Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe returned home from abroad in a jovial mood on Saturday, poking fun at the latest online media speculation that he was gravely ill and had sought medical help in Dubai.
Mugabe, 92, came back to the grim reality of rising public anger over an economic meltdown widely blamed on his misrule, with violence erupting a week ago when police fired teargas at opposition leaders and protesters.
Reports that Mugabe’s health is declining have become common in recent years, but the veteran politician, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, often refers to himself as “fit as a fiddle”.
On Saturday Mugabe poured scorn on rumors on some online news websites – partly fed by his early departure from a regional summit – that he had been rushed for medical treatment in Dubai.
Mugabe told journalists at Harare international airport he had gone to Dubai on a family matter concerning one of his children.
“Yes, I was dead, it’s true I was dead. I resurrected as I always do. Once I get back to my country I am real,” he quipped.
But Mugabe showed some signs of frailty, walking slowly from the plane and only chatting briefly with officials before being whisked away in a motorcade.
Mugabe rejects the blame for a crisis currently manifesting itself in acute cash shortages and high unemployment, and last week warned protesters there would be no “Arab Spring” in Zimbabwe, referring to the uprisings that toppled several Arab leaders.
He routinely blames Zimbabwe’s economic problems on sabotage by Western opponents of his policies, such as the seizure of white-owned commercial farms for black people.
Last week Mugabe accused Western countries, including the United States, of sponsoring recent anti-government protests.
But even some of his once stalwart supporters, including Zimbabwe’s war veterans who invaded white commercial farms in support of Mugabe’s land seizures, have turned their backs on him, saying he has “devoured” the values of the liberation struggle.
Zimbabwe, which has also been hit by drought and weak commodity prices, is struggling to pay salaries to soldiers, police and other public workers, fuelling political tensions, including within the ruling ZANU-PF.
Divisions have emerged inside the party as senior officials position themselves for power after the veteran leader is gone, with one faction supporting Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa while another backs first lady Grace Mugabe.