Basildon Peta: President claims operation is to 'restore sanity'

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The Independent Online

The Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, used the official opening of a new parliamentary session yesterday to defend the removal of tens of thousands of shack dwellers and informal traders from city streets.

The opening of parliament - two weeks ahead of schedule and boycotted by opposition MPs - also allowed Mr Mugabe to scotch rumours of chronic ill health. He is, nevertheless, expected to use the coming term to push through tough constitutional amendments to prepare the ground for his retirement. President Mugabe defended the three-week blitz as "a vigorous clean-up campaign to restore sanity" in urban areas. "The current chaotic state of affairs where [small and medium enterprises] operated ... in unregulated and crime-ridden areas could not have been tolerated for much longer," he said.

Rumours that the 81-year-old President had slipped into a coma and was dying had gained momentum after he made an emergency visit to a private clinic in the capital, Harare, over a week ago with a heart ailment. Although Mr Mugabe laughed off the rumours, saying: "I have died 10 times in the media and resurrected 10 times", those close to him say signs of ageing are catching up with him. Sources say he accepts he no longer has the energy to continue indefinitely because of the stress of Zimbabwe's mounting political and economic crisis. He is said to cancel scheduled meetings on a regular basis.

Party documents leaked to the Zimbabwean press suggested a plan by Mr Mugabe to retire in 2008 and anoint the newly appointed vice-president, Joyce Mujuru, to the top job the same year. Using his two-thirds majority in Parliament, Mr Mugabe would then defer the 2008 presidential elections to run concurrently with parliamentary elections in 2010 and give his vice-president, who is 50, a two-year head start to consolidate her position before fighting elections.

To set the stage for this plan, Mr Mugabe announced the reintroduction of an upper house, the Senate, in his speech yesterday.

The reintroduction of the 65-member Senate gives Mr Mugabe an opportunity to extend his political patronage and accommodate all those disgruntled members opposed to Mrs Mujuru who also failed to make it to parliament.

Many of Zanu-PF's rank and file had backed the former speaker of parliament, Emmerson Mnangagwa, for the vice-presidency. "We have not given up on Mnangagwa and if Mugabe drops dead today, we are determined to put him in State House instead of the semi-literate Mujuru," said one ruling party insider.

Opposition MPs boycotted the official opening of parliament.