Mugabe’s erratic behaviour worries ministers



=EN-GB> – Has age finally caught up with Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who has often described himself as the “the youngest old man in Zimbabwe?”

Speculation about his physical and mental health has always been rife, but it increased and diplomatic tongues wagged when Mugabe failed to return from his official annual leave at the end of January. Several newspapermen were told by government sources that Mugabe was “unwell”.

One government minister said vice-president Joyce Mujuru had no meaningful power in her role as acting President, as she was unable to chair cabinet meetings or make policy decisions without consulting the president. However, the minister was unable to give a convincing explanation for why Mugabe extended his leave until mid-February.

In a country where top officials routinely engage in obfuscation, it is nevertheless an open secret that Mugabe’s mental state has been a source of worry to his closest lieutenants for some time. He has reportedly become forgetful, and strongly asserts that the increasingly difficult situation in the country is fine.

As Mugabe enters his 83rd year, the question being asked among those close to him is whether his apparent forgetfulness represents the onset of senile dementia. One example of memory loss was when he recalled the ambassador to Australia, Florence Chitauro, to stand for his ruling party in last November’s election to the new upper house of parliament.

After he had instructed senior officials to ensure that Chitauro returned, Mugabe reportedly expressed surprise to see her back in the country. Official sources told IWPR that Mugabe told Chitauro he could not recall issuing any directive for her return, and that she should go back to Canberra immediately. The same sources said Zanu (PF) politburo members told Chitauro to delay her return to Australia “just in case the president remembers”. The ambassador was able to delay her return until after she was elected a senator.

A decline in Mugabe’s health would explain some of the contradictory statements and U-turns emerging from State House. One cabinet minister said he and his colleagues had been awaiting a reshuffle since December, when Mugabe told the party congress that he would sack poor performers. No action followed. “Maybe he has forgotten,” the minister said only half-jokingly.

Others point to Mugabe’s insistence that there is no hunger in the country, despite international assessments that half the population is in dire need of food aid, as an indication of erratic judgement. When he finally returned to work, he assured ministers that Zimbabwe would have a bumper harvest this year, leading to an economic turnaround. This assessment conflicted with reports of minimal planting because of lack of funds to buy seeds and fertiliser, the dearth of farm machinery, and widespread crop damage caused by heavy rains and flooding.

Asked why officials had failed to keep Mugabe properly informed about the true situation, one said, “No one can contradict his statements – and you want us to get fired. No way. He is the one who appointed us, and he is the only one who can fire us, so why risk it when you know it will make him angry?” – IWPR

No ZESA, no breakfast


HARARE – These days, the Makoni family can only afford bacon on Saturdays, soon after payday. It has become a symbolic reminder of years past, when Zimbabwe used to run smoothly and they used to breakfast regularly on the typically English bacon, eggs and baked beans.

The Makonis are a middle-class family of five living in a middle-class suburb of Harare. The family miss the short car trip they used to make to the supermarket to buy breakfast goodies. Because of the ongoing fuel crisis, they now send their eldest son Tatenda down to the shops to pick up the bacon and baked beans and thus save what little petrol they have for more pressing purposes.

When Mrs Makoni opens the packet of bacon she realises it smells bad. Mr Makoni takes the bacon back to the supermarket, only to find a long queue of disgruntled shoppers bringing back rotten merchandise. Some have sachets of milk gone sour while others have steaks that have turned green. “It’s the power cuts,” explained the demoralised shop manager. “We have been having intermittent power cuts for 36 hours.”

Welcome to Zimbabwe in 2006, where such blackouts are daily occurrences and power cuts can last more than two days. It is now quite usual to see smoke rising from suburban gardens and chimneys as people cook food and boil water on open fires. When the power does come back, there is no guarantee it will stay on, and so there is frantic rush to cook the next meal, do the ironing, work on the computer and charge cellphones and batteries.

In factories, machines stop operating and pumps go quiet. Assuming you can find them, a packet of six locally-made candles now sell for more than a Z$250,000, about US$2.50.

Officials at the government power utility Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, ZESA, blame the power cuts on Gideon Gono, the powerful governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

ZESA executive chairman Sydney Gata told the government-owned daily The Herald that the government’s 2003 decision to reverse tariff increases it had already sanctioned was at the heart of the power crisis.

“A government-approved tariff adjustment was implemented in January, February and March 2003 but then reversed by the minister of energy at the request of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which sought to meet its own inflation targets,” said Gata.

This, Gata said, led to ZESA suffering a 45 per cent loss in revenues. ZESA currently produces a kilowatt-hour (kwh) of electricity at a cost of Z$1,386 but because of the low tariffs, sells it for just Z$218. As a result of the discrepancy, last year it suffered operational losses of Z$8 trillion.

“Gono would like the world to believe the loss was due to mismanagement, yet the truth is the buck stops at his doorstep,” said the senior ZESA official. “Because of the loss, ZESA no longer has the money to import power from neighbouring countries.”

ZESA generates about 60 per cent of the country’s energy needs when all power stations are working at full throttle. At the moment, though, several units at the flagship Hwange plant near Victoria Falls are closed because of a shortage of coal and spare parts.

Hwange normally supplies 15 per cent of Zimbabwe’s electricity. Small coal-fired power stations in the country’s two main cities, Harare and Bulawayo, have been shut down altogether. When transformer stations break down, they cannot be repaired because there are no spares.

The country imports about 40 per cent of its normal total consumption from South Africa, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo at a monthly cost of almost US$12 million. In recent weeks, all three suppliers have cut off the power intermittently because of ZESA’s failure to pay bills. – IWPR

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