The dictator's PR official insists he is "merely on a prolonged shopping trip," not dying in Singapore.
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."
To be fair, the line about the shopping trip also makes the tweets seem more plausible; East Asian shopping sprees are exactly in character for Mugabe. So, here are the tweets. Read them for yourself and see if you're convinced:
Pls ignore the latest attempts by puppets of the West & so called human rights groups to prematurely celebrate the passing of Cde RG Mugabe— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
Indeed our loved leader Cde Gabriel Mugabe was here yesterday, today & will be here tomorrow. He has been blessed by God to protect Zimbabwe— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
Indeed God has blessed our comrade and leader- he will live longer than the queen and will continue to spread human rights for years 2 come.— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
Cde President RG Mugabe is merely on a prolonged shopping trip with his wife, as God has blessed him with spending money. He's alive & well— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
As we have come 2learn these impatient and arrogant imperialists have often claimed Cde Mugabe has passed on, these are merely their dreams.— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
Cde Mugabe is fit and well, please do not believe the lies! God promised Cde Mugabe that he will rule until he has freed all of Africa.— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
So much hype about our beloved leader Cde GR Mugabe, people r spreading rumors like feces during a cholera crisis.— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
Its normal 4there to be an acting president when a president is out the country, these bloody agents and prophets of doom-Cde Mugabe is fine— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
Cde RG Mugabe will not die until he has finished here on earth, SA needs him heaven can wait. He'll surely bring light 2heaven, but not 2day— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
Whoever is running the official feed, he (and, this being the Zimbabwean government, it's almost certainly he) might not be particularly good at it, but you can't doubt his devotion. When it comes to sub-Saharan military dictatorships, that's probably about the standard skillset.
Update, 5:28pm: Laura Seay thinks the Twitter feed is a hoax. The tweets are, indeed, bad and informal enough to raise suspicion. But there are also a number of tweets about southern African politics that are a bit dry for a parody. The line between obvious parody and authentically bad PR is thin here, which is maybe the saddest part of this story.