HARARE - As the world's oldest head of state approaches his 93rd birthday on Tuesday, Zimbabwe has been planning a party for thousands of people in honor of President Robert Mugabe. For weeks, state television has led its broadcasts with tributes.
But those closest to Mugabe, who has led this southern African nation for nearly four decades, appear to be finally looking ahead to a future without him, amid uncertainty.
The ruling ZANU-PF party has already endorsed Mugabe as its candidate in next year's election, and the president has declared that he would like to live until he's 100 and rule for life.
In an interview published Sunday ahead of his birthday, Mugabe said he wasn't ready to step down, adding that he would not groom a successor either.
"A successor is groomed by the people. The majority of the people feel that there is no replacement; a successor who to them is acceptable, as acceptable as I am," he was quoted as saying by the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper.
Analysts say recent statements by his wife, however, might be more telling as Mugabe shows signs of slowing down.
Headlining her first political rally in months on Friday, first lady Grace Mugabe spoke to a crowd of thousands not about the birthday celebrations but about the possibility of her husband's death.
"If God decides to take him, then we would rather field him as a corpse" in the upcoming election, she said. "We will put his name on the ballot paper just to show that people love their president."
The first lady has previously said she would get her husband a wheelchair if necessary and push it for him so that he can continue to rule.
Attention, however, is on a post-Mugabe scenario, said political analyst Alexander Rusero.
In the event of the president's death, resignation or incapacity, the first vice-president takes over for the remainder of the term, according to the constitution.
The catch is that Zimbabwe has two vice presidents. Both belong to bitterly opposing factions and neither is designated as the official first vice president.
This could mean a messy succession, say legal experts.
"But then, that is how Mugabe has played it all along, ensuring that his succession remains a mystery by playing one faction against the other," said Gabriel Shumba, a human rights lawyer and chairman of the South Africa-based Zimbabwe Exiles Forum. "It may have served him well, but the downside is that Zimbabwe will be plunged into horrible uncertainty once he is gone."
Mugabe has led the ZANU-PF party since 1975 and has been the country's leader since 1980, when Zimbabwe attained independence from white minority rule.
Admired as a statesman during the early years of independence for reconciling with the country's former colonizers, Mugabe later became an international pariah following alleged human rights abuses and electoral irregularities.
The country's once-prosperous economy is imploding, bringing more pressure from the opposition and frustration from a restless population.
The government has failed to pay salaries on time since June, public hospital doctors are on strike and cash shortages are driving the economy to the edge. Nationwide protests broke out last year, rallied via social media.
Amid these troubles, it is the political uncertainty that has caused the most concern. Even the president has grumbled. "Some are busy plotting succession in the party, they say: `When will this old man die? He is refusing to die," he said in November.
A key figure in the succession talk is Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is also justice minister and an associate of Mugabe dating to the guerrilla war against minority rule in what was then Rhodesia.
Then there is ``G40,'' short for Generation 40, a group of younger ruling party members that is associated with Mugabe's 51-year-old wife.
Grace Mugabe has said she has no plans to be president. But recent statements by the party's youth leader, who is closely associated to her, that Mugabe should only be replaced by a Mugabe has fueled speculation that she could be positioning herself to take power.
Grace Mugabe has been raising her political profile, headlining rallies where she donates tons of clothing, rice and cooking oil.
"When you are cooking, always remember this delicious food came from mother," she said on Friday.