23 May 2014

Zimbabwe: Wilf Mbanga - It Doesn't Make Sense to Keep Mugabe's Health a Secret

Photo: Nehanda Radio
President Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwe's President Mugabe has returned home from what the government says was a routine health check. Journalist Wilf Mbanga explains why this has raised eyebrows.

President Robert Mugabe spent the eve of his 90th birthday in February 2014 undergoing cataract surgery, according to his spokesperson George Charamba. His frequent visits to Singapore have led to growing speculation over the state of his health. Yet speculations over the president's health taboo in Zimbabwe. DW spoke to the founder of the UK-based online paper "The Zimbabwean", Wilf Mbanga.

DW: Who should we believe? The President's spokesperson who says Mugabe is only getting routine eye treatment or those who claim he is suffering from cancer?

Wilf Mbanga: I could not say definitively that he is suffering from cancer, but certainly it is not common for people with eye elements to consult the specialist three or four times in one year. Especially if one has to fly half way across the world to see the specialist. Zimbabwe has good eye specialists. So we doubt that thing about the eye is just a smokescreen. Don't forget Mugabe is 90 years old. When you get to that age, things start going wrong. You fall ill, the body is not made to live forever.

Why is Mugabe's state of health being kept a secret? After all he is the country's top public servant.

It doesn't make sense to me but apparently his spin doctors think it should be a state secret. Maybe they're trying to manage the succession battles within ZANU-PF. There are two to three different camps, all vying to take over from him. So they might not want either side to know. But they have not managed it well. It is a public relations disaster.

Presidential affairs Minister Didymus Mutasa suggested that the government could criminalize the discussion of both Mugabe's health and the presidential succession, what's your take on this?

You can't stop people talking about the president's health. Everybody talks about him. Those who love him will be wondering why he is not well and will want to wish him well. Those who don't like him will want to celebrate. You can't stop it.

The UK broadcaster Channel 4 has released a video that has gone viral, showing Zimbabwe's first lady Grace Mugabe and a body guard trying to prevent journalists from taking the president's picture while entering the clinic. What does this tell us about the first family?

If you into the public, people want to know what you do, what you wear, what you eat, who you associate with. You basically become public property. If you don't want that, you shouldn't seek a public office. Every time he goes to Singapore to consult his doctor, he uses the national airline. He takes more than 30 people with him, body guards and so on ... and the taxpayers bear the cost. So it becomes a public issue.

There's no clear succession strategy in place for Zimbabwe, where does this leave the country if something happens to the president?

For me it demonstrates bad planning. We know that he will die. That is inevitable. I am going to die and you are going to die one day. You make arrangements, you take up an insurance policy, a funeral plan, a will. You prepare for the afterlife. In ZANU-PF this is a taboo. You don't talk about succession and life after Mugabe. So they don't even want anybody to aspire presidency. There are no known heirs. So people are doing it behind the scenes, shadowboxing themselves into position. It could turn nasty because not only the politicians have a interest in this. There are also people with a lot of interest. For instance those with military connections and with access to guns. What frightens me is that, one day guns might actually start firing, in order to secure a person's candidacy.

Wilf Mbanga is a journalist and the founder of the UK-based online newspaper, The Zimbabwean.

Editor Chrispin Mwakideu

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