Mugabe denies illness as rivals jockey for position

The intensifying battle to succeed Robert Mugabe yesterday forced the 86-year-old President of Zimbabwe to publicly deny reports that he is seriously ill. Speculation that the aged leader's health had deteriorated has helped to push a behind-the-scenes power struggle between rival factions in his ruling party into the open.

There is mounting concern that Zimbabwe's weak power-sharing government could collapse into chaos if Mr Mugabe were to die before a new constitution is agreed and fresh elections called.

The veteran autocrat attempted to laugh off rumours that he was dying of cancer or had suffered a stroke by giving a rare interview in the capital, Harare yesterday.

Asked if he was critically ill, he said: "My time will come, but for now, 'no'.

"I am still fit enough to fight the sanctions and knock out [my opponents]," he told Reuters.

However, tensions have been rising between the powerful Defence minister, Emerson Mnangagwa, and retired General Solomon Mujuru, whose wife Joice is Vice-President, who both see themselves as successors to the octogenarian President.

A cabinet source told The Independent that the succession rivalry has increased recently after the government was cleared to sell an estimated $1bn of diamonds on the international markets after a trading ban was lifted.

"[The rivalry] simmers away just below the surface," the source said. "It hasn't come out at a cabinet level yet but it was palpable during the diamond debates where Mrs Mujuru was nowhere near as enthusiastic. It is clear that the relationship between the two factions is far from cordial."

Last week supporters of the general were implicated in an attack on local officials loyal to Mr Mnangagwa in a town just outside Harare. The state-controlled media dismissed the incident, in which officials in Chitungwiza were seriously assaulted by armed men, as the work of a religious cult.

But witnesses said that the gunmen chanted slogans against the President and the Defence minister, saying Mr Mnangagwa would never be allowed to rule Zimbabwe.

Mr Mugabe, the only man who has ruled the country since independence, has been the subject of regular rumours regarding his health but has always emerged to quash speculation, often with a marathon public speech railing against colonial enemies.

"I don't know how many times I die but nobody has ever talked about my resurrection," he said at the end of an hour-long interview at Zimbabwe House. "Jesus died once, and resurrected only once, and poor Mugabe several times."

Despite his bravado those who attend regular meetings with the President say he has "visibly slowed" in recent months. Regardless of his increasing unpopularity at home and abroad the former schoolteacher's health is a major concern for his critics as well as his remaining supporters.

Under the terms of Zimbabwe's current constitutional draft – amended to make way for a power-sharing deal after the disputed outcome of the last election – any succession is dangerously unclear. There are contradictory clauses including one that stipulates that only Robert Gabriel Mugabe can be president, legal experts warned.

And further clauses appear to suggest both that his party, Zanu-PF, has the exclusive right to nominate his successor if he dies and that any candidate backed by 25 MPs could be put forward for the presidency.

"This ambiguity in the law to be followed upon Mugabe's sudden death, when considered alongside the uncertainties of Zanu-PF's succession politics, has the potential to turn the merely messy into the thoroughly chaotic," said Derek Matyszak, an analyst with the Harare-based Research and Advocacy Unit.

Neither of his prospective replacements from Zanu-PF represent a fresh start. Both the Mujurus and Mr Mnangagwa were named in a report this week on illegal profiteering from Zimbabwe's controversial Marange diamond fields.