NOT ASLEEP

Robert Mugabe isn’t sleeping through meetings—he’s protecting his eyes from “bright lights”

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

The 93-year-old president of Zimbabwe is having eye problems. So says his spokesman, George Charamba, who tells local media that he feels “very, very pained” when he hears reports that Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, is falling asleep during conferences.

“At 93, there is something that happens to the eyes and the president cannot suffer bright lights If you look at his poise, he looks down, avoids direct lighting,” Charamba reportedly told CapiTalk, a radio station in Harare, in an interview about Mugabe’s recent medical trip to Singapore.

According to the state-owned daily newspaper The Herald, the spokesman compared Mugabe’s condition to eye troubles suffered by Nelson Mandela. The former South African president was reported to have been highly sensitive to flashlight. “In the case of Mandela, if you remember, you were not allowed to even use flashes whenever he was in the room,” Charamba said. “That is what happens at 93, and Mandela, I do not think lived as long as the president did. Let us disabuse ourselves.” Mandela died in 2013 at the age of 95.

In any case, the photographic evidence that shows Mugabe sleeping through conferences in Africa and across the world are nothing new. Some date back more than a decade, to when Mugabe would have been in his early 80s.

Here he is closing his eyes during the Africa Union meeting in Sirte, Libya, in July 2005.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Gabriel Mugabe closes his eyes during the Africa Union meeting in Sirte, Libya July 4, 2005. Buoyed by a surge of global goodwill, Africa kept pressure on the rich world on Monday with its leaders readying a call for fairer trade and debt cancellation in the fight against poverty. A gathering of the 53-nation African Union (AU) in Libya which opened on Monday will agree a message to send to a summit of the Group of Eight (G8) rich nations in Scotland later this week about rescuing the continent of 800 million from poverty, war and disease.
At the Africa Union meeting in Sirte, Libya, in July 2005. (Reuters/Radu Sigheti)

Later that year, he looked to be napping during the opening ceremony of the Africa-France summit in Bamako, Mali. (To his left is Omar Bongo, then-president of Gabon, who also seems to have had trouble keeping his eyes open during the meeting.)

Gabon's President Omar Bongo (L) sits beside Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe during the opening ceremony of the Africa-France summit in Bamako, Mali December 3, 2005. French President Jacques Chirac told African leaders on Saturday that rich nations must find more innovative ways to fund development in the world's poorest continent and pledged that France would champion their cause.
Bongo and Mugabe at the Africa-France summit in Bamako, Mali, in December 2005. (Reuters/Luc Gnago)

Mugabe’s closed eyes continued to be a familiar sight to photographers in subsequent years.

At the Africa and South America Summit in Venezuela, in September 2009.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe appears to be asleep, during the first plenary session of the 3rd Africa-EU Summit in Tripoli, Libya, Monday Nov. 29, 2010. 80 African and European Heads of State and Government and some 50 observers from third countries met in Tripoli to discuss concrete ways to stimulate inclusive growth, to create employment opportunities, and to use sustainable development as a driver for growth.
At a plenary session for the Africa-EU Summit in Tripoli, Libya, in November 2010. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Mugabe’s recent health trips have been a source of concern in Zimbabwe, which is preparing for elections next year in which Mugabe is expected to run. Critics have questioned Mugabe’s fitness to rule the southern Africa nation, especially at a time when the country’s economy is in free-fall, with Zimbabweans desperate for cash sleeping outside banks. But Mugabe refutes the notion that his country is a fragile state, and refers to Zimbabwe as “one of the most highly developed countries in Africa.”

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