TOMORROW President Mugabe turns 80. If tradition is anyt
hing to go by he will pretend to be surprised by his staff who will have provided an impressive cake which he will share with them and First Lady Grace.
The pattern doesn’t vary much from year to year. Soft drinks will be more in evidence than alcohol. Champagne is out.
A bigger birthday bash is planned for tomorrow at his rural home in Zvimba. Children are rounded up this time each year under the auspices of the 21st February Movement to sing praises to the nation’s omniscient leader.
The movement, with its red scarves, is rooted in the Stalinist creed of a dominant father figure at the head of a guiding party. It will studiously ignore the prevailing reality of hunger, deprivation and repression that have come to characterise Mugabe’s rule. In this respect it owes more to its North Korean inspiration than any African genesis.
Celebrated South African author Christopher Hope wrote about the lavish spending at Mugabe’s birthdays: “There has been no more mistimed consumption of cake in a hungry country since Marie Antoinette made the mistake of recommending it in 1789.”
Due to disastrous policies Zimbabwe has become a country of contradictions, led by well-fed leaders proclaiming equal opportunities for all to a majority populace surviving on the charity of international donors.
Responsibility has been cast directly on Mugabe’s misrule but he has often found other people to blame. Political analysts have said Mugabe, whose character revolves around the notion of infallibility, would like to leave the political scene as a revolutionary hero fulfilling an historic mission.
There have been stories of his failing health, which have been dismissed with contempt by his handlers. But one aspect which can no longer be disputed is that the octogenarian leader has lost the pre-millennium lustre, which only lives on in his dapper dressing. Critics and opponents believe Mugabe is shepherding the country down the wrong road as it cries out for alternative ideas to extricate it from the current abyss.
But with youthful resolve, Mugabe at 80 has finally decided to deal with corruption which has seen the appointment of a cabinet that is focused on fighting the scourge. The latest cabinet reshuffle saw the appointment of Didymus Mutasa as Anti-corruption minister and Webster Shamu as Minister of Policy Implementation. John Nkomo who is now Special Affairs minister responsible for Land Reform is expected to clean up the mess and corruption wrought about by the agrarian reform programme.
Gideon Gono who was appointed central bank governor in December last year has been given a free rein to put right the economy and deal with errant businesses, especially in the financial sector. The police have also been given teeth to deal with corruption in high places. Two high-profile Zanu PF politicians, Philip Chiyangwa and James Makamba, have been arrested and charged in the current blitz to root out “economic sabotage”.
This has become the clarion call for government spin-doctors determined to exonerate Mugabe and his allies from accusations of plunging the country into economic ruin — setting the platform for vote canvassing in the general election scheduled for early next year.
Political scientist and chairman of the Mass Public Opinion Institute Prof Gordon Chavunduka said Mugabe’s success in achieving his goal of ridding the country of corruption depended largely on the performance of his cabinet.
“He (Mugabe) says he can do it but we will have to wait and see,” said Chavunduka. “Whether he is effective or not depends on the other people — the ministers around him.”
Chavunduka said Mugabe could be using the anti-corruption drive to campaign for the 2005 election.
“Normally we would welcome and support any moves to fight corruption, a lot of countries are doing it. But in this country it is clearly for election purposes and we are not happy about that,” said Chavunduka.
Phil Matsheza of the Human Rights Research and Documentation Trust of Southern Africa said the institutional framework which the government has put in place to fight corruption was not consistent with best practices in the region. He said the common practice was to set up independent anti-corruption units and not a whole ministry.
“There is already the Ministry of Home Affairs,” said Matsheza. “Is the new ministry going to have arresting powers or will it be there to create policy? There is already a Justice ministry doing that. So what does that new ministry do?” he asked.
“We do not think that anything has changed much in terms of the institutions to fight corruption,” he said.
Apart from electioneering Mugabe should use the anti-graft drive to convince international financiers — who have for the past five years turned their backs on Zimbabwe — that the instruments of government were in the process of rehabilitation.
Diplomats this week said international donors would want the ruling aristocracy to declare the sources of their immense wealth and account for budgetary allocations.
“There is not going to be immediate applause from Western countries,” said a diplomat.
“We want to see more evidence that Mugabe is serious about this. Do you not feel it is intriguing that he is starting to fight corruption now when everyone has been talking about it for more than a decade?” he said.
Other observers have also been quick to point out that Mugabe’s use of the anti-corruption drive as an election campaign gambit faces problems along the way. It is generally believed there are many among his government who are laden with ill-gotten wealth.
Political scientist Richard Cornwell in a statement on the South African Regional Poverty Network last year said the issue of Mugabe’s departure from the political scene and dealing with corruption were intertwined.
“Certainly within the ruling party there are those who wish to see President Mugabe stay on at virtually any cost, so much are their own political and personal fortunes contingent upon his survival,” said Cornwell.
“Yet there are others who have managed to acquire considerable capital at little cost in the economic maelstrom, and who now desire a return to some sort of normality in order to enjoy their riches. How long can the fractures in the edifice of the ruling party be papered over?”
To put plaster on the perceived cracks, Mugabe has surrounded himself with more cheerleaders to applaud his every step towards the inevitable end of his career. In the name of a cabinet reshuffle Mugabe has resuscitated some dead wood, finding places for them on the crowded chessboard.
In 1998 Mugabe charged at a central committee meeting that there was a lot of dead wood among senior members of the party and government. But those discarded as dead wood have been recycled and are back.
The cabinet reshuffle was long overdue, not only because of the poor performance of some of the players, but because it was seen as an opportunity for Mugabe to trim his bloated government which the fiscus cannot sustain.
While reshuffling his cabinet could have improved his sagging popularity, political analysts point out that this could have created new problems.
There are many in his party who would like to share some cake with him. But will they deliver after the festivities?