Mugabe's travels

Jul 28, 2011

The furore over the amount and cost of traveling by President Mugabe sometimes descends into silliness, but there are also interesting things to be read into it about the state of his presidency.

Mugabe has always loved to travel. In the early days many countries and organizations considered it a great honor to host him, or to be hosted by him. He in turn loved to play the role of international statesman, picking up awards left, right and center.

All that is a distant memory now. The invitations are rare now, the high-profile visitors few. Mugabe stays on in power, but with greatly diminished 'prestige.' That is one of the costs of his controversial election 'win' of 2008. The many successes for which Zimbabwe was once widely admired have been wiped out, along with the accolades for the president that they came with. The brutality of his regime has been helpful to his continued hold on power, but at the cost of him being widely considered a nasty character to keep at a distance.

Mugabe certainly has his international admirers, but not many ruling ones that would want to be seen as close to him. Regional and continental 'solidarity' with him seems ever more forced and perfunctory, rather than voluntary and enthusiastic.        

The finance minister has frequently complained about the high amounts of government expenditure on international travel, at a time the government is said to be essentially 'broke.' Attention has been particularly focused on the president's office travel costs.

Mugabe has been to the Far East five times this year already, for reasons that are not well explained, but that many speculate have to do with health problems, his or his wife's, or that are related to visiting their college-going daughter. Once or twice they have been taken under the thin cover of attending an 'investment conference,' but few take this seriously.

The influence of his wife on his frequency of travel and his choice of destinations may be nothing more than speculation, but it certainly cannot be dismissed. It has been pointed out in some website comments sections that youngish Mrs. Grace Mugabe rarely visits African countries with her husband, but will almost never fail to accompany him to the shopping capitals of western countries that he still finds pretexts under which to visit, despite the travel ban on him by the EU and the US.

A few months ago the Mugabes and two of their sons were able to visit Rome under cover of attending a ceremony at the Vatican. Mugabe, wearing his now threadbare 'devout Roman Catholic' cloak, described the ritual as 'heavenly,' but it invited more ridicule even amongst Catholics than it did accolades. It is most unlikely that the Mugabes paid for this private trip themselves. Benefit to Zimbabwe? Zero.

But perhaps the most embarrassing recent trip of Mugabe's, 87, is this week's to New York to attend a conference of youths at the UN! Grace, no doubt as ''passionate'' about ''youth empowerment'' as her husband, eagerly went along for the junket. Along with them were the dozens of hangers-on that are always part of the presidential party, especially to such highly sought-after destinations. As many Zimbabweans have pointed out, this more than many others is a trip that was crying out for delegation, rather than personal attendance by the 'Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces,' no matter how much he may claim to love the youth!

Technically the Vatican is not part of the EU that has banned Mugabe's travel there, and trips to the UN are excepted from the US travel ban the Mugabes are under. But using such fig leaves to go where they are clearly not wanted has the impression of desperation. Why not just stay away from countries that don't want you, and that you have described as 'our enemies?' It is the blatant inconsistency that makes detractors crack rude jokes about the trips being little more than shopping trips to please members of the Mugabe household and hangers-on.

Those hangers-on can look forward to generous per diems while on these trips, and it is a chance to visit children abroad at state expense. On return, which customs official is going to ask the members of the presidential entourage to open their bags for inspection for duty purposes? So there are many reasons that have nothing to do with the stated purpose that these trips are so highly sought after.

The finance minister is mainly concerned about the costs of these trips, for a severely cash-strapped government. But perhaps more serious and worse is the message that Mugabe sends by going for even inappropriate meetings. The old aloofness from the day to day struggles of Zimbabweans is on display. The complete lack of respect for budgets has been a hallmark of his rule. The isolation and diminution of international attention and importance that makes the New York youth conference trip seem like a ''notice me, I am here'' cry for attention.             

The wasted money and time spent on these trips may be minor compared to the less obvious signs of decline that they suggest.


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