Skip to navigationSkip to content

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

Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo
“At 93, there is something that happens to the eyes.”
By Abdi Latif Dahir
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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.

Reuters/Radu Sigheti
At the Africa Union meeting in Sirte, Libya, in July 2005.

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.)

Reuters/Luc Gnago
Bongo and Mugabe at the Africa-France summit in Bamako, Mali, in December 2005.

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

AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos
AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert
At a plenary session for the Africa-EU Summit in Tripoli, Libya, in November 2010.

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.”

🌍 Keep up with developments and emerging industries in Africa.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.