AFTER being asked to write an opinion piece by South Africa’s Drum magazine on why President Robert Mugabe and others had split from the Joshua Nkomo-led Zapu to form Zanu in 1963, Nathan Shamuyarira quickly said: “A good leader travels less and spends more time with his people.”
Shamuyarira, a national hero who died in June 2014, could be turning in his grave, what with the ever-increasing globetrotting that Mugabe, who eventually took over the Zanu leadership in 1977, is undertaking at a time the economy is underperforming and Zimbabweans are living in abject poverty.
Despite Mugabe having endorsed a Look East policy where he wants Zimbabwe to follow the Chinese development model, the ageing leader has not taken a cue from the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CPC), which swiftly punishes government leaders for extravagance.
In 2014, CPC told its members to embrace austerity measures after a series of embarrassing revelations about extravagant business trips. Several ruling party and government officials were fired and asked to return public funds they had spent on luxuries while travelling abroad.
These included officials from the southern province of Guangdong who went on a two-week trip around Africa and the Middle East that included a stay at the Burj al-Arab, a seven-star hotel in Dubai.
In December 2014, 23 officials from Zhejiang were fired and asked to return 650 000 yuan(US$98 805) cash they spent while visiting Niagara Falls, Las Vegas and the beaches of Hawaii.
Since then, several government and party officials have met similar fates for abusing public funds.
Closer home, recently elected Tanzanian President John Magufuli has introduced austerity measures including the cancellation of the country’s independence celebrations in a move aimed at cutting unnecessary public expenditure.
As part of cost cutting efforts, Magufuli has stopped his ministers from flying business class and using expensive vehicles.
In Malawi, although the move failed to help the former president Joice Banda win the presidential elections, she sold a presidential jet and 60 Mercedes limousines in a move applauded by a British cabinet minister as an example to other African leaders.
Banda said the money realised from the sale of the jet and cars would be channelled towards averting a hunger crisis in the country.
On the other hand Mugabe, who is currently in the Far East, last year spent in excess of US$33 million on foreign travels.
According to the 2015 budget estimates treasury allocated US$17,3 million for Mugabe’s travels, but the 91-year-old leader had by the first nine months of the year, overshot his travel budget, spending double what had been budgeted for.
In the first six months of 2015, Mugabe flew more than 220 000km after travelling to destinations such as Russia, the United States, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali, Japan, Indonesia, Zambia, Singapore, Botswana, Tanzania, South Africa and India.
Chinamasa has again allocated US$17,3 million for Mugabe’s trips in the 2016 budget.
Possibly taking a cue from Mugabe, his lieutenants have also been draining the fiscus because of their costly excursions.
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa only returned to assume the acting presidency this week after having spent 10 days with Mugabe in Dubai.
He reportedly hired a private jet for this trip whose costs are yet to be established. Not to be outdone, co-Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko is said to have also visited Mugabe in the Far East, taking a 29 member entourage.
The trips are set against the backdrop of a debilitating liquidity crunch that has seen Chinamasa allocate paltry amounts to critical sectors of the economy. The money allocated for Mugabe’s travel is equivalent to that given to the Industry and Commerce ministry in the 2016 budget.
Chinamasa also allocated small amounts to other key economic ministries such as Mines and Mining Development (US$5,9 million) and Small and Medium Enterprises and Co-operative Development (US$6,3 million) while Parliament got US$20,2 million for this year.
The extravagancy has however not been demonstrated in the foreign trips and holidays as evidenced by Mphoko’s long stay in the presidential suite at Rainbow Towers since his appointment in December 2014.
The government has also continued its tradition of buying expensive fuel guzzling cars for cabinet ministers and senior government officials, at a time it is struggling to pay civil servants.
Social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said: “Ours is a moribund, runaway, thoughtless regime that knows nothing about the real and pressing priorities of the poor and struggling masses. People want basic services; water, health, education, housing and food, which they can’t get as the broke and careless government cannot plan or allocate resources towards these needs.”
“But what do we get — a president and his family plus families of his vice presidents going to expensive destinations for holiday”.
He added that: “This country is facing three emergencies at this juncture, drought, economic collapse and political crisis. If we had a government that knows its role, the president and his deputies’ won’t be going to these expensive destinations for protracted holidays.
“The president should be here setting taskforces to address these emergences and putting in place measures to resolve the emergencies and mitigate the effects of these on the masses.”
Another social commentator Blessing Vava said: “Mugabe and his cabal are completely out of touch with reality, they do not care anymore about the state of the country.” But Mugabe and his colleagues remain unfazed and if anything, the party is set to continue when he jets back.
An extravagant bash, which is likely to cost US$800 000, is planned for next month to celebrate Mugabe’s 92nd birthday. That the celebrations will be held in the drought-stricken Masvingo province suggests that whoever chose the venue probably has the kind of sadistic streak that has echoes of France’s eighteenth century queen Marie Antoinette who achieved notoriety by mocking the plight of the starving masses.
Antoinette sealed her place in the annals of infamy by quipping “let them eat cake” after being informed that ordinary citizens were starving due to bread shortages.
And now in modern Zimbabwe just as it was in France when poor harvests in 1789 left people starring hunger in the face, Mugabe will be having his cake and eating it in the province which is said to be one of the hardest hit by the effects of a region-wide drought.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP) about 1,5 million Zimbabweans require urgent food aid.