Slumped deep in his chair, President Robert Mugabe nods off and dozes in meetings. His aides help him shuffle to the podium at a painfully slow pace. His pauses grow longer. He slurs his words. At one parliamentary session, he was so confused that he read the same speech he had given a few weeks earlier – word for word.
But the 93-year-old Zimbabwean autocrat roused himself with a roar at a rally last weekend. All trace of his physical frailty disappeared, and his strength suddenly returned. "I am annoyed," he announced to the crowd.
His voice grew thunderous as he denounced his vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had served alongside him for 40 years. He accused the vice-president and his supporters of insulting him, and he ordered them to leave his party. "Let them go!" he bellowed furiously to the crowd. "Let them go!"
Two days later, Mr. Mnangagwa was indeed gone: terminated from his post. The government's terse announcement gave no explanation except a few words about "disloyalty." It was a shockingly swift blow to the heir apparent. And it signalled that Mr. Mugabe remains in charge of the country that he has dominated for 37 years – even as his health worsens, the feuding in his ruling party intensifies and the economy crumbles.
Mr. Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state, has been visibly energized by his sudden purge of his former comrade. At another rally last week, he swung his fists in time to the music, then launched another attack on Mr. Mnangagwa, calling him an undisciplined "deviant" who had sought a "short cut" to the leadership. Short cuts are dangerous, he told the rally. "The road has lions. There is death."
It was a classic Mugabe manoeuvre, destroying a rival and tightening his grip on power. Although he won the country's first multiparty election in 1980 on a promise of building prosperity and creating a "true democracy based on equality," his energies were focused from the beginning on a relentless campaign against his adversaries – from his former liberation comrade Joshua Nkomo to the white farmers who resisted his land redistribution schemes. He won almost every battle. But today, he must confront one of the toughest tests of his life.
Over the next eight months, he aims to win one more election, propelling him into a fifth decade of rule. At the same time, he plans to engineer a political succession that will safeguard the power of his ambitious wife and big-spending children, who are widely resented in Zimbabwe for their luxury cars, jewellery and lavish lifestyles.
If he fails to win enough support to orchestrate all of this, the post-Mugabe transition could turn violent. In the vacuum after his departure, there could be street clashes, a military crackdown and bloodshed.
And even if his plan succeeds, the country could find itself in the hands of his unpopular wife, Grace, the new heir apparent. It would become a Mugabe family dynasty – but a fragile and dangerous one. Some analysts predict that Ms. Mugabe will be forced to flee the country after his death.
"We've never had a history of orderly succession," says Tendai Biti, a former finance minister who is now in opposition. "There's no tradition of peaceful transition. We're headed for an implosion. Will it be a coup, an armed insurrection or a war?"
While his country slides into poverty and despair, Mr. Mugabe remains the same man he has been since the liberation wars of the colonial era. Bored by complex economic and technocratic issues, his attention is galvanized by power and politics. His obsessions are simple: controlling the forces around him, balancing the factions, weakening his rivals, protecting his family and strengthening his grip on all levers of power.
This laser-like focus might astonish those who have witnessed him in a somnolent state at international summits, or falling asleep at United Nations meetings. But it doesn't surprise Zimbabweans. "When he speaks of power issues, he becomes so alive and so alert," says Earnest Mudzengi, a political analyst in Harare. "Even though he's physically weak, he is still in control."
Temba Mliswa, an independent member of parliament and former senior member of the ruling ZANU-PF party, is critical of Mr. Mugabe's decisions – but he has a grudging respect for his political skills. "He might struggle to get to the microphone, but when he gets there, he gets the job done," Mr. Mliswa told The Globe and Mail.
"He still remains eloquent. Mentally, he still has it. He loves power. And he'll do anything to stay in power."
On the surface, Zimbabwe is calm. The sun shines brightly, and politicians chat cheerfully with a Globe journalist in beautiful book-lined libraries or gorgeous estates with green lawns, gardens and swimming pools. But as the economy deteriorates, this is a crumbling facade. You only notice the potholes and the hordes of impoverished street hawkers when you venture outside the main roads on which Mr. Mugabe's convoy rushes to the Harare airport for his many foreign jaunts.
The political succession battles are inflicting heavy damage on Zimbabwe's economy, Mr. Mliswa says. "Everything has been shelved because politics has taken over."
And he has little doubt of how the succession will unfold. After the elections next year, Mr. Mliswa predicts, Mr. Mugabe will anoint Grace as his successor. "It's pretty clear that that's where it's going. Nobody can say anything as long as he is alive. The President needs to ensure that his family is safe, no matter what."
The first stage of his strategy has, at first glance, gone remarkably smoothly. His presumptive successor, Mr. Mnangagwa, has fled the country after his sacking last week. He was immediately expelled from the ruling party, along with many of his allies. Grace Mugabe is widely expected to ascend to the post of vice-president at a special conference of the ruling party next month. (The move has already been endorsed by the party's provincial branches, along with its youth wing and its women's league.)
Mr. Mugabe's next logical step could be to install his wife as the acting president if his health becomes too weak. And then, some say, she would become president when he dies or quits.
Grace Mugabe eagerly welcomes that possibility. "I say to Mr. Mugabe, you should … leave me to take over your post," she said at a church meeting in Harare last week. "Have no fear. If you want to give me the job, give it to me freely."
But nothing is truly predictable in Zimbabwe, where the President likes to keep his foes off-balance, to keep everyone guessing. He might yet decide that his 52-year-old wife is too unpopular to appoint as his successor. He could choose a more experienced politician to become the vice-president, perhaps someone with stronger support from the military. One theory suggests he could give the vice-presidential job to his Defence Minister, Sydney Sekeramayi, who would have a better chance of keeping the country together.
Mr. Mugabe's power, too, might be weaker than it appears from his furious purge of his rivals. He has created new enemies, potentially destabilizing the ruling party. Mr. Mnangagwa, nicknamed "The Crocodile" from his early days as a guerrilla fighter, has substantial support in several regions of the country, and in the senior ranks of the military. He could still mobilize people to oppose the regime, perhaps in some kind of coalition with the opposition parties.
In a five-page statement issued by his supporters after his sacking, and apparently signed by him, Mr. Mnangagwa vowed that he would "return to Zimbabwe" to lead his followers.
Addressing the President directly, he said: "This party is not personal property for you and your wife to do as you please. … This is now a party controlled by undisciplined, egotistical and self-serving minnows …"
But while the country awaits the potential challenge from the former vice-president, it is clear that Grace Mugabe is now the power behind the throne, more influential than anyone except Mr. Mugabe himself.
Over the past three years, she has feuded bitterly with two vice-presidents: Mr. Mnangagwa and his predecessor, Joice Mujuru. In both cases, Mr. Mugabe swiftly fired the vice-presidents – a sign of her enormous influence over him.
Ms. Mugabe is with her husband at every rally, urging him on, propping him up symbolically and sometimes literally. It was she who demanded that "the snake" – as she called Mr. Mnangagwa – "must be hit on the head." The next day, the vice-president was sacked.
As she climbs the political ladder, she is loathed by many Zimbabweans because of her brazen flaunting of her wealth and power. Known as "Gucci Grace," she wears expensive clothes and sunglasses at rallies and has spent huge sums in shopping sprees in Paris and Hong Kong. She reportedly purchased a Rolls-Royce in South Africa for more than $400,000 (U.S.). She spent $1.35-million to buy a 100-carat diamond ring to give to her husband – later suing the businessman who sold it, complaining that the quality was inferior.
Her sons often use Instagram photos to boast of their expensive jewellery and their Champagne-stoked lifestyle in South African nightclubs. One son, Bellarmine, showed off his luxury watch and bracelet with the caption: "$60,000 on the wrist when your daddy run the whole country ya know!!!"
In perhaps the family's most notorious incident, Ms. Mugabe became embroiled in a nasty dispute with a young female friend of her sons, Chatunga and Robert Jr., in a Johannesburg hotel. She allegedly struck the woman with an extension cord, leaving her bleeding and scarred. But when the woman tried to press charges, the South African government invoked a diplomatic immunity rule to allow Ms. Mugabe to leave the country. It reinforced the Zimbabwean perception that she sees herself as above the law.
"She is almost oblivious to reality," says Ibbo Mandaza, a political analyst in Harare. "She and her husband are one and the same, but she is bolder and does things more quickly. She does crazy things, and that has inadvertently catalyzed change."
Her unpopularity could damage Mr. Mugabe at the election next year. "People have never liked her," says Mr. Mliswa, the independent MP. "She can't trust anyone. She's a control freak. People won't support the President because of his wife."
Eddie Cross, a senior member of the biggest opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, believes that Ms. Mugabe will drive voters into the opposition camp in the election next year. "She's the most hated woman in Zimbabwe," he says.
He compares her to Jiang Qing, the notorious "Madame Mao," wife of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who was arrested and jailed within weeks of Mao's death in 1976. Many analysts predict that Grace Mugabe will be forced to flee the country after her husband's death. "People here look placid, but you don't mess with them," Mr. Cross says.
He is convinced that the Mugabe era is rapidly coming to a close. "I've no doubt that Robert Mugabe is finished."
Even a faction of liberation war veterans, who fought a guerrilla campaign against white minority rule in the 1970s and had supported Mr. Mugabe for decades, have now finally become embittered by the President and his wife.
"We've been giving him a chance since 1980," says Douglas Mahiya, one of the leaders of an association of war veterans.
"He cheated us. Our people are still hungry, still poor, still lacking roads and health care. Our people are poorer than they were in the 1970s. It makes the war veterans feel cheated."
But most observers see Mr. Mugabe as still the strong favourite in the 2018 election. The opposition is divided and weak. The long-time MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is seriously ill with colon cancer, yet he refuses to step down from the party's leadership. Because of his illness, he has been almost invisible in recent months, leaving the party rudderless. "They're in a very bad place," says Takura Zhangazha, a civil society activist and blogger in Harare.
Mr. Mugabe still controls the ruling party, and his party is likely to control the election, as it did in the 2013 election. Vote-rigging is widely expected. "Most analyses of the 2013 election acknowledge that extensive electoral fraud took place," says Derek Matyszak, a senior researcher in Zimbabwe for the Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
He says there is "considerable evidence" of extensive multiple voting and fraudulent voting in the 2013 election. Without the rigging, he says, Mr. Mugabe would have won only about 53 per cent of the vote, compared to his official total of 61 per cent.
With the economy in decline, with his party racked by internal feuding, and with his wife so deeply unpopular, Mr. Mugabe could be in trouble in a fair election in 2018. But few people expect a fair election.
To make a fair outcome even less likely, Mr. Mugabe has announced that he will not allow any Western observer groups during the election. "We are going to say no to the whites," Mr. Mugabe told Chinese media last month.
Mr. Mandaza, the analyst, is not even bothering to register for the election. "People here are regimented for elections like animals," he says. "It's not democratic. It would be a miracle for ZANU-PF to lose."
Mr. Mugabe suffered a humiliating blow last month when a wave of global outrage forced the World Health Organization to cancel his appointment as a "goodwill ambassador" – just days after his state-controlled media had boasted of the appointment as a "feather in his cap." For a president who has relished any international support that he receives, it was an embarrassing defeat.
But the Zimbabwean regime has rallied around Mr. Mugabe, heaping more awards on him. Harare's international airport was renamed in his honour last week. The government announced that his birthday, Feb. 21, will become an annual public holiday.
While glorifying its leader, the government continues to crush any opposition on the streets. Protests are routinely broken up by police crackdowns. Four Zimbabweans were hauled to court last week for daring to boo Ms. Mugabe at a rally.
The government's biggest new target, however, is social media – seen as a potential threat to the regime's power. Police have arrested several activists who were popular on social media, including a pastor, Evan Mawarire, who has gained a large following with his Facebook videos.
Last month, Mr. Mugabe created a new post, Minister of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation, and gave the post to a senior cabinet minister who has blamed social media for the panic buying that has led to shortages of commodities in shops. The minister, Patrick Chinamasa, has vowed to take "corrective measures" against social media.
Within weeks of his appointment, the police made it clear that this wasn't an empty threat. They arrested a 25-year-old U.S. citizen, Martha O'Donovan, and charged her with the crime of "undermining the authority of the president" – because of a tweet that she had allegedly posted.
Ms. O'Donovan was a producer and project officer at Magamba TV, a Zimbabwean outlet that creates popular satirical content for social media. Police accused her of tweeting that Mr. Mugabe was a "selfish and sick man." She denied the allegation. She was held in jail for a week, before finally being released on bail on Friday.
Almost 200 people have faced criminal charges for "insulting" Mr. Mugabe in recent years, according to a tally by human-rights lawyers. At the same time, attacks on Zimbabwean journalists have increased, with 51 journalists arrested or assaulted by police since the beginning of last year, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
With little prospect of fairness in rigged elections, with most street protests banned and social media under growing threat, some of the younger Zimbabwean opposition groups are switching to dangerous new tactics.
On the streets of Harare recently, two young activists talked to The Globe on condition of anonymity. They talked of a secret new strategy for attacking the regime: infiltrating the ruling party, covertly attempting to stoke the divisions within ZANU-PF, and pouring acid into mill engines to sabotage the farm machinery that the party uses as a source of revenue in rural areas.
"We are radicals," one of them says. "We don't play the victim card."
If this is the kind of extremism that begins to emerge from an increasingly angry population under a 93-year-old autocrat who refuses to leave, the country could be headed for a violent future.