ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Zimbabwe has had just one leader in the 36 years since the country became independent from Britain and the end of white minority rule - that leader, President Robert Mugabe, who has held near total power. He is now 92 years old and has periodically hinted at retirement on his terms. He raised the issue again a few days ago. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton was just in Zimbabwe and joins us now from London.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.
SHAPIRO: How did Robert Mugabe bring up this issue of retirement this time?
QUIST-ARCTON: Well, he was talking to a group of war veterans. And of course, they fought the independence struggle along with President Mugabe, who was the political head of the struggle. And apparently, he hinted that he would retire but, quotes, "properly."
QUIST-ARCTON: So it's not really clear what properly means and when that might be for this nonagenarian leader, as you say, that most Zimbabweans - because most Zimbabweans are young, that's the only leader they've ever known.
SHAPIRO: As people try to interpret what that means, are they also scrambling to find a successor?
QUIST-ARCTON: That's been going on for quite a while. The succession battle within President Mugabe's governing ZANU-PF party and without - that's been going hammer and tongs for quite a while. And every so often, you get President Mugabe rapping them on the knuckles and saying, hey, I may be 92, but I'm still here. And that is the - one of the real problems in Zimbabwe. Who are these heirs apparent, and is Zimbabwe ready for a transition in the post-Mugabe era? That is what many people worry about.
SHAPIRO: Is there a chance that a post-Mugabe era could lead to a more open, democratic Zimbabwe?
QUIST-ARCTON: Yes, no, no, yes, yes, no - Ari, who's to know? But there is jostling for power now. The thing is, will this be an organized transition, or will, as we've seen elsewhere in Africa, be a transfer of power where there has been no chosen successor and things get even worse?
SHAPIRO: What might he do if he does retire?
QUIST-ARCTON: Should we let, perhaps, President Mugabe reply to this because, as we have said, he hinted about retirement. And in 2013, this is what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROBERT MUGABE: I am an educationist. I'm an economist. I am a politician. I am also now a good storyteller, you know?
MUGABE: I would spend my time telling stories or writing them.
SHAPIRO: Storyteller - huh? - after 36 years in power.
QUIST-ARCTON: Many, many stories to tell when you're 92. Now, President Mugabe has said, Ari, also that if the Zimbabwean people want him to, he will stand again in elections that are due in 2018 when he will be 94. But this year, there has been a huge challenge to his authority, especially among young Zimbabweans. We have what they call the hashtag revolution - the hashtag activists, who have been on the streets and online saying Mugabe must go. Go gently, old man, grandfather, and you will have a legacy. But if you don't go now, we are going to make sure that we push you out democratically.
SHAPIRO: NPR Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Thank you as always.
QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.