Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has returned home after a visit to Singapore that fuelled rumours about the 88-year-old leader’s state of health.
Mugabe, accompanied by his wife Grace, was welcomed by Joice Mujuru, his vice president, as well as several government and security officials on his arrival at Harare airport.
Shortly after landing, a Reuters reporter saw Mugabe joking and laughing with Mujuru, often touted as his possible successor. The president has seemed robust during recent public appearances.
The president did not speak to waiting reporters, but is expected to chair a weekly cabinet meeting later on Thursday. The cabinet meeting venue is closed to the media.
Webster Shamu, the information and publicity minister, blamed western media for spreading false reports about Mugabe’s health.
“As you can see, he is fit as a fiddle. Why do we spread rumours? It’s all lies told by a press driving an imperialist
agenda,” he told reporters at the airport.
Mugabe, who has ruled the southern African country for more than three decades, travelled to Singapore eight times last year for medical check-ups, prompting speculation that he was receiving treatment for a cancer-related illness.
Mugabe’s office earlier said he had left Harare on March 31 to supervise postgraduate studies for his daughter Bona, 22, in Hong Kong.
Rumours about his health swirled last year after a 2008 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks suggested that the head of Zimbabwe’s central bank had told the country’s then-US ambassador that Mugabe was battling prostate cancer and had been advised by doctors he had less than five years to live.
Mugabe has laughed off suggestions that he is seriously ill, but details of his health are a closely guarded secret.
Rumours over Mugabe’s health have stoked infighting within his ZANU-PF party over the question of who will eventually succeed the veteran leader, with rival factions gathering around Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa, the defence minister.
Some party members are afraid that, should Mugabe die in office without settling a bitter succession battle, the party could erupt in internal conflict and destabilise the country.
Although party officials rally behind Mugabe in public, in private many want him to retire and pass the baton to a younger person as they fear his advanced age may cost the party victory in an upcoming election pitting the party against prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
But Mugabe is still seen by many as a crucial controlling influence over the highly partisan Zimbabwean army, which is still led by veterans of the 1970s independence war.