HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president is courting the young as he makes a pitch for a fresh five-year term ahead of next year’s election.
President Robert Mugabe, accused by critics of human rights abuses and running down this once-prosperous southern African country since taking power in 1980, is on a nationwide blitz to woo a youthful generation most affected by the economic meltdown.
Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, has launched a series of well-attended events called “presidential youth interface rallies.” Some opposition members point to his advanced age as the reason why youth should reject him. But Mugabe’s supporters think otherwise.
“Do you want five-year-old whiskey or 20-year-old whiskey? Mugabe is whiskey of the highest quality, that’s the whiskey we want. It’s tasty, it gives us wisdom, it’s mature,” said 45-year-old Cabinet minister and businessman, Supa Mandiwanzira.
“Here on earth there is an angel called Robert Gabriel Mugabe. When you people go to heaven, don’t be surprised to see Robert Gabriel Mugabe standing next to god helping vet those who should enter heaven,” said Kudzai Chipanga, the ruling ZANU-PF party’s youth leader.
Veterans of the 1970s liberation war who formed the pillar of Mugabe’s rule are aging, and many are now at odds with the president over his long stay in office.
Like much of Africa, Zimbabwe’s young population is growing and a powerful draw for political parties. The majority here are unemployed and relying on street vending for survival. Mugabe promised 2.2 million jobs ahead of the disputed 2013 election. Instead more youth are on the streets, including university graduates who sell candy, fruit and secondhand phones on the sidewalk.
Zimbabwe’s number of formally employed people has fallen from 2 million in 2000 to 500,000 today, the majority of them employed in government, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa told parliament in April.
The president has responded by preaching self-reliance.
“Send those asking for jobs to me. I will laugh at them first. Youths should be working for themselves,” Mugabe told a rally in the southeastern city of Masvingo on June 30. “Keep chickens, grow mushrooms,” he added, promising farmland, houses and support for “small-scale projects.”
Crowds could not fit into a 15,000-seat stadium in the eastern city of Mutare during a June 16 rally.
“I had to come, otherwise I will be left out of the projects,” said one Mugabe supporter who travelled more than 150 kilometers (93 miles) to attend. Such projects include land and small businesses such as chicken farming sponsored by the government and ruling party.
The president also has embraced the Jamaican-influenced dancehall music popular with Zimbabwe’s youths, even though he previously expressed dislike for it.
“In Jamaica, the men are always high and universities are full of women. The men want to sing and do not go to colleges, some of them twist their hair. Let us not go there,” he said in 2012.
“ZANU-PF is desperate for the youth vote. The war veterans have aged, many have died. They are no longer too useful,” said political analyst Gabriel Shumba, chairman of the South Africa-based Zimbabwe Exiles Forum.
At the same time, “desperation is driving the youths into Mugabe’s hands,” said Harare-based political analyst Alexander Rusero. “Informal employment largely relies on dealings which can only be possible with the political protection rendered by ZANU-PF within the informal sector.”
Despite the show of support at rallies, the reality of Mugabe’s age is not lost on top party officials.
In June, one Cabinet minister said Mugabe should appoint a successor. “Otherwise, it becomes very difficult for even investors to put their money when they don’t know whether there is going to be another Bokassa or Idi Amin coming in,” said war veterans minister Tshinga Dube, referring to Jean-Bedel Bokassa in Central African Republic and Idi Amin in Uganda, who are often viewed as two of Africa’s most brutal dictators.
The war veterans association commended Dube for being “brave.” But days later, the minister said he would not speak about the issue again after Mugabe reminded him that the constitution doesn’t have a provision for the president to appoint or groom a successor.