HARARE, ZIMBABWE — The two stuffed lions flanked Robert Mugabe like a couple of eczema- ridden dogs, but the Zimbabwean president seemed delighted by the effect.
"Are you afraid?" he taunted foreign journalists after his party's resounding victory in 2005 parliamentary elections. Asked when he would retire, Mugabe vowed to stay until he was 100, a comment most mistook for a joke.
Today, few in Zimbabwe are laughing. Twenty-seven years after Mugabe came to power as a war hero in the triumphant uprising against white minority rule, the nation's economic collapse is worse than that of any country not now at war. One of the most prosperous countries in Africa has turned beggar, unable to feed its own people or find foreign currency for basics.
Yet on Thursday, the party congress of the ruling ZANU-PF endorsed the 83-year-old to run in next year's presidential election, in effect giving him five more years in office in this country where elections are criticized as flawed -- and putting him ever closer to that 100-year mark.
Anger in Zimbabwe about Mugabe's mismanagement is so universal that it is difficult to find anyone who wants him to stay.
Nonetheless, his hold on the country, and the African continent, appears unshakable.
As an economic catastrophe of epic proportions quietly unfolds in Zimbabwe, Mugabe has destroyed rivals, rewarded loyalists, manipulated elections, crushed most of the independent media and used violence to maintain power. He has handed out lands seized from white farmers to his cronies.
Western sanctions targeting Mugabe and the ruling party elite have been ineffective, while for the most part, African leaders have simply looked away.
Liberation war veteran Fixon Ncube, who counts himself among Mugabe's core supporters, said few in the ruling party cared to question the president: "He's got authority. It's on very few occasions that you hear people challenging him. He manages to sell his ideas to us, and we usually take his ideas as they come.
"Our president says, 'We'll take the land,' and he does it. He takes it from the white people and gives it to the black people. He says he'll slash prices and he does it. Whatever he says, he does it."
Larger than life
Part archetypal African "big man" and part imperious intellectual, Mugabe uses words like a fire-eater exhaling flames, relishing the vitriol he spits at enemies, who include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair ("A headmaster, old-fashioned, who dictates that things must be done his way"), President Bush ("His hands drip with the innocent blood of many nationalities"), former U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell ("I can't even spell the word Dell with 'D' but an 'H' and that is where Dell should go") and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai ("He runs to the British with a wagging tail").
His stinging rhetoric aimed at what he sees as Western racist arrogance and colonialism's legacy resonates powerfully in Africa. Mugabe is so popular on the continent (outside his own country) that he is feted and cheered wherever he goes. Leaders across Africa have been largely silent about his human rights abuses, while the "quiet diplomacy" of South African President Thabo Mbeki is seen by many Zimbabweans as a betrayal. Mbeki has studiously avoided criticizing Zimbabwean human rights abuses, preferring the diplomatic approach, which has yielded little.
Inside Zimbabwe, the population doesn't turn out spontaneously to cheer Mugabe, so people are forced to. Some mornings, when traders arrive at the Mupedzanhamo market here in Harare, the capital, they find the gates locked and a fleet of buses waiting. A few of the traders scuttle away; others climb onboard reluctantly.
They know what it means: Mugabe is about to address a rally, or is arriving by plane from overseas, and they are being press-ganged by the ruling party as a Potemkin audience of "supporters."
"They tell you if you don't go, you can lose your [market] table and you will have nowhere to sell your goods. If he's coming from overseas, they take us to the airport at 8 o'clock and we have to spend the whole day there. Each group has a commander to get you to cheer and sing," said one trader, who was too terrified of reprisals to give even his first name.
Mugabe, surrounded by a coterie of sycophants, is increasingly isolated and sees only the staged hysteria engineered by cronies when he goes out in public.
"I don't think he understands how unpopular he is," said Mugabe's former right-hand man, Jonathan Moyo, whom the president fired as information minister in 2005. "It's a typical dictator who overstays and loses all sense of proportion and can't understand what's happening on the ground and who thinks that there's no way his policies can fail."
Desperate to please