Zimbabwe president's medical trip prompts concerns

Zimbabwe's leader of 30 years returned to Singapore for a medical check, his fourth visit there this year, his spokesman said Friday, as questions about his health raised uncertainty about the country's political future.

Presidential spokesman George Charamba said Friday that President Robert Mugabe, 87, left Thursday for a medical examination after undergoing routine cataract surgery in Singapore in January. He is expected home on Sunday, state media reported.

"There is nothing to cause any alarm" over Mugabe's health, Charamba said.

At celebrations marking his birthday on Feb. 21, an increasingly frail Mugabe said even if his body "may get spent," his mind remained alert.

Mugabe has spent seven weeks in Asia since December — a month for medical purposes — fueling doubts about his health. Officials have dismissed reports he received treatment for prostate cancer.

Eldred Masunungure, director of Zimbabwe's Mass Public Opinion Institute, said recent questions about Mugabe's health raise uncertainty, but that even if the elderly president were to die, his military-political machine would remain strong.

"The system is not going away if an individual dies," added Susan Booysen, a South African pollster.

A survey released Friday conducted late last year by Freedom House and the Mass Public Opinion Institute shows 75 percent of Zimbabweans believe Mugabe is solely or mainly in control, and 45 percent believe his ZANU-PF party has not ceded power.

Mugabe's party lost 2008 parliamentary elections, and later entered into a unity government with longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Recent shows of force by Mugabe's security forces contribute to the perception that he's firmly in control, the study concluded.

The researchers also found more Zimbabweans in 2010 compared to 2009 were unwilling to say for whom they would vote if elections were held tomorrow — 42 percent, compared to 31 percent.

A representative sample of 1,200 people were surveyed in November and December, and the margin of error was 2.8 points.

Masunungure said the poll results show Zimbabweans believe Mugabe will not loosen his grip on power anytime soon. He attributed Mugabe's strength to missteps by Tsvangirai and to the money that has flowed to Mugabe's supporters since the discovery of diamonds.

Mugabe has called for elections this year to bring an end his coalition with Tsvangirai.

Mugabe left for Singapore soon after he launched a campaign for a 2 million signature petition against Western economic sanctions.

His rally drew 20,000 to Zimbabwe's capital earlier this week, which Masunungure said was a mark of the growing confidence of Mugabe and ZANU-PF. Witnesses said Mugabe militants went house-to-house and patrolled bus stops demanding support for the rally.

In a rambling 80-minute address, a defiant Mugabe threatened to seize foreign businesses in retaliation for Western sanctions.

U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray on Friday described the petition as a one-sided political campaign by Mugabe's party, "while others seeking the right to assemble, petition and demonstrate are arrested and tortured."

He said about 120 Zimbabweans facing U.S. visa, travel and financial bans were almost all ZANU-PF leaders involved in political violence against fellow citizens. He said violence, corruption and mismanagement — not the Western measures — led to the economic crisis.

Alec Muchadehama, a lawyer representing 45 people facing treason charges for allegedly plotting an Egypt-style uprising in Zimbabwe, said the case showed how determined Mugabe's supporters are to crush any dissent. The group was arrested while watching videos of the Egyptian revolt during what organizers said was nothing more than a public discussion of current events.

Muchadehama and other Zimbabweans who gathered in neighboring South Africa to discuss the survey results said they are worried that after decades of facing violence and seeing little progress, dissidents are growing discouraged.

But democracy activist Dumisani Nkomo said activists should still formulate a plan should Mugabe die, beyond "rejoicing for about a week."

He said activists should reach out to soldiers and others within Mugabe's structure who may be secret democrats. He also said opposition parties should form a coalition.

"We need to take charge, take the initiative," Nkomo said.


Associated Press writer Donna Bryson contributed to this report from Johannesburg.