Last month Zimbabwe’s long-ruling President Robert Mugabe celebrated his 93rd birthday.
You have to admire Mugabe’s resilience, and how much his longevity (and that of former Zambia president Kenneth Kaunda and Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi, both turning 93 soon), has been a great advertisement of the virtues of moderate drinking and eating.
Unlike Kaunda, though, Mugabe doesn’t get by on raw food, which is why he is now frailer than his long-retired peers.
Mugabe, rebuffing a bizarre suggestion by his controversial wife Grace that his party would field his corpse as candidate in next year’s election were he to pass on, looked tired. He fluffed a TV interview badly, and was struggling for breath. Small wonder then that a few days after he cut his 93-kilogramme birthday cake, he was flown off to Singapore for medical checks.
He returned and went to attend Ghana’s 60th Independence anniversary, where he made headlines as he was shown struggling to walk, and then sleeping through President Nana Akufo-Addo’s address.
Nothing perhaps illustrates how much Mugabe has beaten a once proud and prosperous country to the ground over the past 36 years, than the fact that collectively it is unable to put an end to this sad spectacle.
Most self-respecting 93-year-olds, would be long retired, watching the birds from their porch and doting on their great grandchildren.
But the fact Mugabe still clings on, also tells us some of the dramatic changes that have happened in Africa over the past 25 years, changes that may not be fully appreciated.
In 1992, on the 30th anniversary of Uganda’s Independence, a hugely popular play, 30 Years of Bananas, by playwright and actor Alex Mukulu, debuted in Kampala.
An audience favourite was a scene with a president-for-life inspecting a guard of honour while being wheeled along in a hospital bed with an IV line in his arm.
At that time, the oldest African president was Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda, who had been in power for 26 years. Kamuzu, in a wheelchair and diapers, lost elections two years later, aged “between 96 and 101.”
In Mukulu’s mind (and presumably the majority of Africans), while brutal and corrupt dictators had long become part of the landscape, the idea of a visibly expired leader being in power for 30 years and over was still rare enough to be easily comprehended. It’s why it was a spoof in a play.
Yet, here we are, with Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema in power for 37 years; Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos clocking 37; Mugabe at 36; Cameroon’s Paul Biya piling up 33, and; in a still prize-winning fourth place, is Uganda’s own Yoweri Museveni with 31 years.
If Mukulu had to redo his play (for Zimbabwe maybe title it Years of No Maize), the scene with the bedridden dictator inspecting a guard of honour would have to be cut out.
Not out of fear, but because it would serve no dramatic purpose. It wouldn’t be funny, because like our eccentric military dictators of years gone by, it is now fairly routine.
We haven’t heard from Mukulu for some years now. Either he is overwhelmed by how prescient his early material was or, as is more likely, he’s bewildered by the strange place we’ve found ourselves in.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3