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Sick or healthy? Mugabe health rumours inevitable with controlled Zimbabwean media

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends the 20th anniversary of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) in Harare, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

After another mysterious trip to Asia and a postponed cabinet meeting, Robert Mugabe's health is again shrouded in rumour and controversy, with some reports suggesting that he is seriously ill.

The 88-year-old Zimbabwean autocrat was reported to be flying back to Harare today, trying to quell the latest rumours. His government is denying that he is in poor health.

Mr. Mugabe makes frequent visits to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, sometimes for weeks at a time, and his government has acknowledged that he receives medical care on some of those visits. But it usually claims that his only treatment is for cataracts – a claim that is widely disbelieved in Zimbabwe.

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The U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe reported in a confidential cable in 2008 that Mr. Mugabe had prostate cancer and the cancer was spreading. It suggested he had only five years to live.

The latest rumours began when a Zimbabwe cabinet meeting was postponed from today until Thursday. Then a small online newspaper, the Zimbabwe Mail, reported that Mr. Mugabe was "fighting for his life" in a Singapore hospital.

Independent analysts have expressed skepticism about the Zimbabwe Mail report, which did not identify any of its sources. But rumours are inevitable in a country where the official media are heavily censored and tightly controlled.

Zimbabwean exiles, including Mugabe opponents, run many of the foreign-based media that occupy the vacuum left by the shortage of independent media in Zimbabwe. The lack of reliable information is so chronic that some Western media this week were fooled by a spoof Twitter account, purportedly run by Mr. Mugabe's ruling party. For a while, the hoax tweets were reported as fact.

Mr. Mugabe's latest 10-day visit to Singapore was officially described as a private vacation to supervise his daughter's enrolment in a Singapore university. This is seen as implausible, since his wife or other family members could have easily handled the university arrangements.

Another bout of health rumours were triggered a year ago when Mr. Mugabe needed a golf cart to move about at a regional summit in Zambia. Some reports said he was struggling to walk. But he later appeared healthy in public appearances. His last public appearance in Zimbabwe was two weeks ago.

Political analysts in Zimbabwe believe the ruling party wants Mr. Mugabe to win one more election, within the next year, and then hand over power to a successor, possibly Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.

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The last elections, in 2008, were riddled with deadly violence and corruption. The opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the first round of the election, but then withdrew from the second round because of the violence.

He later negotiated a power-sharing deal with Mr. Mugabe and became the prime minister, but Mr. Mugabe retains control of the key levers of power, including the military, the police and the intelligence services.

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