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Mugabe’s US$20 million travel bill shocker

By Everson Mushava

President Robert Mugabe is the biggest spender in government as revelations emerge that he overshot his annual foreign travel budget by a massive 133 percent in just six months, according to government expenditure figures obtained by the Daily News.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace arrive at Rome's Fiumicino airport for Pope's beatification
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace arrive at Rome’s Fiumicino airport for Pope’s beatification

So legendary is Mugabe’s penchant for foreign travel that he has chewed over $20 million to date, way beyond his $15 million annual presidential travel budget. Excessive travel by top government officials was one of the issues Finance Minister Tendai Biti said were gobbling public funds to the detriment of development when he presented the Medium Term budget yesterday.

Figures independently obtained by the Daily News show that Mugabe is way above his limit when it comes to foreign travel. His coalition government partner Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his deputies have so far used $3, 7 million, almost three quarters of their annual budget allocation of $5 million, with six months before year-end.

Mugabe and the travel expenses for the Prime Minister’s Office and his deputies are enough to finance anti-retroviral treatment for almost 600 000 people for six straight months in a public health system, according to calculations drawn from figures by the World Health Organisation.

Mugabe has spent a total of $20,6 million. He has been to the Far East at least five times this year alone, with sources saying it has mostly been for medical attention. On all these occasions he has travelled with an extravagantly large entourage. The 87-year-old leader is currently attending a youth conference in New York where he is the only Head of State at the forum that brings together youths around the world to discuss their own issues.

The veteran leader often travels with an entourage of more than 70 people each time he flies out of the country. The office of the Prime Minister, including his two deputies was allocated $5 million for travelling for the whole year and also appears to have been busy at it.

The Prime Minister’s Office spent $450 000 in January, $580 000 in February, $730 000 in March, $450 000 in April, $270 000 in May and $790 000 in June. Cumulatively they have spent $3,27 million by mid-year translating to 64,4 percent of their annual travel budget.

Tsvangirai’s travel bill, though not as astronomical as Mugabe’s,  shot up as he traversed the region on a political offensive to drum up support from Sadc leaders ahead of the Troika Organ on Defence, Politics and Security Cooperation summit held in Zambia in March. Presenting the Mid-Term Budget to Parliament yesterday, Biti reiterated his call for the need to cut foreign travel by executives and ministers.

Biti said the country was facing a $700 million deficit and any further unnecessary travel by the executive would bleed government coffers. It was not possible to get comment from Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba as his phone was unavailable. Tsvangirai’s spokesman Luke Tamborinyoka vehemently defended his boss when probed on the issue.

“Tsvangirai was on state business and has the executive powers to represent the state anywhere,” he said. The coalition government is currently struggling to raise money to pay restive government workers living salaries. Biti has maintained that government has no capacity to pay for salary increases because revenue collection capacity was on a decline.

Biti told Parliament a fortnight  ago that civil servants’ salary increments would cost the government an extra $29 million per month, pushing the wage bill to 70 percent of government expenditure on salaries up from 45 percent. The government this month paid civil servants a minimal salary increase using money from diamond proceeds but fears are that this could be unsustainable as Biti told Parliament yesterday that diamond revenues were unclear.

Early this month, the coalition government introduced austerity measures to try and cut costs and finance the civil servants wage bill through cutting of foreign trips and reducing the sizes of delegates on foreign trips, according to a government circular leaked to the Daily News.

The penchant from travelling by Zimbabwe’s ruling elite is at variance with the country’s financial situation. Last year for example, government forecast its revenue at $1,44 billion against expenditure projected at $2,25 billion and according to Biti, the country cannot survive if expenditure outweighs revenue, hence the need for cost cutting measures.

Zimbabwe is reeling under a debt of $9 billion which it is struggling to service, according to anti-debt lobby group, Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD). This means the country cannot receive much financial assistance from international lending institutions because of its poor record in paying off debts.

Joy Mabenge, ZIMCODD chairperson, said given the current situation government should spend more on education and health than on travel. “The meagre revenue by government should be directed towards critical needs like health, ARV drugs and education. Government leaders should avoid squeezing the fiscus on issues that do not benefit the entire nation,” said Mabenge.  Daily News