The two stuffed lions flanked Robert Mugabe like a couple of eczema- ridden dogs, but the Zimbabwean president seemed delighted by the effect.
"Are you afraid?" he taunted foreign journalists after his party's resounding victory in 2005 parliamentary elections. Asked when he would retire, Mugabe vowed to stay until he was 100, a comment most mistook for a joke.
Today, few in Zimbabwe are laughing. Twenty-seven years after Mugabe came to power as a war hero in the triumphant uprising against white minority rule, the nation's economic collapse is worse than that of any country not now at war. One of the most prosperous countries in Africa has turned beggar, unable to feed its own people or find foreign currency for basics.
Yet on Thursday, the party congress of the ruling ZANU-PF endorsed the 83-year-old to run in next year's presidential election, in effect giving him five more years in office in this country where elections are criticized as flawed -- and putting him ever closer to that 100-year mark.
Anger in Zimbabwe about Mugabe's mismanagement is so universal that it is difficult to find anyone who wants him to stay.
Nonetheless, his hold on the country, and the African continent, appears unshakable.
As an economic catastrophe of epic proportions quietly unfolds in Zimbabwe, Mugabe has destroyed rivals, rewarded loyalists, manipulated elections, crushed most of the independent media and used violence to maintain power. He has handed out lands seized from white farmers to his cronies.
Western sanctions targeting Mugabe and the ruling party elite have been ineffective, while for the most part, African leaders have simply looked away.
Liberation war veteran Fixon Ncube, who counts himself among Mugabe's core supporters, said few in the ruling party cared to question the president: "He's got authority. It's on very few occasions that you hear people challenging him. He manages to sell his ideas to us, and we usually take his ideas as they come.
"Our president says, 'We'll take the land,' and he does it. He takes it from the white people and gives it to the black people. He says he'll slash prices and he does it. Whatever he says, he does it."
Larger than life
Part archetypal African "big man" and part imperious intellectual, Mugabe uses words like a fire-eater exhaling flames, relishing the vitriol he spits at enemies, who include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair ("A headmaster, old-fashioned, who dictates that things must be done his way"), President Bush ("His hands drip with the innocent blood of many nationalities"), former U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell ("I can't even spell the word Dell with 'D' but an 'H' and that is where Dell should go") and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai ("He runs to the British with a wagging tail").
His stinging rhetoric aimed at what he sees as Western racist arrogance and colonialism's legacy resonates powerfully in Africa. Mugabe is so popular on the continent (outside his own country) that he is feted and cheered wherever he goes. Leaders across Africa have been largely silent about his human rights abuses, while the "quiet diplomacy" of South African President Thabo Mbeki is seen by many Zimbabweans as a betrayal. Mbeki has studiously avoided criticizing Zimbabwean human rights abuses, preferring the diplomatic approach, which has yielded little.
Inside Zimbabwe, the population doesn't turn out spontaneously to cheer Mugabe, so people are forced to. Some mornings, when traders arrive at the Mupedzanhamo market here in Harare, the capital, they find the gates locked and a fleet of buses waiting. A few of the traders scuttle away; others climb onboard reluctantly.
They know what it means: Mugabe is about to address a rally, or is arriving by plane from overseas, and they are being press-ganged by the ruling party as a Potemkin audience of "supporters."
"They tell you if you don't go, you can lose your [market] table and you will have nowhere to sell your goods. If he's coming from overseas, they take us to the airport at 8 o'clock and we have to spend the whole day there. Each group has a commander to get you to cheer and sing," said one trader, who was too terrified of reprisals to give even his first name.
Mugabe, surrounded by a coterie of sycophants, is increasingly isolated and sees only the staged hysteria engineered by cronies when he goes out in public.
"I don't think he understands how unpopular he is," said Mugabe's former right-hand man, Jonathan Moyo, whom the president fired as information minister in 2005. "It's a typical dictator who overstays and loses all sense of proportion and can't understand what's happening on the ground and who thinks that there's no way his policies can fail."
Desperate to please
He may not be loved, but Mugabe is a brilliant political manipulator who has directed his intellectual energy at destroying any threat. Many top party figures are privately unhappy about the president, and two ZANU-PF factions are jostling with increasing acrimony over the succession.
A war veteran associated with one of the factions, who asked to remain anonymous, said Mugabe maintained his support because without a clear successor, there would be chaos and even civil war were anyone to challenge him. He added that both camps could muster military support: "As the situation is, there's no one to replace him. If Mugabe steps down, everybody will want to be president. What will happen is there will be a civil war.
"Let him finish his nonsense. Let him finish what he started."
Bornwell Chakaodza, the former editor of the state mouthpiece the Herald, said even Cabinet ministers admit in private that Mugabe's policies are disastrous.
"If you meet any of the Cabinet ministers one on one, they all see the problems. You say, 'Don't you see this?' and 'Don't you see that?' They say, 'Yes, we do.' But the problem is that all of them seem to be afraid of the leader."
Mugabe's ministers are so desperate to please that when he made a speech in the border town of Beitbridge last year, one of them hurried off to have it made into a song. Mugabe's booming voice has been getting relentless airplay in a snappy pop song by a performer known as Nonsi. Mugabe's voice declares: "Forward with developing Beitbridge. . . . We are committed to the development of Beitbridge."
The 26-year-old artist, whose real name is Tendai Masunda, adores Mugabe and has written similar "motivational" songs for the ruling party.
"I see [Mugabe] as a father figure, and he does inspire me because he's done a lot for this country," Masunda, who is married to a government official, said in a phone interview. "Imagine if you have your dad and people say negative things about him. I think he's a good man."
Mugabe was born at a Jesuit mission station in what was then white-ruled Rhodesia. A lone bookworm in childhood, he has seven academic degrees, including one in economics. A lean, severe figure, he reportedly rises early for exercises. He drinks tea by the gallon and shuns alcohol.
He was arrested during the liberation struggle against the white minority government of Ian Smith and spent a decade in jail, where he was refused permission to go to the funeral of his 4-year-old son. Mugabe became an iconic African hero when he signed the 1979 Lancaster House agreement in London that led to independence, going on to win 1980 elections in what became Zimbabwe.
Early in his term, Mugabe achieved much in terms of improving the population's education and health, but those sectors are now in crisis, thanks to the economic collapse.
Some argue that from the outset, Mugabe was wedded to violence and terror. In the 1980s, Mugabe set the North Korean-trained crack military troops known as the Fifth Brigade on political opponents associated with a rival guerrilla movement. The operation was whimsically named "Gukurahundi," or "the wind that blows away the chaff before the spring rains." There is no accurate death toll, but estimates run as high as 20,000. Years later, Mugabe famously boasted of having "a degree in violence."
In March this year, Mugabe faced international censure after hundreds of opposition members, including Tsvangirai, were savagely beaten by police. Unbowed, he told Western critics, "Go hang." The coalition known as the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum reported that 2007 has been the worst year of human rights violations since 2000, when white farms were violently seized.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown boycotted a recent African-European Union summit because Mugabe was invited. The Lisbon summit went ahead without Brown, and Mugabe triumphantly claimed victory over the British. The main criticism of Mugabe at the meeting came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, later attacked in Zimbabwe's state media as a fascist and racist.
Stifling of ideas
Mugabe trusts few people and keeps most Cabinet colleagues at a distance. He has a small clique with whom he sips tea by the hour, including the local government minister, Ignatius Chombo, who is charged with building a vast shrine dedicated to the president's life.
Theories abound to explain the Mugabe mystery. Some say he lost his way after the death of his first wife, Sally, who supposedly curbed his excesses. (He's now married to his former secretary, Grace, 40 years his junior and known for her love of shopping.) Others suggest it's all to do with jealousy of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who outshone him internationally.
Some, such as Chakaodza, the former Herald editor, argue that Mugabe soured when the first real political threat emerged with the appearance of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in 1999. Mugabe lost a 2000 constitutional referendum and came close to losing the presidential election in 2002.
After that, he grew bitter.
"He saw whites, especially farmers, the opposition, the independent media and the international community as part of a conspiracy against ZANU-PF," Chakaodza said.
Martin Meredith, author of the biography "Mugabe: Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe," argues that Mugabe is content to let Zimbabwe's economy sink because the country and people are not of great importance to him.
"Mugabe has a singular belief, and it is to hold on to power," he said. "You could attribute the catastrophic state of the economy almost single-handedly to Mugabe and his stupidity."
Former allies such as Chakaodza and Moyo say the stifling of debate and ideas by Mugabe has caused the ruling party to atrophy. It has become so paralyzed and inward-looking that it has no hope of grappling with Zimbabwe's crisis, they contend. And the opposition has little hope of stepping forward because, infiltrated by Mugabe's secret police, it split acrimoniously in 2005, and efforts to re-unite have so far failed.
Moyo argues that because Mugabe has so weakened the culture of ideas in the ruling party, ZANU-PF will die with him.
"There will be absolute confusion and chaos. The fate of the party is now linked with him. It can't survive him. He's become the party. He's become the state."