HARARE – Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe received a special chair as a belated 93rd birthday gift from his Cabinet, a present which the main opposition quickly used to question whether Africa’s oldest leader was still fit to rule.
Mugabe, the only ruler Zimbabwe has known since independence in 1980, thanked his ministers for putting their heads together in coming up with the idea of the gift.
Accompanied by his wife Grace at the State House ceremony, the teetotaller also received a gold pen and a nine-carat gold watch with his portrait and initials engraved on them.
The main news bulletin on State TV called it a “massage chair” and ministers at the handover ceremony described it as a “special mobile chair”.
The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which is critical of Mugabe’s long rule, said the gift called into question his fitness to hold office.
“Mugabe’s gift of a special chair simply confirms that even his own Cabinet ministers appreciate that Mugabe is now too old and that he is effectively no longer fit for purpose,” MDC spokesman Obert Gutu said.
“At the age of 93, Mugabe is anything but a young man. He really needs that special chair to enable him to improve his mobility.
“In fact, Mugabe should now be taken to a retirement home where he can play around with his special massage chair.”
At the State House ceremony, Mugabe showed no visible signs of illness although his speech was slurred, and the former guerrilla leader has laughed off suggestions that he was seriously ill.
“The ministers are trying to send him a message, traditionally people get gifts of retirement that depict their work,” opposition People’s Democratic Party spokesperson Jacob Mafume said.
Peter Maregere, a peace and security analyst and doctoral researcher, said: “That chair is a simple affirmation of the President’s inability to keep pace with the attendant demands associated with his office”.
Speaking at a political rally in November 2015, Grace Mugabe told supporters that she would get a wheelchair for her husband, and vowed to push it herself, taking a swipe at critics who say her husband is too old to govern.
“We are going to create a special wheelchair for president Mugabe until he rules to 100 years, because that’s what we want,” she said.
Psychology Maziwisa, the former Zanu PF director of information and now legislator for Highfield West, said everyone has missed the glaring import of the chair.
“It is not a wheel chair – as its make up will clearly show you. Neither is it meant to assist president Mugabe in any physical or therapeutic way. “President Mugabe is the fittest, strongest and most able-bodied 93-year-old around,” Maziwisa told the Daily News.
“ Ask every foreign diplomat that has had the chance to interact with him including those from America and the UK and they will tell you as much.
“The truth is that that chair was simply symbolic. It was an affirmation of Mugabe’s distinguishable leadership over the years and a declaration that he should stay in his current position for as long as he is alive.
“Any other interpretation is not only cheap politics and totally regrettable, it is absolutely devoid of the truth.”
Political analyst Gladys Hlatywayo said the message from his ministers was that he is no-longer expected to be “standing” but to be “seated”.
“While aging is a normal process, the challenge with president Mugabe is where he is choosing to age from.
“The State House is no place for grandpas especially in our context of enormous challenges that probably require a more agile, alert and therefore younger person,” she said.
Mugabe said in his 93rd birthday interview that Zimbabwe’s people and the ruling Zanu PF party see no viable alternative candidate to him for general elections in 2018.