THE stage is set for President Robert Mugabe’s celebrations at the scenic Great Zimbabwe Monuments tomorrow where, as per the norm, there will be an abundance of food and drink with Zanu PF stalwarts outdoing each other to fawn assiduously over the only leader the country has known since Independence in 1980.
However, the celebrations, which are expected to cost a staggering US$800 000, will ironically be held in a province that is hardest hit by a prolonged dry spell that has resulted in massive crop failure.
Some people in the province are surviving on wild fruits, due to food shortages, meaning the feast will be held in a sea of poverty and strife.
Mugabe will be celebrating his birthday and spending close to a million United States dollars in the same month he has declared a state of disaster because of the El Nino-induced drought, leading to many questions over the wisdom of such expenditure.
The US$800 000 to be spent for the day’s event, can be used to purchase 2 666 tonnes of maize at the stipulated Grain Marketing Board (GMB) price of US$300 per tonne.
The amount can also pay salaries of 2 105 civil servants who earn US$380, which is what the lowest paid employee in government earns. The amount to be used to feast and make merry could also go a long way to equip the country’s state hospitals with much-needed medicines and help desperate patients, who in some cases cannot get essential drugs like painkillers from the hospitals.
The celebrations are being held at a time the economy is imploding as evidenced by the tight liquidity squeeze, low capacity utilisation of 34,3%, company closures and massive job losses. Already 800 workers have entered into 2016 jobless after companies they worked for in the textile, food and furniture sectors failed to reopen after the Christmas holidays.
This is in addition to the estimated 30 000 employees who were rendered jobless last year after the July 17 Supreme Court ruling that allowed employers to dismiss workers on three months’ notice without paying a retrenchment package.
The bash being held as three million Zimbabweans face starvation is an obscenity, according to economist and Bulawayo South MP Eddie Cross.
“Frankly, I think it’s obscene to hold such celebrations especially in Masvingo province which is one of the hardest hit by the drought,” Cross said. “US$800 000 is a lot of money and a complete waste of resources. Infact when you include other costs, such as that of security, needed it could go up to as much as US$2 million.”
Cross said if Mugabe was alive to the plight of millions facing hunger, he would cancel the event and marshal the resources to areas which are most in need such as fighting hunger and buying medication for hospitals.
Opposition parties have expressed their horror at the skewed priorities of organising an expensive feast amid a myriad of problems the country is facing.
Former finance minister and Mavambo/ Kusile/ Dawn leader Simba Makoni said it would be cruel and insensitive for Mugabe to feast on a 92kg cake amid poverty and hunger in the country.
“Our dear leader is preparing a big birthday bash, with a 92kg cake, in Masvingo province among starving people,” he said. “How cruel and uncaring at a time the chiefs and headmen in those areas are appealing for food assistance, and for ways of saving their dying livestock.”
MDC-T spokesperson Obert Gutu weighed in: “Just imagine how many tonnes of maize can be bought using the US$800 000 budgeted for Mugabe’s birthday bash in Masvingo.”
In a statement, MDC formation led by former Industry minister Welshman Ncube said it was appalled at Mugabe’s lack of empathy for ordinary Zimbabweans.
“When the government claims that it is broke and failing to pay teachers, nurses and doctors on time, industries operating below 30% capacity utilisation, unemployment rate reaching an unprecedented 90%, the majority of the population living below the poverty datum line, the national debt is above US$10 billion and growing, it is incomprehensible that one man can still be gobbling up huge amounts of money on foreign travel, vacations and birthday gigs,” said the party.
The waste of resources to celebrate Mugabe’s birthday is also reflected by struggling parastatals that have splashed money on colourful birthday messages to Mugabe in the press. This is at a time they are struggling to keep their heads above water as reflected by their failure to pay workers.
GMB, for example, is splurging on adverts at a time it has failed to pay 1 200 workers who were dismissed using the July 17 2015 Supreme Court ruling. Some of the affected workers have resorted to camping outside GMB offices to force payment of their dues.
Hwange Colliery Company posted an operating loss of US$48 million with employees going for 30 months without being paid. Frustrations at the colliery have intensified with some workers staging a sit in to press for their salaries. The dire state of affairs however has not stopped the company from adding a further strain on resources by forking out much needed cash on wishing Mugabe a happy birthday.
It is a similar case for struggling entities such as the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company and the National Railways of Zimbabwe that spent money on Mugabe birthday messages while their employees are scrounging for a living after going for months without a pay cheque.
The resources channeled to celebrating Mugabe’s 92nd birthday is a disgrace according to economist John Robertson.
“With such a shortage of cash in the country and a lot of hungry people, the celebrations are actually a disgrace,” Robertson said. “This is just one disgraceful act to add to a long list of other disgraceful things they do. It is an extravagance that is beyond any justification.”
Robertson said the US$800 000 being spent to celebrate Mugabe’s birthday could pay a year’s school fees for 1 000 disadvantaged children.