PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe has been airborne for a staggering 140 000 kilometres, just five months into the year as the Zanu PF leader’s foreign trips continue to bleed the economy.
BY RICHARD CHIDZA
Now derisively referred to as the “airborne” or “expatriate” president in some circles, 91-year-old Mugabe has since the tail-end of 2014 been to the Far East five times and visited five African capitals in what could be a world record travel for a serving head of state.
Mugabe has made over 10 trips since his return from annual leave on January 21. He spent his holiday in Singapore and Hong-Kong as usual. Barely three days after arrival from annual leave, Mugabe was in Zambia to witness the inauguration of President Edgar Lungu. Lusaka is 471 km from Harare by air, which translates to almost 1 000 km for a return trip.
Before the ink was dry on his Lusaka plane ticket, Mugabe was off again three days later, this time to Addis Ababa for the African Union (AU) summit where he became the continental body chairman, flying just over 9 000 km in the process. He returned on February 4 and was to leave to pick up his ailing wife First Lady Grace from Singapore, travelling 16 500km.
In between, the Zimbabwean leader had tripped and fallen at the Harare International Airport after reportedly sticking his foot into a misplaced carpet as he walked off the podium on his return from Ethiopia.
Two weeks later, Mugabe was in South Africa to attend the Sadc Troika on Lesotho before flying out to Tokyo, Japan on March 10 and returning on March 17, a distance of 25 600km on the return to Harare.
He has been to Zimbabwe’s southern neighbour twice since then, bringing the distance travelled to SA to 4 500km.
On March 29 and unfazed by growing criticism by Zimbabweans and opponents of his regime over his costly foreign travels, Mugabe left for Tanzania, some 2 421 km away. He had spent less than 48 hours in the country following his state visit to Algeria — almost 23 000km travelled in less than a week. From Tanzania he was to proceed to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, clocking 6 300 km on his return home after attending the 18th summit of the Community for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa).
Mugabe was invited to Tanzania to speak at a symposium in Arusha, organised by the youth league of that country’s ruling, Chama Cha Mapinduzi party.
Political analyst Pedzisai Ruhanya said while Mugabe’s travelling has become legendary since he assumed power in 1980, the opposition was to blame.
“The opposition is in disarray; in comatose and has dismally failed to make Mugabe accountable. They have failed to make him see the folly of endless travelling against the benefits of staying at home in the midst of an economic crisis,” said Ruhanya.
Days after his April 8 state visit to South Africa, Mugabe flew out to the Indonesian capital Jakarta, 16 600km away, to attend the Asia-Africa Summit as well as a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the so-called Bandung conference which preceded the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement.
He is currently in Moscow, 16 400km to and from, for celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 11.
In between Mugabe has also been to Namibia (3 700km) for the inauguration of that country’s President Hage Geingob on Mach 22.
In total, Mugabe will by the time he returns from Moscow have travelled in the air for close to 140 000 km, spending a staggering 300 hours which translates to just about two weeks in the plane.
If conservatively a week is allocated on each of Mugabe’s major trips, the President would have been away from the country for about two months in the first four months of 2015.
Opposition MDC-T spokesperson Obert Gutu said Mugabe had surpassed the average airline pilot’s flying time.
“Robert Mugabe has flown more hours than the average commercial airline pilot in the world. We strongly condemn the reckless and selfish wastage of limited state funds on these useless foreign jamborees. Just imagine what $50 million could do to the provision of drugs in hospitals and rural clinics. Mugabe no longer stays in Zimbabwe but has become a constant visitor,” Gutu said.
MDC Renewal spokesperson Jacob Mafume was equally scathing in his reaction to Mugabe’s frequent trips, at a time the government is failing to pay its worker’s salaries on time and had even suggested to suspend end of year bonuses.
“The man has created so much misery in his country he can’t stay in it for a long period. First he did not want to be treated in it so he goes to Singapore, then he sent his children to learn outside the country, now he and his family do not want to live in it. I would not be surprised to hear that after his death he would like to be buried in Singapore,” said Mafume.
Zapu national spokesperson Mjobisa Noko concurred.
“We are looking at a leader who has become a tourist in his country and who does not care about the suffering of the people. It is unfortunate that his ego and selfishness has blinded him to a point where he now fails to discern between wrong and right,” Noko said.
There were reports that Mugabe will, while in Moscow, follow-up on the so-called “mega-deals” that he signed with Russia earlier this year. Mugabe last year also signed other so-called “mega-deals” with the Chinese but not much has come out of them.
A senior finance ministry official told The Standard Mugabe’s trips were a massive drain on the fiscus.
“At any given time the President, it does not matter whether he is travelling outside Africa or within, takes with him some $4 million, $700 000 of which is for plane charter while the remainder he shares with his entourage. It also depends on the duration of stay but if he stays a few more days than normal, as happened in Jakarta and as he is expected to do in Moscow, then the cost will balloon to $6 million,” the source said.
“The President is paid huge out-of-pocket allowances and that is besides the expenses he incurs. Except for the trip to South Africa, he always takes with him a huge entourage wherever he goes.”
Mugabe’s spokesperson, George Charamba could not be reached for comment as he was said to be travelling with his boss.