“WHY doesn’t he just permanently settle in Singapore and occasionally come to visit Zimbabwe”, a reader facetiously remarked as officials this week revealed that President Robert Mugabe had again travelled to the Southeast Asian city-state for another of his “routine” eye check-ups.
The quip was borne out of concern that Mugabe’s “routine eye check-ups” seem to require all too frequent and costly travel to far away Singapore.
There is also incredulity at the insistence by top aides that the 90 year-old would so regularly endure the 10,000 mile round trip on Air Zimbabwe’s equally aged and creaky aircraft merely to have his eyes attended to.
Mugabe travelled to Singapore in June last year ahead of the July general elections. And, having taken his annual vacations there after falling out with the West, it was no surprise that he went back towards the end of November.
After the annual holiday, Mugabe returned to Harare mid-January only to fly out again mid-February – for another routine procedure, his aides explained. He would return home in time for his 90th birthday celebrations and the wedding of daughter, Bona.
Top aides dismiss reports that Mugabe has for years battled serious health challenges – quite possibly prostate cancer – insisting he is in fine fettle for a man his age.
Mugabe also bates away the media speculation with derision, but the frequent trips to Singapore and other equally telling signs leave many unconvinced.
The latest trip comes after he admitted (speaking with evident difficulty) during an interview with the ZBC that he had a few issues “here and there … the left knee is beginning to give a bit of trouble”. That was in addition to the matter of the cataracts.
Ahead of last year’s elections, the Zanu PF leader gave an interview to the world’s media on the eve of the vote, flanked by then defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa and presidential spokesman George Charamba.
But as he sat to down to speak to reporters at State House, Mugabe’s trousers rose to reveal abnormally bloated ankles which health experts suggested could be a sign of either heart or kidney trouble.
Meanwhile, the trips to Singapore are also curious in another respect. Mugabe always returns home with a visage as smooth as that of a new-born baby, to the envy of other nonagenarians who, expectedly, look like prunes – gaunt and hollow-cheeked.
“The secret has to be Botox,” one medical expert told international media years ago, leading to the now common sobriquet “Botox Bob”.
But with the economy continuing to struggle and the government, so far, unable to raise the billions of dollars needed to finance its ZimAsset blue print, observers are beginning to ask whether Mugabe still has the energy to provide the hands-on leadership needed to force Zimbabwe out of its current mire.
Although Mugabe appoints Joice Mujuru as acting head of state in his absence, the deputy president is as ineffectual as when her boss is around because the Zanu PF leader travels with all executive authority. Cabinet, for instance, would never dare meet in his absence.
Commenting on his latest jaunt abroad, analysts said it was clear Mugabe was no longer fit enough to effectively lead both the government and the country.
Southern Africa Political and Economic Series (SAPES) Trust head, Ibbo Mandaza, told the weekly Independent newspaper that it was time the country discussed the question of whether or not Mugabe was now “incapacitated” to remain head of state.
Said Mandaza: “The question which Zimbabweans and the media should be answering now is: At which stage is one regarded as being incapacitated and who decides whether one is incapacitated or not? Is it parliament, is it another body?”
“That is what parliament should be seized with. I would say that anyone at 90 is incapacitated and should not be in a public office. The question is why should one continue for so long; what are the circumstances that warrant such a long stay?”
University political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure told the same newspaper that it would be in the interests of the country for Mugabe to step down at Zanu PF party’s congress in December.
“Zimbabwe is in a limbo. No one is in charge to steer the country away from the precipitous fall which it is about to plunge into,” said Masunungure.
“We have to bear in mind that leading a country is a heavy burden for anyone. Look at Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria. At 56 he is crumbling under the weight of problems but add 30 more years in Mugabe’s situation and you see the task he faces.
Zimbabwe in limbo
“Zimbabwe needs someone to run it with energy and mental and physical stamina. At 90, I don’t think he has the stamina that is needed for a country with so many problems.
“Those close to him should have advised him it was time to take it easy, but they are either too selfish or too timid to do so.”
Mugabe has led Zanu PF since the late 1970s and the country since Independence in 1980, along the way dealing ruthlessly and decisively with any threat to his stranglehold on power whether from within or outside the party.
Following last year’s crushing election victory against main rival Morgan Tsvangirai, the veteran leader indicated he would serve out his new five year term with ever-eager-to-please top lieutenants such as presidential affairs minister Didymus Mutasa adding that he could well stay on beyond his current term.
However, Mugabe hinted in a recent interview with the BBC that he might consider handing over power when his new term ends in 2018.
“I have people in mind who would want to be (president),” Mugabe told the BBC.
“But I have looked at them. I have not come to any conclusion as to which one, really, should be.
“I leave it to the choice of people. Perhaps when we get close to the election I will have some in mind.”
Mnangagwa and Mujuru have long been considered the leading candidates to take over, although both, aware of the certain dire political consequences that follow any open and active canvassing for the top job, advisedly demure at the suggestion.
The French government has said it will soon be resuming direct funding to the ruling ZANU PF government, as western efforts to re-engage with the Mugabe regime intensify. The bilateral cooperation is set to resume November, French envoy to Zimbabwe, Laurent Delahousse told a civil society delegates at a post-election review conference in Bulawayo over the weekend. “The donor community, the European Union in general and my country in particular will continue to lend support to Zimbabwe through the European Development Fund, provided the government of Zimbabwe agrees,” the Daily News quoted the French envoy as saying.
Decades of corruption and economic mismanagement at the hands of ZANU PF have destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy, which the party is failing to revive despite the recent discovery of diamonds and the extensive mineral resources in the country. ZANU PF Minister of Finance Patrick Chinamasa declared his government broke soon after his party assumed total control through a disputed poll last year.
Although the West condemned the “deeply flawed” poll, there have been deliberate moves to re-engage and normalise relations with ZANU PF, starting with the calibrated removal of targeted sanctions against the Mugabe regime. This has paved the way for the West to begin giving money directly to Zimbabwe or to adopt various economic turnaround projects that should be the responsibility of the ZANU PF government.
In recent months western donors have announced copious amounts of funds in support of the ZANU PF government, reminiscent of post-war rebuilding efforts. On Wednesday the government received a financial bail-out worth $53 million, and of this amount $35 million is funded by Australia, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Switzerland. On Tuesday, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation gave the Zim government a grant of $9 million to boost livestock production in Matabeleland North.
About two weeks ago the Swedish government gave the labour Ministry $15 million to assist children in the country. This financial commitment is not tied to any specific programme and, according to Sweden’s Envoy Zim Lars Ronnas, the ZANU PF government can use the money as it sees fit. Britain recently gave $10 million to enable the country’s poor children to access basic education.
Political and economic analyst Rejoice Ngwenya said Zimbabwe does not need the financial resources that western countries are pouring into the country. “African countries like Zimbabwe are well resourced to transform and develop their own economic turnaround programmes. Zimbabwe has sufficient resources for that but lacks policy consistency because those in government have a mentality to plunder.” “We are already saddled with a $10 billion debt and rather than indebting ourselves further, we need to redeploy our local resources intelligently and this way we will be more committed to our own transformation.” This includes a demonstrable commitment to respecting private property rights, and an end to expropriations policies in the form of indigenisation, said Ngwenya. Ngwenya said the grants that Zimbabwe was receiving from donors created a mentality of benevolence and laziness, adding that it was clear that many European countries were now looking at Zimbabwe with a long-term viewpoint.
“Mugabe and his party will not be here forever and so the West is positioning itself for when that time comes and it’s very clever of them to do this. “While nothing has changed at the moment in terms of government legitimacy and accountability, Western countries can see that the future is bright and they are moving to secure a place in Zimbabwe for their own businesses,” he added.