Zimbabwe Stands Still as President Vacations Off the Grid

President Robert Mugabe, 92, Zimbabwe’s ruler of 37 years, has received up to $1.2 million for his trips, a former minister said. Credit Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

HARARE, Zimbabwe — It was an urgent matter for President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe: His approval was needed so that a loyal supporter who had just died could be buried at a cemetery for national heroes.

But with Mr. Mugabe off on his extended annual holiday in Asia this month, it took the acting president a couple of days to track him down, en route from Beijing to his Asian base in Singapore.

“I phoned the president telling him about the death, and he told me that he had learned about it through the first lady, who had read about it on the internet,” said the acting president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of Mr. Mugabe’s two vice presidents.

Mr. Mugabe’s annual holidays are one of the unusual aspects of the rhythms of political life in Harare, the capital of this southern African nation. Every year, from mid-December through the end of January, Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years with a tight grip, seemingly releases it. He vanishes in Asia, going off grid, becoming at times unreachable to his own deputies.

A couple of years ago, one of Mr. Mugabe’s sons posted photos on Instagram showing the family at a high-end Japanese restaurant in Singapore, apparently enjoying teppanyaki. But the Mugabes have otherwise remained discreet about their holiday activities, sensitive perhaps to criticism back home that they are wasting public money while government coffers are nearly empty.

So committed has Mr. Mugabe been to staying away from Zimbabwe that even when he interrupts his long Asian holiday with an official trip to an African nation — as he did in mid-January by traveling to Mali — the presidential plane, Air Zimbabwe Flight 1, has made a beeline right back to Asia.

In Harare, government decisions, big and small, are put off. It’s a slow month and half for political journalists, even as rumors fill the vacuum. But even in Mr. Mugabe’s absence, the grip of the only leader Zimbabwe has ever known never really loosens.

“When Mugabe goes on holiday, he goes on holiday with the state,” said Pedzisai Ruhanya, a political analyst and the director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a research group. “Mugabe’s behavior is inconsistent with practices in other countries, with general state practices. This is kind of strange.”

This time, Mr. Mugabe left for Asia immediately after his party’s annual conference in mid-December, which was dominated by his wife, Grace Mugabe, 51. Mr. Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, who will be 93 in February, slept through most of the conference but was selected as his party’s candidate in next year’s presidential election.

His party is increasingly divided by fighting over succession, and Mr. Mugabe has lost the support of longtime allies like veterans of the country’s war of liberation. Zimbabwe’s financial state remains so precarious that government workers were paid late in December, after Christmas, and have yet to receive their year-end bonuses.

“Under normal circumstances, when things are not O.K. in your house, you wouldn’t leave for such a long time,” said John Masuku, a journalist who worked for 27 years at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, including as a presidential correspondent.

And yet, even in increasingly frail health, Mr. Mugabe has not cut short his annual holidays. The reality, allies and rivals alike say, is that he has secured the loyalty of the political class through patronage, eviscerated the opposition and installed relatives and close associates in important posts in the army and the police. Unlike less-secure strongmen who rarely venture abroad, Mr. Mugabe sticks to his annual routine, leaving Zimbabwe at the same time every year, and he has even lengthened his holidays in recent years.

“He feels quite comfortable,” said Rugare Gumbo, who was a longtime ally of Mr. Mugabe and is now in the opposition. “No one can take a chance by raising any controversial issue because he would be accused of trying to overthrow the old man.”

Indeed, when Mr. Mnangagwa, the acting president, was shown recently in Facebook photos holding a mug with the words, “I Am the Boss,” the attacks against him by party rivals were immediate and relentless. Accused of wanting to push Mr. Mugabe aside, Mr. Mnangagwa had to issue a statement to the contrary.

Mr. Mugabe, a well-known Anglophile, used to spend his annual holidays in London or elsewhere in Europe. But sanctions imposed by Western governments after the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000 pushed the Mugabes to look elsewhere.

The Mugabes have vacationed in Malaysia and Hong Kong as well as in the Middle East, mostly in Dubai. But Mr. Mugabe has settled in recent years on Singapore, which, in addition to having excellent Japanese food, has a leading medical tourism industry — and, perhaps most important, is a former British colony.

“He finds it congenial to be in a former British colony than in any other country,” Mr. Gumbo said. “If you can’t get pleasure in London, you might as well get it in its colonies.”

With Mr. Mugabe gone, neither the government nor the ruling party bothers to hold high-level meetings.

“We didn’t hold cabinet meetings in Mugabe’s absence because he is the one who chairs the meetings,” said Didymus Mutasa, who served as a minister to Mr. Mugabe for many years and is now in the opposition. “When Mugabe goes on leave, some of his ministers also go on leave.”

Tendai Biti, an opposition leader who served as finance minister in a coalition government from 2009 to 2013, said that Mr. Mugabe’s annual holidays have long been a drain on Zimbabwe’s finances. In a system established before independence, government officials traveling overseas are given hard currency, usually American dollars, upon authorization from the Finance Ministry, Mr. Biti said.

During Mr. Biti’s tenure, Mr. Mugabe typically asked for $3 million for his annual holidays, and Mr. Biti said he authorized from $800,000 to $1.2 million.

“The money comes as cash,” Mr. Biti said. “But whether they put it in suitcases or whatever, I don’t know. That was not my job.”

Unspent money — from Mr. Mugabe’s annual holidays or his frequent trips outside Zimbabwe — is not returned to the state.

“It has become a vehicle for looting,” Mr. Biti said.

Most high-ranking government and ruling party officials refused to comment on Mr. Mugabe’s annual holidays.

But Tshinga Dube, Mr. Mugabe’s minister for war veterans, said that he carried out his duties the same way whether Mr. Mugabe was in or out of the country. Describing himself as an “ambassador” serving under “a Julius Caesar,” Mr. Dube said, “You cannot do things differently just because he is not there.”

Asked about popular criticism that Mr. Mugabe is out of touch by taking such long and costly holidays while the country’s economy teeters, Mr. Dube said that it was “a matter of personal opinion.”

“It is very difficult,” he added, “to talk, to comment about your boss, especially on issues that relate to his health, his age, and things of that nature.”

Source: NYTimes