Adam Taylor – The Washington Post May 11, 2017
If you happen to spot Robert Mugabe with his eyes closed for long periods during a high-level meeting, don’t worry. According to the 93-year-old’s spokesman, the longtime president of Zimbabwe is not sleeping — he’s simply resting his eyes.
In an interview with the state-run Herald newspaper published Thursday, the spokesman, George Charamba, said he “felt like a failure when there is this reading that the President is sleeping in conferences.”
“At 93, there is something that happens to the eyes and the President cannot suffer bright lights,” Charamba said. “If you look at his poise, he looks down, avoids direct lighting.”
Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since 1980. Initially lauded as a freedom fighter, his reputation has suffered over the years, and the international community today largely views him as a fervent critic of the West who courts controversy with his autocratic ways. Despite his unwillingness to relinquish power, there have been widespread rumors in recent years that Mugabe’s health is failing. The rumors have been compounded by his frequent trips to Singapore, where he was said to be receiving medical treatment.
Images of Mugabe seemingly asleep at meetings have become the butt of jokes in independent media critical of the strongman. At a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Durban, South Africa, this month, the Zimbabwean leader was photographed slumped against the chair with his eyes closed at more than one point, prompting snickers on Twitter.
— Theophilous (@tchiviru) May 4, 2017
In his interview with the Herald, Charamba suggested that Nelson Mandela, the late leader of post-apartheid South Africa, had a similar problem with his eyes. “In the case of Mandela, if you remember, you were not allowed to even use flashes whenever he was in the room,” the Mugabe spokesman said.
The South African leader’s eyesight problems were attributed to the years he spent working in a limestone quarry while imprisoned on Robben Island, where the bright sunlight reflecting off the stone caused “snow blindness.”
Mugabe’s trips to Singapore were also a result of his eyesight problems, Charamba said. “The president goes to Singapore for a very specific problem which has to do with the level of sophistication of medical skills that we have developed,” the spokesman said, adding that such an arrangement wasn’t unusual for a head of state and that Mugabe’s regular physician was a black Zimbabwean.
The Zimbabwean president’s foreign trips for medical treatment are viewed with suspicion by many domestic critics, who argue that his economic policies have left their nation’s health-care infrastructure deeply damaged. On Mugabe’s 90th birthday, Charamba denied rumors that the president had traveled to Singapore for treatment of prostate cancer.
Mugabe’s health issues are rarely discussed openly by Zimbabwean officials. In 2015, after he was photographed falling to the floor after giving a speech in Harare, officials even denied that the fall occurred.