At 94 years of age in 2018, Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe will make it into the record books as the oldest presidential candidate the world has ever known, to ever for election. A win will keep him in power to 99, just short of a century. And in any case, Mugabe once joked that he would rule until he turned 100.
Even at a sprightly 92 today, he is already in the record books, as the oldest president of a country!
But it remains to be seen how a 94-year-old will fare in the run-up to Zimbabwe’s elections. He is already struggling to walk and makes frequent trips to Singapore for medical attention.
He spends the better part of his time at conferences in deep slumber; occasionally waking up to nod his head and doze off again.
Mugabe’s candidature to lead his ruling Zanu PF party at the next polls was endorsed just this last weekend, at a party conference which most analysts described as a talking shop with lots of hot air and no delivery.
Mugabe endorsement will extend his 36 years in office as the second – and longest serving - president the country has known since independence in 1980. The first president was Rev Canaan Banana, a figurehead better remembered for his sexual preferences than for any imprint on the country’s body politik.
Mugabe was endorsed by all party structures at the meeting held in Masvingo, 300km southeast of the capital Harare.
The congress voiced "its support to the president and first secretary comrade Robert Mugabe as the sole candidate for the forthcoming 2018 elections”.
The endorsement was met with resounding applause from thousands of supporters attending the annual conference, chanting "rule, rule father".
Mugabe has avoided naming a successor or laying out plans to retire. The absence of a clear successor has sparked infighting including verbal exchanges on social media in recent weeks between factions angling for his position.
Zanu PF’s various entities, including the youth and women’s wings, confirmed him as the sole candidate to contest the 2018 election at the end of the five-day conference.
That means potential successors who wish to challenge Mugabe for the leadership of the party would have to wait for the 2019 party congress when Zanu PF chooses its leaders.
There are two camps vying to succeed Mugabe, with one faction supporting Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa while another backs first lady Grace Mugabe.
Though under the constitution a president can only serve for two terms, the party’s youth league called for Mugabe to be made life president, in the process abolishing the presidential term limits.
Under the Constitution adopted in 2013, Mugabe can only serve one final term.
Party officials hope Mugabe’s re-election will unify a Zanu-PF weakened by infighting to succeed the veteran leader. The party has been splintered along factions loyal to deputy president Emmerson Mnangagwa and those who back first lady Grace Mugabe’s presidential ambitions.
After 36 years in power, Mugabe has weathered decades of political storms. This year, however, has been one of the most difficult. Mugabe’s government faced public protests on a scale not seen since 2008, with young people using social media to organize the protests. They are fed up with a failed economy overseen by the only president many of them have ever known.
In July this year, veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation movement - that have backed Mugabe in previous elections -.deserted him, calling him dictatorial, manipulative, and egocentric.
But already, the tone for the 2018 election has been set, with the party’s most senior member in Masvingo province and Psychomotor minister, Josaya Hungwe, saying his party will not hesitate to hire the services of soldiers to thwart the opposition's chances and make sure the ruling party retains power in the elections.
Hungwe said when the worst scenario comes, Zanu PF was prepared to go to war against opposition political parties.
“Yes, we can go to war. We can hire our army…our soldiers can come in to help us. We will never allow opposition political parties to rule this country. We are going to have President Mugabe as our candidate in 2018 and his predecessors must have war credentials,” Hungwe said.
He was quick to remind the people how army Major-General Engelbert Rugeje helped Zanu PF in the run-up to the June 2008 presidential election runoff campaign.
Mjr-Gen Rugeje was instrumental in the campaign which is widely viewed as the most violent of all elections since 1980 and, at one point, he fired his gun at Mucheke stadium to intimidate the electorate.
“Don’t forget what Rugeje did in Masvingo in 2008…we can call him again in 2018,” said Hungwe.
He said there was nothing sinister if the regime hires soldiers to help fight the ‘enemy’.
“This is very Biblical because it started in the Bible where the army was being hired to defend the King. In our case, President Mugabe is our King hence the need to use soldiers to defend him and his party,” said Hungwe.
On his part, Mugabe accepted the endorsement with humility. Dressed in a jacket emblazoned with his own face, the politician — known for his self-promotion — called for an end to infighting within the ruling party over his eventual successor.
“We came with our problems, which we heard. We also came knowing we had differences. We agreed our differences should end and fighting should stop,” said Mugabe, who has faced unprecedented protests this year.
Some members of the ruling party have been calling on the 92-year-old leader to step down. That probably explains his plea to party members for tolerance.
“We have agreed that there must be no conflicts and fighting. Discipline, discipline, discipline. Those in leadership must be respected,” he said.
Mugabe has come under pressure owing to a deteriorating economy, corruption and cash shortages that have seen the central bank introducing a new “bond note” currency last month.
Still, Mugabe retains unrivalled support in Zanu PF, which is grappling with factional fights as party officials manoeuvre for advantage in a post-Mugabe era.
Political analysts say Mugabe runs an effective patronage system that rewards supporters and punishes those who seek to challenge his rule, as happened to his former vice-president of 10 years Joice Mujuru in 2014.