Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Insensitive” Mugabe Gets Luxury Mansion

For most Zimbabweans, leader’s new home is proof that government profligacy starts with the presidency.
By Dzikamai Chidyausku
Unperturbed by the plight of millions living in poverty around him in a country with a battered and failed economy, Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe has moved into a multi-million dollar retirement palace that has been built over the past five years.

The spread, with 25 ensuite bathrooms, has cost in excess of 26 million US dollars to build in a country where most people earn less than the equivalent of eleven dollars a month. But the move into the palace - three times the size of the official presidential residence, State House - could be a sign that 82-year-old Mugabe is finally preparing for retirement. He has said he intends retiring in 2008, though speculation has been intense this year that he will amend the constitution to extend his rule until 2010.

The mansion is also indicative of the corruption and extravanganza of good living Mugabe's ZANU PF government has indulged in as the country crumbles around them.

University of Zimbabwe political scientist John Makumbe, a member of the anti-corruption group Transparency International, said the palace demonstrates Mugabe's "insensitivity to the plight of the people he leads … He is happy to live like a monarch while the rest of the country is mired in poverty. It just shows that corruption begins at the top of the government because Mugabe's salary of roughly 57,000 dollars a year and allowances for the past 26 years he has been in power cannot build such a house.

"But also that could show you that he is preparing for his retirement."

Apart from the costs of building the palace, many millions more have been spent on decoration and furniture and landscaping its lake-strewn grounds. Arab artists brought to Zimbabwe spent a year decorating the arching ceilings.

For most Zimbabweans, Mugabe's relocation to the mansion is proof that government profligacy starts with the presidency.

"It pains me. That house has no place in country were millions are starving and jobless," Jonathan Nhekwe, who barely survives by selling cigarettes on the streets of Harare, told IWPR.

His pain is shared by millions of other Zimbabweans who struggle to survive each day in a country where inflation reached 1200 per cent in May and where 80 per cent of people of working age are unemployed. It is a slap in the face for the more than one million people still living in the open after their homes were destroyed a year ago in Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Clean Out the Filth), an alleged urban renewal scheme which is believed to have been aimed at supporters of the Mugabe opposition.

The palace, 26 kilometres north of central Harare in the plush suburb of Borrowdale, has been built by Energo Projekt, a Serbian company with a long history of construction in Zimbabwe and which also built ZANU PF's skyscraper party headquarters in Harare. Glazed midnight blue tiles covering the roof have been donated by China, a major investor in Zimbabwe following the retreat of western businesses.

Mugabe has said the palace is a gift to him by ZANU PF out of gratitude for leading the country to independence and then governing it since independence in 1980.

In a rare interview with Britain's Sky News, Mugabe admitted there were corrupt individuals in his party, but when asked if he himself was corrupt replied, "Oh come on, come on, come on. We have had assistance, of course. Some countries have donated. They have got some timber from Malaysia, thanks to my good friend, former prime minister Mahathir [Mohamad]."

Set on several acres of land, independent newspapers and political commentators estimate that the money used to build it would be enough to construct four hospitals in a country where the health delivery system has collapsed, or to build more than 2000 low-cost houses to begin to replace the hundreds of thousands of homes of the poor destroyed in Operation Murambatsvina.

Mugabe admitted in the Sky News interview that the palace project was profligate, but he justified it by saying, "It is lavish because it's attractive."

The area of Borrowdale where the palace is located has been declared a security zone with a 24 hour guard provided by the state police and the army, who, sources say, are under instructions to shoot to kill any suspicious people approaching the complex.

This is the third luxury residence that Mugabe has built and the fifth he has owned since he came to power.

In the early 1990s, Mugabe caused a public uproar after he used taxpayer's funds to build a magnificent mansion at Kutama, the village 80 km northwest of Harare where the president was born.

In the late 1990s, Mugabe's wife Grace, 40 years his junior, used government funds meant to construct houses for the poor to build a 30-bedroom house that came to be known as "Graceland" and which was later bought by Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi.

The first family also has a 29-room farmhouse house 64 km northwest of the capital on the magnificent Iron Mask Estate, allocated to them during the wave of expulsions of white commercial farmers from their properties from 2001 onwards. The luxury farmhouse and its rich pastures were confiscated from Eva and John Matthews, both in their seventies, who were given 48 hours to leave after a visit by Grace Mugabe, accompanied by police, soldiers and youth militiamen.

Mugabe also has a country retreat in Nyanga, a resort area in the Eastern Highlands guarded all-year round by the army.

It is, however, the Borrowdale house that has most irked ordinary people and attracted the fiercest criticism. Mugabe is not leaving his security to chance. The government is giving notices to people with houses around the palace to sell up and find homes elsewhere.

One couple living in the area told IWPR that they were served with eviction letters in May this year. "They said it was a security zone and we had to move," said the husband. The couple, who have lived in the area for the past seven years, are however refusing to move and, with other residents, are challenging the order in court.

Clearly Mugabe is not banking necessarily on a peaceful retirement in his palace. One report says that, in addition to marble imported from Italy and jacuzzis brought from South Africa, it includes concrete reinforced underground rooms.

Dzikamai Chidyausku is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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