Zimbabwe's Spectacularly Bad Propagandist Fights Mugabe Death Rumors

The dictator's PR official insists he is "merely on a prolonged shopping trip," not dying in Singapore.

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Robert Mugabe celebrates his 88th birthday in Mutare, Zimbabwe Reuters

Update, 8:46pm: Some readers have pointed out that some old tweets on the @Zanu_pf account, which purports to represent Zimbabwe's ruling party, are so outlandish that the account could not possibly be legitimate. I was fooled. I wasn't the only one, but I regret the error. Still, the tweets are valuable in their own satirical right. Meanwhile, The Guardian's Ian Birrell reports, "Zimbabwe sources confirm that Mugabe is 'very critical' & security services are on highest alert."

Even if the thinly sourced reports claiming that 88-year-old Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe is "fighting for his life" in a Singapore hospital turn out to be false, it was worth it just to watch the government spokesman struggling on Twitter to claim that everything is fine.

"Pls ignore the latest attempts by puppets of the West & so called human rights groups to prematurely celebrate the passing of Cde RG Mugabe," read the first of nine tweets from the ruling party's official feed, an increasingly odd and poorly spelled rant about how Mugabe is definitely, definitely not on his deathbed in Singapore.

The tweets may well be accurate -- so far the story is limited to The Australian quoting The Zimbabwe Mail quoting an unnamed "senior office" in Mugabe's party. That brutally dictatorial party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, otherwise known as ZANU-PF, also runs the Twitter feed that is denying the rumors (as well as a delightfully Geocities-ish website). But the story is plausible enough (Mugabe, reportedly in terrible health, has been traveling to East Asia for treatment for years) that the folks a ZANU-PF HQ apparently felt they couldn't ignore it.

Whichever party official decided to take to Twitter to combat these latest Mugabe death rumors, they should just stop. The tweets are quickly becoming something of a Dictator-101 on how not to conduct propaganda. The way-too-strenuous denial makes the rumors, which have circulated so many times before that virtually no one seemed to take them seriously at first, seem a bit more plausible (why else deny them so forcefully?).

The tweets also call attention to Mugabe's poor health -- a major problem for Zimbabwe, as his unexpected death could lead to an ugly succession battle or, worse, the collapse of this oh-so-fragile nation. And, perhaps most face-palmingly of all, the propagandists' counter-narrative to the deathbed rumor is that Mugabe is "merely on a prolonged shopping trip with his wife, as God has blessed him with spending money." In a country where more than two-thirds of the population is below the poverty line, unemployment is the highest in the world at 95%, and inflation recently hit 231,000,000%, is "shopping trip" really the most sympathetic activity for Zimbabweans to relate to? How many anxious Zimbabweans read that line and said, "Oh, it's OK our leader is absent for long and unexplained periods as we sink into greater poverty, he just needed to take a relaxing shopping jaunt."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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