At 87, President Robert Mugabe isn’t the oldest serving president of Africa, nor the longest-serving. But the rumor that Mr. Mugabe may be in ill-health has been an open secret among Zimbabwe’s political elite for years.
That secret has been given increasing attention with the release of US diplomatic cables by the whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of this latest WikiLeaks release is not what has been said, but who is saying it.
Members of Mugabe’s own inner circle, including Mugabe’s hand-picked Reserve Bank Governor, Gideon Gono, are shown to have talked regularly with US diplomats, sharing insights into the rivalries within Mugabe’s long-ruling ZANU-PF Party and between the top ministers of Mugabe’s coalition-government cabinet.
According Mr. Gono – quoted in a February 2006 cable – Mugabe’s own wife, Grace, confided to him that her husband is “out of it about 75 percent of the time.”
But Mugabe, even in alleged frailty, is nowhere close to ceding power, even to his own close protégés. Still, the release of the WikiLeaks cables provides a window into the power-struggles within Zimbabwe’s ruling elites. Their release leave several top Zimbabweans exposed, which may lead to criminal charges. Either way it will certainly make it more difficult for the US diplomatic corps in Zimbabwe to keep informed about events in that country, and to recommend appropriate US policies.
On Tuesday, officially opening the parliamentary session in Harare, Mugabe made no mention of the WikiLeaks documents. He urged Zimbabwe’s main parties to “in unison say no to violence in all its manifestations,” ahead of next year’s expected elections.
But Mugabe’s attorney general, Johannes Tomana, says that those who spoke with the US embassy – including Vice President Joice Mujuru, Gono, and ZANU-PF politburo members Saviour Kasukuwere, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, and Jonathan Moyo – could face prosecution for “treason.”
“The WikiLeaks appear to show a treasonous collusion between local Zimbabweans and the aggressive international world, particularly the United States,” Mr. Tomana was quoted by Zimbabwe’s state-controlled newspaper, the Herald. “With immediate effect, I am going to instruct a team of practicing lawyers to look into the issues that arise from the WikiLeaks.”
Now all eyes are on Tomana and Mugabe to see how they respond.
“[T]he leaks have the propensity to destroy the lives and sow seeds of hate and discontent in a country, which has religiously followed peace instead of war,” Zimbabwe’s independent newspaper, the Daily News said in an editorial.
But Gaborone-based Zimbabwean lecturer Absalom Mukonyo says the leaked cables are unlikely to greatly change the political terrain, or make it more prone to Tunisian-style citizen revolts. “Only if the electorate was abundantly sophisticated and accessible enough to get the real stand” about the latest developments, would they be able to effect substantial political change in Zimbabwe, he says.
Even so, the leaked cables show that Zimbabwe’s political terrain is gradually shifting on its own, in large part because of Mugabe’s inability to prevent Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.
'Zimbabwe is in a very deep hole'
In a cable that followed a meeting with the late Zanu PF politburo member, Eddison Zvobgo, a US diplomatic cable reads, “There appears to be a growing realization among some of those in the ruling party’s senior ranks that Zimbabwe is in a very deep hole and that [President] Mugabe’s departure from the scene is a necessary precondition for the policy changes required for an economic turnaround and a restoration of political stability.”
In public speeches, Mugabe has a penchant for sounding tough, telling his critics to “go hang.” But in a March 30, 2007 cable, ZANU-PF politburo member Jonathan Moyo said that Mugabe himself worried about facing the death penalty if his own security chiefs turned against him, or if his government was turned out of power. “Moyo noted that Mugabe genuinely fears ‘hanging,' ” the cable reads.
Some of the officials named in the unredacted WikiLeaks cables, such as Mugabe’s late deputy Joseph Msika, are no longer alive, and thus cannot contest whether they spoke to US diplomats or not. Others, such as Mugabe’s wife, didn’t speak directly with the US embassy staff, but found that their words had reached US ears nonetheless.
Our reporter in Harare could not be named for security reasons.