It's time to lick Robert Mugabe's ********* again

At the end of the fawn-fest that is the Zanu-PF annual conference, Zimbabweans will know when they will again be dragged into an election campaign.

President Robert Mugabe’s loyalists are gathering this weekend for the conference, usually little more than an annual outpouring of sycophantic adoration of their leader. But it is this meeting that Zimbabweans are watching with great anxiety.

Zanu-PF is desperate to rid itself of the unity government, and top of the conference agenda is an endorsement of Mugabe’s call for elections by June.

The idea is hugely unpopular; ordinary Zimbabweans fear violence, business has formally pleaded for a delay, saying fresh polls would hurt economic recovery, while Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said this week no free and fair poll is possible before 2013.

"We will have elections next year," Zanu-PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo said. "Even if the MDC boycotts, we will go ahead."

Mugabe will stand in the election, even though he will be 92 by the end of his next term. That does not bother his loyalists, who compete at annual conferences to declare their servile loyalty.

It is at such meetings that the extent of Mugabe’s hold on supporters is put on display, as an annual flexing of muscles to warn off ambitious party lieutenants and other opponents.

Mugabe lords it over a tightly controlled debate, delivering fiery speeches threatening internal and external rivals.

‘Solidarity messages’

One of the most eagerly awaited sessions is when loyalists stand in a queue, taking turns at the microphone to read out "solidarity messages" to Mugabe, who usually sits behind a decorated table taking it all in.

Ahead of the conference his most fanatical supporters have been practising their lines. This week, the head of one of the largest African religious sects in Zimbabwe, Johane Masowe, said he would pull his church behind Mugabe in any election, because his rule was ordained by God.

"Mugabe was shown to our founder in a vision back in 1957," the movement’s leader, Greshem Shu, declared in an address to thousands of his congregants this week. Referring to Mugabe’s second name, Gabriel, Shu explained: "In that vision, it was foreseen that a man with the name of an angel would rule. So we must not go against the Holy Spirit."

Lovemore Matuke, chairperson of Zanu-PF in Masvingo province, said: "We are gifted and blessed to have such a rare breed of a leader and we want him to continue at the helm of our party and country."

Monica Mutsvangwa, spokesperson for the Zanu-PF women’s league, said only Mugabe could defend the country from Western attacks.

Zanu-PF said the theme of the conference will be ”Total control of our resources through indigenisation and empowerment”, a clue that Mugabe will once again return to that mantra in a new election campaign.

Mugabe’s tiredness

Mugabe has said that he has grown tired of being in a coalition with Tsvangirai. On Monday Mugabe and Tsvangirai shared a stage and even exchanged jokes at the launch of a new investment agency, but there is no hiding the fact that the relationship between the two sides has broken down.

While Tsvangirai blamed poor policies for low investment Mugabe again blamed Western sanctions, which his party blames on Tsvangirai.

Reflecting the sentiment within Zanu-PF, the Herald said in an editorial on Wednesday that the party had to find a way out of "a coalition with the same people who have been working to undo the gains of our independence".

Critics say Mugabe could face opposition from other leaders in the Southern African region, including President Jacob Zuma, who does not believe Zimbabwe is ready for elections.

However, regional alliances count for little against the background of the praise and adoration of his supporters.

For residents of Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe the conference has had its advantages, at least for a few days. In the run-up to the meeting, residents are enjoying an uninterrupted power supply for the first time in months.

The potholes that just weeks ago marked the streets leading to the venue have disappeared under new tarred roads, laid especially for the convenience of the Zanu-PF top brass arriving in their luxury vehicles.

Hotels in the town and in surrounding resorts are fully booked, and locals have jumped on the bandwagon, letting rooms to the 4 000 delegates.