JUST like in 2015, President Robert Mugabe demonstrated even more this year that he is less concerned about settling at home to deal with critical issues affecting the economy such as the liquidity and cash crisis, choosing instead to spend 2016 globe-trotting while the country was burning.
By Hazel Ndebele
The president has been outside the country on countless occasions, either attending private business or pointless summits, at a time the government is virtually bankrupt. His travels do not only waste time and resources, but also cost the country whose economy continues to deteriorate and citizens continue to suffer from his misrule.
Critics say Mugabe seems comfortable with ruling the country from a distance—or from the air—and this is evidenced by his eagerness to attend any event he is invited to as long as he gets the chance to fly out the country. He could easily pass for the most travelled head of state in the world. Mugabe, who will be 93 in two months’ time, has since earned the moniker “visiting leader” from his critics.
Despite the fact that he has been battling old age and ill health, Mugabe does not show signs of slowing down on travel, although he has a hands-off approach in governmnet. Mugabe frequently travels to Singapore for treatment at the state-of-the-art Gleneagles Hospital, shunning rundown local health facilities his government destroyed. His absentee stewardship paralyses government business and owing to his autocratic leadership style, everything literally comes to a standstill when he is away.
In the first six months of 2016, Mugabe clocked 200 000 kilometres in the air and used over US$80 million in his travels compared to US$33 million in nine months in 2015. He has been to Singapore more than 10 times this year alone.
While the police force was locked in running battles with Zimbabweans protesting his failed leadership and policies that have plunged the nation into economic ruin, the nonagenarian left for Kenya on August 26 to attend the Tokyo International Conference on African Development. Mugabe’s trip coincided with the National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera) mega demonstration demanding that his regime fixes the ailing economy and effect electoral reforms before the 2018 elections.
He was, however, not bothered by the clashes as he continued with his trip. At a press briefing before his departure, Mugabe said “even if our economy is not doing well, do you have to go in the streets and even burn some of those very little shops that people are depending on? Burn their cars in the streets, burn their shops, do you have to do that to gain power?”
Instead of addressing the nation on the urgent issues which were being raised by the opposition and ordinary Zimbabweans, he proved his insensitivity by flying away from the burning Zimbabwe. The 92-year-old leader’s misplaced priorities reflect his attitude towards the economic crisis characterised by a debilitating liquidity crunch, low capacity utilisation, company closures and massive job losses.
Upon his return, Mugabe spent just a night before flying out to Swaziland on August 29. He returned at 7:44pm the following day and was in the country for only five hours before flying out to Dubai on private business. He returned on September 3 and was in the country for nine days before jetting out again on September 12 to Zambia for President Edgar Lungu’s inauguration.
Incredibly, Mugabe spent a night in Harare before leaving around midnight on September 15 for the moribund Non-Aligned Movement talk-shop in Venezuela, which is just as bankrupt as Zimbabwe. Soon after that, he attended the United Nations General Assembly in the United States where he pleaded with the West for the relaxation of sanctions.
Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme said Mugabe has never prioritised solving the country’s problems, but self-aggrandisement and power politics.
“Mugabe made headlines travelling globally even to events where other countries were sending junior ministers. He made headlines for falling (in 2015), while coming from one of his many international trips. He is 92. What do you expect from a 92-year-old, a person without a future? Indeed, travelling abroad becomes a hobby for any 92-year-old who can afford it,” he said.
“Travelling for any 92-year-old is an opportunity to see more of the world before meeting their creator. We will be so naive as Zimbabweans to have pinned hopes on a 92-year-old to prioritise real issues facing the country. He is just too old to fully understand himself and manage himself, what are more managing a country. Why must we think he could manage the country?”
Although Mugabe rarely turns down foreign invitations, in September he snubbed Botswana President Ian Khama who invited him to attend Botswana’s 50th independence celebrations.
A hurt and disappointed Mugabe cancelled the trip after Khama told an international news agency, Reuters, that it was time the Zimbabwean leader steps down due to old age. Departing from normal diplomatic etiquette, Khama said Mugabe had overstayed in power and was now a liability to Zimbabwe and the Sadc region.
A week later, though, Mugabe attended Lesotho’s 50th independence anniversary, showing he had boycotted the Botswana celebrations in protest against Khama’s remarks.
Economist and MDC-T MP for Bulawayo South Eddie Cross pointed out that the amount of money spent on foreign travel by Mugabe’s office is disproportionately high.
“The expenses on travel show an administration which completely cows to the President. Whatever funds the President demands, he gets no matter how much there is available,” Cross said.
He noted that the amount spent on trips is excessive, considering how broke the government is as evidenced by their failure to adequately fund vital programmes such as the fight against corruption and the Basic Education Assistance Module (Beam), meant to fund the education of under-privileged children.
The failure by government to adequately fund Beam has resulted in thousands of children dropping out of school while Mugabe was gallivanting.