Successor? What successor?
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who recently celebrated his 92nd birthday with a giant party in drought-stricken Masvingo, said this week that he had no plans to retire or groom someone else to lead the country regardless of anything, including a bitter succession struggle in his ZANU-PF party.
Mugabe declared in an interview with state television that he wants to live to be 100.
“Why successor? I am still there. Why do you want a successor?” Mugabe, who became prime minister in 1980 and president in late 1987, said during the two-hour interview that aired late Thursday. “You want me to floor you with a punch so you feel I'm still there?”
According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe's economy is in crisis, which puts it in the same basket of “fragile” countries with Somalia, Eritrea and Myanmar. Its issues include growth slowing, unemployment rising, low commodity prices, successive poor agricultural seasons, external debt of some $10 billion and very low international reserves. Public-sector wages eat up 80% of the budget. With few private-sector jobs, most people rely on street trading to eke out a living.
The state monopoly Grain Marketing Board's silos stand empty in central Zimbabwe, forcing villagers to live on baobab fruit and other wild food. Government ministers said last month that grain had been stolen by corrupt officials. Four ZANU-PF officials in the party's heartland, Mashonaland West, were last week convicted and jailed for stealing food aid intended for starving people.
The Zimbabwe Peace Project, a rights group, reported in December that the ruling ZANU-PF had denied food to areas that supported the opposition, echoing previous reports over many years by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In 2008, as millions faced hunger, Mugabe suspended international humanitarian aid.
The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, Harry K. Thomas, expressed concern this week about abuse of food aid, after a $45-million food aid donation from the U.S.
America this week extended targeted sanctions on Mugabe and senior ruling party figures. The sanctions, introduced in 2003 after reports of rights abuses and electoral fraud, describe the Mugabe government as “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. foreign policy.
In urban areas, Zimbabweans struggle amid soaring food prices to withdraw cash from banks, denominated in U.S. dollars. The Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned in 2009 because of rampant hyperinflation, forcing the mint to print $100-trillion bank notes.
The ruling party's Politburo met Friday, after the expulsions of several officials in recent days. But a new threat to Mugabe emerged this week when his former deputy, Joice Mujuru, launched a new opposition party.
In 2014, Mugabe accused Mujuru of corruption, theft, plotting to assassinate him and performing witchcraft rituals while topless. She was expelled from the party that year with dozens of her loyalists. Mujuru, a former liberation war fighter whose nom de guerre was “Spillblood,” suggested this week Mugabe may have been drunk when he accused her of witchcraft.
While launching the new party Zimbabwe People First on Tuesday, she brushed aside questions about her past role as a ZANU-PF leader, denied Mugabe's corruption accusations and pledged to rebuild the economy.
“The government of the day has broken the social contract that should exist with the people of Zimbabwe,” she said. “We fought for the right to self-determination, the right to freedom, the right to vote under the principle of ‘one person, one vote' and not one man voting for us all.”
Mujuru is the widow of Solomon Mujuru, a former army chief and tough ruling-party power broker who was found dead in a house fire on his farm in 2011.
Mugabe's suspicion has recently fallen on Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former minister for state security once seen as Mugabe's heir apparent. Mnangagwa and 16 of his allies were expelled from the party's ruling body a day before its Friday meeting.
Mnangagwa is opposed by younger party figures close to Grace Mugabe, the first lady, who has played a central role in the succession disputes, accusing first one vice president and then another of plotting against Mugabe.
The loyalties of the country's security and intelligence services are reportedly divided between the two factions, which could spell danger were Mugabe to die unexpectedly.
As Zimbabwe's economic crisis deepens and the IMF calls for measures to restore business confidence, Mugabe appears headed in the opposite direction. This week the government ousted a group of companies mining alluvial diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe, including a Chinese company and a Russian company, and seized hundreds of millions of dollars in mining equipment.
In the future, the diamonds will only be mined by a government-owned company.
In Thursday's interview, Robert Mugabe accused the companies of looting the country's diamonds. The government held at least 50% of each of the firms.
“We have not received much from the diamond industry at all. I don't think we have exceeded $2 billion, yet we think more than $15 billion has been earned,” Mugabe said. “So where have our gold or carats been going, the gems? And there has been quite a lot of secrecy in handling them and we have been blinded ourselves.”
Mugabe's health has been in question after several recent instances in which he stumbled or delivered the wrong speech.
But he has also delivered punchy speeches. At last month's African Union summit, he demanded Africa be given a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, to a standing ovation.