HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwean officials on Tuesday dismissed reports President Robert Mugabe was seriously ill in Singapore, saying he was well, on holiday there with his family and expected to return home this week.
Chief spokesman for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party Rugare Gumbo told state television the reports were “lies meant to destabilise Zimbabwe” and the veteran leader would return home this week.
Two other senior officials had also angrily denied reports by some international media that he was undergoing intensive treatment in a Singapore hospital and was fighting for his life.
The 88-year-old president has been the subject of several health scares in recent years, with some reports saying he has prostate cancer, but in February interviews with state media he laughed off suggestions that he was seriously ill.
Mugabe is one of Africa’s longest serving leaders and has ruled the former British colony in southern Africa since 1980. He is sharing power with political rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in a fragile coalition formed three years ago.
“Some sick and malicious people are spreading false stories about him being seriously ill while others are saying he is dead or dying out there,” one ZANU-PF official said.
Mugabe has made frequent visits to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, where medical care is far better than in his impoverished state.
A terse Zimbabwean government statement saying a weekly cabinet meeting set for Tuesday had been postponed to Thursday had fed the rash of media speculation about the president’s health. Mugabe usually chairs cabinet meetings.
Mugabe and ZANU-PF are blamed for turning his resource rich state into an economic basket case due to massive fiscal blunders, with international donors and foreign firms waiting for a more responsible government to be in place before sending billions of dollars in the country.
Zimbabwe’s capital Harare was quiet, with government offices and businesses re-opening after the Easter holiday.
Mugabe, who celebrated his 88th birthday on February 21, was endorsed by his party as its presidential candidate for a general election he wants to be held before the end of this year despite opposition from his major political rivals.
Analysts say Mugabe will face a tough challenge convincing voters to extend his 32-year rule after a devastating economic crisis many blame on ZANU-PF.
There are fears that if Mugabe dies in office without settling a bitter succession battle in his ZANU-PF, the party could erupt in internal conflict and destabilise the country.
Most of Zimbabwe’s newspapers on Tuesday carried no reports of Mugabe’s purported illness. But one carried a story on the succession battle in the veteran leader’s ZANU-PF party.
Although ZANU-PF officials rally behind Mugabe in public, in private many want him to retire and pass the baton to a younger heir due to fears his advanced age may cost the party victory in the upcoming election.
While some ZANU-PF members now see Mugabe as a political liability, many also recognise him as the only one able to control a highly partisan Zimbabwean army led by veterans of the 1970s independence war.
Many are also unsure whether his potential successors in the party can defeat Tsvangirai in a free election. Elections must be held by next year under their power-sharing deal.
(Reporting by Cris Chinaka, editing by Ed Stoddard and Jon Herskovitz)