President Robert Mugabe, who left the country on Tuesday for Japan via Singapore, is spending more time shuttling to the Far East for medical treatment at a huge cost to the fiscus, signifying his worsening health problems while raising questions about his fitness to govern.
According to top government officials, the latest trip in which Mugabe is travelling with a large entourage of almost 100 people would gobble almost US$1 million which can pay fees for 23 000 primary school children.
Mugabe left the country with a small team of aides on Tuesday on a chartered jet from state-owned Air Zimbabwe.
The rest of his entourage, including journalists from the state media and senior government officials, left the country Thursday for Japan on connecting commercial airlines from Harare.
They will link up with Mugabe in Japan’s north-eastern city of Sendai (365,8km from Tokyo) where he is attending a United Nations world conference on disaster risk reduction.
Most of his foreign trips have proved to be a waste of public resources.
Mugabe’s delegation has received a minimum US$7 200 each for the eight-day trip (at US$900 a day per diem).
The Office of the President and Cabinet gobbled more than US$38 million of the US$4,1 billion 2014 national budget on travel and residences.
The trip is Mugabe’s third this year to the Far East where he seeks medical treatment, including his December annual holiday during which he underwent what was said to be a major prostate cancer operation and had to extend his stay by a week in January to allow him time to recuperate.
Government sources say Mugabe would spend time in Singapore where he is expected to go for his routine eye check-up and a review after the prostate cancer operation at Parkway Cancer Centre at the exclusive Gleneagles Hospital.
The laser technique used by the doctors during the operation, which has a short recovery period, required him to go for a review in three to six months to check how he is doing.
While cutting his cake at his lavish 91st birthday party in Victoria Falls a fortnight ago Mugabe cut a very disturbing figure, looking absent-minded, frail and dazed.
His close security aides, composed now mainly of senior officials, stuck very close to him to possibly prevent another public tumbling.
The team, whose number has been increased, was changed after Mugabe fell and frog-landed on a carpet at the Harare International Airport a month ago.
Those who attended the bash saw as many as 10 security aides around him as he was expected to release 91 balloons to mark his birthday, which were in fact let go by his wife, Grace, who held his hand constantly to help him keep his balance.
Mugabe’s steps were occasionally unstable and laboured; he appeared to stagger on at least three occasions only to regain his balance. His wife and aides — looking anxious — were constantly close to him, making it even difficult for photojournalists and cameramen to film him.
Hardly two weeks after the birthday bash, Mugabe has unsurprisingly flown to Singapore on his way to Japan. Government sources say he is expected to spend more days in Singapore after the Japanese conference.
Age has now caught up with Mugabe. Several politburo members and ministers, including former Industry and Commerce minister Welshman Ncube, have confirmed that Mugabe has a tendency to doze off during meetings.
“Mugabe is hardly stays awake during meetings. Ten minutes into cabinet or politburo meetings he usually dozes off for a while and then wakes up, only to doze off again,” said a senior Zanu PF official.
This, coupled with Mugabe’s confirmation he often falls at home and has knee problems, in addition to persistent reports of prostate cancer and failing eyesight, has inevitably led to concerns about the president’s ability to provide effective leadership to the nation, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that he has no plans to step down until the end of his tenure come 2018.
Of particular concern to most Zimbabweans is that the country is facing serious economic problems, especially the liquidity crunch hampering companies’ efforts to retool and improve capacity utilisation which stands at 36,3%, while many firms are closing down worsening unemployment which is above 80%.
About 7 000 people were retrenched last year alone.
Questions are frequently being asked as to whether Mugabe still has the capacity and stamina to resolve the plethora of problems bedevelling the country.