Harare, Zimbabwe - Veteran strongman Robert Mugabe once said, apparently in jest, that he would rule Zimbabwe until he turned 100.
If Zimbabweans vote for a new constitution on March 16, he will not get the chance, but he may yet come very close.
Wednesday's unveiling of dates for a constitutional referendum and July elections set Mugabe up for another decade in power. The new basic law would allow Zimbabwe's president to run for the office again, and at two terms of five years each he could stay on as president until 2023, when he would be 99.
But he first faces another battle in his long, controversial and frequently bloody 32 years in power.
Mugabe, who turns 89 this month, is Africa's oldest ruler and is eyeing reelection in July polls that should end an uneasy unity government with his rival Morgan Tsvangirai.
Ahead of the vote Mugabe has been shoring up his hero status among the party faithful with hardline policies that have coloured his rule.
He recently championed a controversial law which forces foreign-owned firms to cede their majority shares to local people, and earlier drove thousands of white commercial farmers off their land.
The former teacher is known for his long-winded political speeches, punctuated with stinging criticism of his opponents, particularly Western countries.
His road to the top office has been marred with bloodshed.
In June 2008, he was re-elected to a sixth term after entering a presidential runoff uncontested.
Tsvangirai withdrew from the race citing state-sponsored violence against his supporters, including torture and killings.
The two later formed an uneasy power-sharing government.
Born on February 21, 1924, at Kutama Mission northwest of the capital Harare, Mugabe was described as a studious child and a loner.
He qualified as a teacher at the age of 17.
An intellectual who initially embraced Marxism, he took his first steps in politics after enrolling at Fort Hare University in South Africa.
There he met many of southern Africa's future black nationalist leaders.
He then resumed teaching, moving to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and later Ghana - whose founder president Kwame Nkrumah profoundly influenced the young intellectual.
As a member of various nationalist parties that were banned by the white-minority government, Mugabe was detained with other nationalist leaders in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.
But he used his incarceration to gather three degrees, including a law degree from London, through correspondence courses.
He also consolidated his position in the Zimbabwe African National Union in that period and emerged from prison in November 1974 as ZANU-PF leader. He then left for Mozambique, from where his banned party conducted a guerrilla war.
Economic sanctions and war forced Rhodesian leader Ian Smith to negotiate.
After that ZANU, which drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, swept to power in the 1980 election.
Mugabe also crushed dissent among the minority Ndebele people with his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in a campaign that killed an estimated 20,000 suspected “dissidents”.
In 2000 he launched controversial land reforms, driving out white farmers and seizing their land. Some white farmers were accused of joining forces with his Western foes in a campaign to topple him using the opposition as a front.
The implementation of land reform laws saw productive commercial farms redistributed to his cronies, army veterans and family members.
The chaotic process plunged the former regional breadbasket into a decade-long crisis, with most rural dwellers relying on food handouts.
Under pressure to end the crushing economic decline, which reduced the exchange rate to nothing and caused inflation to gallop to over 230 million percent, Mugabe entered into an agreement with Tsvangirai to form a unity government.
But four years on, the unity government has been hampered by disagreements over key economic policies and the slow progress of human rights reforms. - Sapa-AFP