HARARE – Yesterday marked about thirty-six days since President Robert Mugabe took leave and went on his controversial Far East holiday, amid a rising chorus of criticism of the nonagenarian’s continued absence.
Although unconfirmed reports suggested at the weekend that Mugabe would finally be back in the country today or tomorrow, what has upset many Zimbabweans is the fact that the country’s myriad challenges have worsened by the day in his absence, largely as a result of his ruling Zanu PF party’s escalating factional and succession wars.
Analysts who spoke to the Daily News yesterday bemoaned the fact that neither the “World War Three” that had erupted in his party in his absence, nor the country’s worsening economic environment, as well as disasters such as the recent floods, had motivated the nonagenarian to come back home.
Mugabe flew out of the country on December 14 last year and had not been reported to be back by early evening yesterday, leading one analyst to remark that he had “earned himself a significant place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only head of State who spends so much time on holiday outside his own country”.
Since Mugabe was barred from travelling to Europe more than a decade ago, he has been enjoying lengthy and costly State-funded holidays in the Far East, while back home people are wallowing in abject poverty — with his current break noted as one of the longest he has had in years.
It has not helped the national mood that Mugabe has never been reported to have spent his annual break either at home or even on the continent — despite his strong Pan-African rhetoric.
And the fact that Mugabe, who is the chairman of Sadc, had been conspicuous by his absence from the recent inauguration of the new Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, had also ignited speculation around his whereabouts, health and political game plan.
Nyusi was sworn in as independent Mozambique’s fourth president on Thursday last week, following Frelimo’s contested election victory last October — with opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama boycotting the ceremony and insisting that last year’s vote was fraudulent.
Analysts who spoke to the Daily News yesterday said unless Mugabe was physically not well enough to resume duty, it reflected poorly on him that “everything in the country was going the wrong way and yet the country’s chief executive officer” did not feel moved to come back to try and mitigate the nation’s myriad crises.
Among the problems bedevilling the country is the worsening economic situation across the board, as well as the deteriorating political climate in the country, spawned by escalating infighting within his ruling party that the analysts say is set to worsen the country’s desperate plight.
Shakespeare Hamauswa, a political scientist, said any “level-headed and patriotic citizen” would expect Mugabe to come back and deal with the challenges bedevilling Zimbabwe, especially considering that acting President Emmerson Mnangagwa was new to the job and battling to rise up to the challenges of the office.
Mcdonald Lewanika, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition director, weighed in and said history had sadly shown that there were few things that could come “between Mugabe and his retreats to the Far East”.
“While Mugabe, like everyone else, deserves to rest, it betrays his ‘I don’t care’ attitude when he earns this rest and enjoys himself when the country is plagued by a humanitarian, economic and political crisis needing urgent leadership for redress,” he said.
Lewanika added that it also appeared as if the recent challenge to his leadership by prominent Zanu PF members such as former Presidential Affairs minister Didymus Mutasa did not pressure Mugabe to cut his holiday short, as this challenge presented an opportunity for him to have “the powers of his vice presidents checked rather than consolidated”.
“Secondly, Mugabe thrives on confusion and contradictions, which take peoples’ focus away from real issues to minor ones, which the Mutasa case is. It is an internal party challenge, a political fight which should not sway Zimbabweans’ attention from demanding that he addresses bread and butter issues,” he said.
Dewa Mavhinga, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said it was pointless for Zimbabweans to wish that Mugabe cuts short his holiday to address the issues confronting the nation.
“The truth of the matter is that there is little difference whether Mugabe is in the country or in Singapore. Effectively, the country has been on auto-pilot for a long time now.
“Instead of calling for Mugabe to return to duty, we should be thinking seriously about facilitating a constitutional process through which Mugabe, who turns 91 next month, is retired from government to enable him to be permanently on holiday if he so wishes,” Mavhinga said.
“We must stop behaving like Mugabe. The same person who has presided over our political and economic demise has no solutions to offer Zimbabwe. We must wake up and smell the coffee and think post-Mugabe,” he added.
Mavhinga said the fact that Mugabe was on this prolonged holiday was testimony enough that he needed to retire and rest.
“The government that he leads set compulsory retirement age for civil servants at 65 years for a reason. We are all mortal and there is no escaping that,” he said.
Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme said no right-thinking president would leave his country in the current state to an acting president, as it was akin to “running on auto pilot”.
“The truth is that the president is turning 91 in a few weeks’ time. He is now of an advanced age and needs a break.
“That he is on some supposed holiday or leave when his country is burning and his party is in total chaos begs us to think that all is not well with him and points to his growing inability to run the country at that age,” Saungweme said.
He added that government was literally “at a stand-still” owing to the brutal infighting in Zanu PF.
“Recently, many people died due to floods. These issues alone in other normal countries would demand the full attention of the head of state.
“If it were other countries, he would have cut his break short instead of leaving all these challenges to an acting president who has shown that he is incapable of running the business of a country.
“Look at what (Vice President Emmerson) Mnangagwa is doing, he is busy fighting (former vice president Joice) Mujuru and Mutasa and making very serious bluffs with his government’s supposed allies.
“With a government that is trying to look East, how could he liken Grace Mugabe to an atomic bomb, carelessly saying that as an acting head of State at the expense of losing the sympathy and support of a progressive country like Japan,” he said — referring to Mnangagwa’s address at a recent Zanu PF meeting in Gweru, where running to town praising Grace for her “sterling contributions” to the party.
“The women in the party approached the First Lady Amai Grace Mugabe and requested that she comes over and lead them. We were not involved and twice she refused. They continued pestering her until she relented.
“We did not know at the time that President Robert Mugabe was keeping a political atomic bomb at his house. She is like that bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War,” Mnangagwa said controversially.
Many critics sledged Mnangagwa’s metaphor as grossly inappropriate and said this risked upsetting Zimbabwe’s otherwise cordial diplomatic relations with Japan.