The last 12 months have been a nightmare for President Robert Mugabe. Faced with probably the stiffest challenge to his leadership in the 18 years he has been at the helm of the country, 1998 will be a chapter he will be eager to close and forget quickly as it was undoubtedly the worst year in his political career.
He was battered right, left and centre and has become fair game to anyone. Every problem the country is now facing – the depreciating Zimbabwe dollar, increasing unemployment, the economic collapse of the country, just to name a few- is being blamed on him. He does not even seem to know now whether he is coming or going.
Even the excuse that he has been making blunders because he is ill advised is wearing thin. He has run out of excuses and as one political observer put it, people must now accept that Mugabe, who will be 75 in February, is just senile. And because he has been led to believe that he is indispensable, he has become so arrogant that he may not be fully aware that he is causing the country and himself untold damage, both politically and economically.
Besides, he has made the country so ungovernable that despite calls for him to step down, and although reports say that he has indeed offered to step down on two occasions, no one is willing to take over as this will be political suicide because it will almost be impossible to turn the country’s economy around, at least in the short term.
First Bank economist Edmore Tobaiwa put it rightly when he said Mugabe has developed a knack for destroying what the country has taken 24 months to build in just 24 hours. To make matters worse, he has become so defensive that people are no longer taking him seriously even when he is right.
According to one observer, Mugabe is now quite aware that the country is in a mess but he is desperately clinging on to power in the hope that things can settle down so that he can make an honourable exit. But this is turning into an almost impossible feat.
Observers say although most of his problems this year have been with the labour movement, which has almost paralysed the nation through mass stay-aways and demands to cut taxes and control prices, his biggest problem seems to have been lack of transparency and political appeasement.
Under pressure from the party cadres, the labour movement and the public he backed down on fuel price increases for more than nine months, introduced price controls on basic commodities and in the process lost the International Monetary Fund seal of approval which opens the taps to donor funds.
According to the Financial Mail, President Mugabe’s answer to each crisis has been first, a denial, then a panicky decision, often amended shortly thereafter and the problem is shunted aside to be tackled by a subcommittee of ministers or experts.
“This technique has been used in short order over land, food prices, the fuel crisis, and now the depreciating Zimbabwe dollar,” the report says. “Invariably, the same old suspects who have botched the matter are part of the task force.”
According to an observer, a typical example of the confusion within the government was the recent listing of 841 white-owned farms for acquisition. Although this was a mere formality and the government was just relisting some of the farms it listed on November 28 last year, the government was not able to defend itself when the commercial farmers cried foul and the international media claimed that Mugabe was going back on his agreement at the donor conference.
“This has now turned into a game,” the observer said. “Both the government and the commercial farmers are telling half truths and this is mainly for political expediency. What really happened was that the government had to re-list the farms before November 28 otherwise it would have had to start all over again. Commercial farmers must have thought that the government would forget. It was the same farms listed last year and nothing more, but the government has not been able to defend itself because it wants to be seen to be doing something by the people especially in view of the recent invasions.”
Although deputy Lands Minister, Olivia Muchena, gave a similar explanation at a press conference following the outcry, she was not taken seriously and this was viewed as backtracking by the government.
Instead of addressing the issue, President Mugabe was preparing for his 16-day trip to Libya, Egypt, Italy, France and the United Kingdom, commandeering an Air Zimbabwe plane in the process.
It is these frequent travels that have incensed some observers as some of the trips are not business trips. The five-day stay in London, for example, was a private visit labelled by the Economist, for example, as a shopping trip.