Robert Mugabe admits it is time for ‘regime change’ and hints he will retire

Most Zimbabweans had expected the leader to die in office

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One month away from entering his 30th year as Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe has fuelled speculation that he might finally be set to step down.

While political analysts have long suspected Africa’s oldest serving head of state would die in office, Mr Mugabe appears to have finally acknowledged the growing calls for him to resign.

At the age of 92, Mr Mugabe is visibly frail. Opposition elements in Zimbabwe seized on footage of his “wobbly” arrival last week at the COP22 UN climate summit in Marrakech, Morocco. 

And speaking on his return to Harare in a key speech to senior government officials and police leaders, Mr Mugabe admitted that the country was entering a period he described as “regime change”.

The war veterans who fought for Mr Mugabe against white minority rule and for independence in 1980 have been the foundation of his support during his 36 years as the country’s leader.  

But as the country’s economy has deteriorated beyond all hopes of a quick recovery, the failure to pay their pensions and support widows has seen his leadership questioned even by them. 

Addressing the officials, Mr Mugabe said: “If I am failing, let me know. I will go.”

Calls for the president to step aside were given new impetus in July by the former vice-president and close Mugabe ally Joice Mujuru, now having formed her own party in exile. Ms Mujuru said the president was corrupt, the country “collapsing” and that Mr Mugabe must “resign and call for fresh elections”. 

And while Mr Mugabe’s speech can be seen as a concession to his critics, there is no suggestion he will resign any time soon - despite some of the gleeful headlines the news has generated.

According to his own ruling Zanu-PF party, Mr Mugabe will still contend the country’s 2018 elections. If he runs, he will most likely win, making him president until 2023 - when he would be 99 years old.

According to a translation by the Africa Check web resource, Mr Mugabe said he accepted Zimbabwe’s leadership would have to change - but he rejected the idea of doing so on what he called “British, American” terms. 

“We are in a critical time of regime change. To think that we will be toppled by whites who say ‘we want to change the government of Zimbabwe’ – which we fought for all these years, will we simply yield? I say no. The British [and] Americans are working hand in hand, but I think we have defeated them. So change will come in good time.

“If I have to retire, let me retire properly; people must sit down and discuss it cordially and not go to traditional healers such as that woman did [Ms Mujuru], leaving us and calling themselves Zimbabwe [People] First [the party Mujuru started after she was expelled from Zanu-PF by Mugabe]. That’s just not OK.”

If observers were looking for an indication that Mr Mugabe will change his authoritarian leadership style in the wake of his speech, there was none to be found in the news that five war veterans began their trial in Harare on Tuesday accused of undermining the president’s authority.

Among those on trial are the former secretary-general and spokesman of the war veterans’ association, which announced in a statement in July that it was withdrawing its official backing for Mr Mugabe.

All five defendants have been expelled from Zanu-PF and, if convicted, face up to 10 years in prison.