Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old leader might be slowing down, but his busy foreign travels have led the opposition to call him the “non-resident president.”
President Robert Mugabe has visited Singapore, Ghana, Swaziland and Mauritius in the past three weeks alone. At times he stops over in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, for just a night before leaving again.
Some critics say Mugabe’s trips are a drain on this southern African country’s depleted finances. Others are amazed at how a visibly elderly man remains fit enough to clock thousands of miles in the air.
The foreign travels of the world’s oldest head of state often provide comic relief for Zimbabweans weary of the country’s two-decade economic decline.
Images of Mugabe struggling to walk on the red carpet, toppling from a raised lectern at the airport in 2015 and, most recently, wearing a loose-hanging, untucked white shirt in Mauritius – a rare break from his usual suit and tie – have trended on social media and become the butt of jokes and memes.
Presidential spokesman George Charamba had to address the president’s dress sense in Mauritius after it went viral on social media.
“The trouble is that we are so schooled in British dress etiquette that any departure from it amounts to scruffiness. That is how colonized we are,” he told state television on Tuesday when Mugabe returned home.
Earlier this month, Charamba touched on a more fundamental issue: Mugabe’s frequent foreign trips amid concerns over flagrant spending and rumors of illness.
Mugabe’s busy travel schedule “puts paid to any claims that the president is very ill. In fact, he is so well that he beats even the youngest politician,” the spokesman said,
Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party once again has endorsed him as its candidate for next year’s election. He has been in power since 1980.
Charamba spoke as Mugabe was leaving for Ghana’s 60th independence anniversary celebrations. The president had landed in Zimbabwe just 24 hours earlier from Singapore, where he had spent a week for a “scheduled medical review,” according to his spokesman.
Mugabe later went to Swaziland for a summit of the Southern African Development Community. He then stopped in Zimbabwe for a few hours before hopping back on the plane for an economic meeting in Mauritius.
“Love how President Mugabe is encouraging people to #visitZimbabwe from time to time … #leadingByExample,” tweeted local comedian Carl Joshua.
Others find little amusement in the trips, citing Zimbabwe’s mounting economic problems.
Mugabe’s government has failed to pay its workers’ salaries on time since June. Cash shortages have resulted in long lines at banks. Factory closures and high unemployment rates have pushed the majority of Zimbabweans into informal trading such as street vending.
Former finance minister and now opposition leader Tendai Biti has expressed both disgust at Mugabe’s foreign travel spending and concern that the trips will worsen his health.
“Section 82 of the constitution protects the rights of the elderly. ZANU is abusing the rights of this elderly man,” Biti said in a humorous tweet Tuesday, along with a photo of Mugabe seemingly struggling to walk and surrounded by minders in Mauritius.
Mugabe spent over $34 million on foreign travel in the first 10 months of 2016, outstripping expenditures by entire ministries such as that of transport and infrastructure development, according to the ministry of finance statistics.
Transport minister Joram Gumbo has defended the government’s decision to charter a jet from Bahrain for Mugabe’s recent trips, saying the Air Zimbabwe plane that Mugabe uses is undergoing maintenance.
“Diplomacy does not come cheap,” the president’s spokesman declared this month.