For all the negative reactions provoked by Robert Mugabe, the long-serving Zimbabwean president, few could begrudge acknowledging his skills as one of the world’s great political survivors. He will celebrate turning 90 today in a style emblematic of the way he has run the country since 1980 – with a lavish Dh3.67m party in defiance of an ailing economy and while many ordinary Zimbabweans go hungry.
Being skilled at politics is not the same as being good at governance, and even the biggest apologist for Mr Mugabe would struggle to justify what he has overseen in what was once a prosperous nation. With deep-rooted corruption and disastrous policies like seizing land from white farmers and redistributing it among his supporters, Zimbabwe became a byword for economic disaster. Inflation peaked at 231 million per cent in 2008, leading to the nation suspending its own currency and becoming a de facto US dollar economy the following year. Just over a year ago, the government coffers held $217, the equivalent of Dh798.
All this is the ultimate betrayal of the potential of Zimbabwe, a land with natural mineral riches, and of Zimbabweans themselves, whose high literacy rate – 90 per cent – is the envy of most other African nations. That literacy figure is deteriorating as teachers succumb to the brain drain of higher wages and easier lives outside the country.
As the oldest leader in Africa, Mr Mugabe unfortunately also represents the most benighted aspects with which the continent has been long associated. But while Zimbabwe’s economy fails to meet its potential, other African nations are emerging from poverty and dysfunction. Look at countries like Zambia and Tanzania, with GDPs half that of Zimbabwe’s in 1980 but are now double and triple, respectively.
All these figures are one thing, but it is the human cost they represent that is the true tragedy of Mr Mugabe’s legacy: families who will never be able to afford to buy their own home, who have to take talented children out of the education system early to exploit their earning potential so they can get by, and entrepreneurs whose dreams are stymied by corruption or who simply choose to move to a country where the rule of law is taken seriously. As Mr Mugabe sits down to eat his birthday cake today, one can only wonder if their plight will affect his appetite.