He has outwitted Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, on many occasions, survived global opprobrium and an inflation rate that might have dethroned less resilient autocrats in his midst.
The octogenarian president has shown no sign of accepting his defeat to Mr Tsvangirai in the country’s last credible elections.
Few in Zimbabwe underestimate the potent combination Mr Mugabe wields of tactical acumen, pig-headedness and force. People observing the stuttering talks brokered by Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, say that he is deploying all three to prolong his rule.
“He is a strategist and he likes winning but at some level he believes he is right,” says Heidi Holland, one of Mr Mugabe’s biographers.
“He never intended to share power. Over all these years, he has never budged.”
Mindful of Mr Mugabe’s knack for co-opting his enemies, Mr Tsvangirai, who demands explicit executive powers to take a new role as prime minister with Mr Mugabe taking a ceremonial position, stormed out of power-sharing talks in Harare a fortnight ago. According to part of a draft agreement passed to the Financial Times, executive authority would be shared between the premier, the president and the cabinet: “The prime minister shall report regularly to the president.”
Two people privy to the negotiations say Mr Tsvangirai is coming under “massive pressure” from regional leaders to sign up. At a recent summit the heads of state recommended that parliament be convened, ignoring objections from Mr Tsvangirai that many of his party’s MPs are in hiding fearing for their lives, effectively removing the majority won in the March elections.
Many expect Mr Mugabe’s next move will be to form a new government of his own choosing. Yet by delaying the inevitable, insisting after 28 years in power that he retain executive control, some argue he may be squandering his best remaining opportunity to influence the terms on which he and his principal henchmen eventually leave.
Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe is setting new world records – officially 11.2m per cent last week – making it ever tougher to control the vestiges of state power. Some question how the army will be paid at the month’s end. Hunger and disease are becoming prevalent.
“Mugabe wants to go out in a blaze of glory,” says Bella Matambanadzo of the Open Society Initiative in Harare.
“But as time goes by he is going to lose these strategic opportunities to prevent himself being unceremoniously removed.”
The power-sharing talks have touched on the thorny issue of an amnesty to coax Mr Mugabe into giving ground. However, the option of retirement was severely complicated by Mr Tsvangirai’s victory in March. That meant that Mr Mugabe faced being dependent on his old foe as the guarantor of any amnesty should he opt for a graceful exit. He is said to be preoccupied with the fate of Charles Taylor, the Liberian leader who accepted his peers’ promise of immunity from prosecution only to be handed over later to international justice to face war crimes charges.
Some people close to the power-sharing negotiations suggest that even if Mr Mugabe were prepared to stand aside, provided his legacy and liberty were assured, he would face dogged resistance from the handful of military men who would be left exposed to retribution for violence.
Ms Holland disagrees. “He believes he can defeat them all.”