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For Zimbabwe's Mugabes, marriage is political and personal

AP  |  Matopo Hills (Zimbabwe) 

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe plucked her from the secretarial pool decades ago to become his wife.

Now Grace Mugabe is stirring speculation that she wants to succeed her 93-year-old husband as leader.

The power couple's extraordinary arc is deeply felt in this southern African nation. Many are pondering how their dynamic will affect the country, which is in economic decline and political limbo amid uncertainty how a leadership transition will unfold. Many in Zimbabwe have had no other president.

The 51-year-old Grace Mugabe is now her elderly husband's No 1 protector, helping him when he struggled with a shovel at a recent tree-planting ceremony and declaring that he should run "as a corpse" in next year's if he dies before the vote.

She has said their relationship is like any other (fights included, both have said). From their statements and body language in public, they seem to have each other's back amid the questions over who will be next in Zimbabwe to hold power.

"I live with him, cook for him, share the table with him and discuss many issues as a family," Grace Mugabe said adoringly to thousands of well-wishers at a birthday celebration for the president last month. "In other words, we share so many intimate discussions together, as many ordinary married couples could do."

A former teacher who studied law and economics in prison during the country's white minority rule, Robert Mugabe has been shrewd, soft-spoken and, to his opponents, ruthless. He is an African nationalist who likes finely tailored suits. Despite his fading vigor, he flies regularly to other countries, including Singapore for medical treatment.

His wife, previously lampooned for shopping expeditions and a doctorate obtained under questionable circumstances, has built a serious if polarising political profile with charity work and frequent rallies. She has endured harsh criticism a "prostitute" or a scheming Lady Macbeth, some have said but has dished her own barbs.

The constitution says the senior of two vice presidents would take office if the president dies, resigns or is removed from power, but Grace Mugabe's feuds with some ruling ZANU-PF party factions have many people doubting that a leadership change would go by the book.

"She's in the mix," said Tom McDonald, a Washington-based lawyer who was US ambassador to Zimbabwe from 1997 to 2001. Meanwhile, he said, the relationship serves the political interests of both partners. The frail Robert Mugabe feeds off his wife's vibrancy, while she sponges up stature from his presidential aura.

Mugabe was a leader of the fight against white minority rule in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe after independence in 1980, and sparred with the West following its criticism of his land grabs from white farmers and its sanctions against the president, his wife and associates.

At his February 25 birthday celebration, it was Grace Mugabe who blasted Europe and the United States, while her mostly subdued husband mused at times about mortality.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Sat, March 18 2017. 16:48 IST