story goes, and UM1 was bringing him home on Saturday morning, in a coffin.

You can hardly blame people for the conjecture. Mugabe has become a sort of African will-o’-the-wisp, with little or no information on his travels, his absences or his health. He and his government have not learnt that it if people are not told what the president is doing, they will make it up.

The aircraft was not far off the coast of Mozambique when a colleague and I decided to go to Harare airport and see for ourselves. If the Boeing 737 did not park outside the VIP area, as it normally does, but headed for a hangar to unload whatever form Mugabe was in, the game would be up.

The only vantage point at Harare airport for a view of the main passenger disembarkation area is the large upstairs balcony in the old domestic terminal. In the old days, people used to take their kids on an outing to watch aeroplanes and to wave at friends and relatives boarding or disembarking.

It’s nothing like that now. A heavy black metal grill over the front of the balcony makes it seem more like a prison. We were told that secret police watchers were on the balcony above us.

But immediately I knew that the rumour was not to be. The gleaming black presidential motorcade was drawn up outside the VIP building, with the big bomb-proof Mercedes Benz limousine – its registration plate ZIM1 – surrounded in front, behind and on the side, by smaller Mercedes’, like angry bees escorting the fat queen to the hive.

So unless this was to be an elaborate hoax with a dummy or a look-alike, Mugabe was not going to be offloaded in a box. The question now was, how sick will he be?

While we waited, a long red carpet was rolled out and two men in overalls energetically swept it. Then a large motorised set of covered steps made a series of complicated manoeuvres, back and forward, to align itself to where the driver expected UM1’s door to be.

Outside the VIP building a crowd of cabinet ministers in expensive suits – as many of the 62 ministers, deputy ministers and ministers of state as could be found at short notice - stood around on the tarmac, conversing. And we all waited.

At two minutes before 8 am, Boeing 767-2NO(ER)UM1 touched down, and swung round slowly to the VIP area, stopping almost exactly with its forward door in line with the end of the red carpet. The ministers – who have to do this every time Mugabe flies out or back in – shuffle into a long line. I silently laid a wager that the driver of the stairs, now moving towards the open door, was in a sweat for fear that his foot might slip off the accelerator and send the heavy stairway crashing into the fuselage.

My colleague and I were warned by an official on the balcony – “Step back from the wire.” So we can’t wave and cheer to greet to our president? Like the many thousands of Londoners who line the sides of the road when Queen Elizabeth passes?

An official runs down the steps of the plane, and back up again. At 8.20, a small figure appears at the door, and stands there for almost a minute. It’s him, no doubt. The shape of the head, the spectacles, the posture, the dark suit too big.

He descends the stairs. I can see his right side with his hand holding on to the rail of the steps. There are people around him, and I cannot see if he’s being supported on his left side. His progress is slow, but not halting. Then he reaches the bottom and immediately is dwarfed by the ministers and aides now swarming around him.

I heard later he held a brief press conference at the VIP section. Two journalists from the independent media were refused admission. State media only.

The next day I see state TV footage, showing him interacting with the ministers. He presses the flesh, gestures, moves from person to person, erect, a word for nearly every person there. Like a long-lost chieftain back with his tribe. Mugabe is fully in command of the crowd.

It wasn’t like this on Tuesday this week when pictures showed him at the summit in Swaziland, in a scrum of delegates. Small, hunched, fragile, smiling in apparent embarrassment, and the object of some measure of amused incredulity that this 92-year-old gnome is the dreaded Mugabe, who has managed to hold on to power for 36 years, committing horrendous crimes against humanity and destroying Africa’s second most diverse and efficient economy (after South Africa).

He told the press conference we were not allowed to attend, he had gone to Dubai “to see how Robert (his second child) was getting on.” The 22-year-old is a major basketball talent and a member of the team of the American University in Dubai.

But that’s it. A private trip to see his son, at a cost worth thousands of bed sheets for rundown state hospitals, or several thousand tonnes of maize meal for the starving in Matabeleland. Mugabe chartered the Boeing 767. Air Zimbabwe staff say Mugabe always pays for his trips, but then he uses the national treasury to provide him with the cash.

The 767 has a capacity for about 180 passengers. Only 11 passengers disembarked from the aircraft. A dozen or so suitcases rolled down the baggage belt. As if that wasn’t thoughtless enough, the plane had been scheduled before Mugabe’s trip to take the national football team to Conakry to play on Sunday against Guinea in the African Cup of Nations.

As a result, the aircraft left Harare late with most of the team and landed in Conakry in the early hours of Sunday morning. The rest had to take other flights, and arrived there a couple of hours before the match. Unsurprisingly, Zimbabwe lost, 1-0.

When Mugabe returned to Harare, he sneered about the media that had been speculating on his death. “Yes, I was dead. I resurrected like I always do. Jesus died once and resurrected only once, and poor Mugabe, several times.” Later that day he had the energy to address the conference of the youth wing of his ZANU(PF) party, waving a bony clenched fist and threatening the country’s judges. He went on to ignore the basic rules for the election of the youth wing’s office bearers, and appointed the new head himself.

Long, long ago Mugabe stopped behaving like an elected national leader with a remit to rule responsibly, to be a servant of the people. Instead, he scorns the law, the judiciary and the constitution, tolerating them when they don’t interfere with him, and having them closed down or removed – in a number of senses - when they don’t.

But it has become clear that Mugabe lives in cycles dictated by gerontological medication. He returns from Singapore – and now Dubai – energetic, alert, and in command. But after a few weeks he appears to slip away, hanging on to the elbow of his wife, Grace, nodding off while being spoken to, cutting his usually hour-long speeches to 10 minutes. Then it’s time for a recharge.

Commonsense – no matter how robust his genes are - says the cycle will go faster and faster until it finally runs itself out.

And then the dawn of a new Zimbabwe. Surely no-one could be worse than Mugabe. Surely?