His voice is a little weaker and his words are a little slower these days, but Robert Mugabe at the age of 90 is still spitting his defiance at the world.
This weekend, as he celebrated the 34th anniversary of Zimbabwe's independence (and his own autocratic rule), he hauled out his verbal cudgels to bash his usual enemies: the leaders of Britain and Europe, the West in general, homosexuals in particular and basically almost anyone except his old friend the Queen.
"Let Europe keep their homosexual nonsense there and not cross over here with it," Mr. Mugabe thundered to thousands of supporters at an anniversary rally in a huge soccer stadium in Harare.
He repeated the ferocious attack in a rare interview with the BBC this weekend, complaining of "dementia" in the West and "gay habits" in Britain. "They've gone to the dogs," he fumed. "Shame on them. I pity the one lady I admire, the Queen, that she is in these circumstances. I'm sure down deep she must be groaning at the loss of values in Britain."
He made it clear that he will not disappear into retirement any time soon. Asked whether he has identified a successor, he said only: "I have people in mind, but I haven't come to any conclusion."
Mr. Mugabe's rule is unchallenged these days, after a landslide victory in a 2013 election that was widely seen as tainted and rigged. But while he dominates the country, the Zimbabwean economy is continuing to slide towards disaster – even though Western sanctions on the Mugabe regime have been largely eliminated.
Consumer spending fell by 30 per cent in February (the most recent data available); government revenue dropped by 10 per cent in the same month; civil-service wages have been delayed because the government cannot pay them; and dozens of factories have shut down in recent months, eliminating more than 9,000 jobs at a time when unemployment is already estimated at about 60 per cent.
Signs of deflation are already emerging as the economy reverses. One lawyer in Harare said his business is suffering because his clients simply can't afford to pay their bills. About 80 per cent of Zimbabweans are subsisting on less than $1 per day. Yet the factory closures mean that supermarkets and retail shops are heavily dependent on expensive imports, often unaffordable for ordinary people.
As the government's debt rises, there are rumors that it will revive the discredited Zimbabwe dollar (destroyed by hyperinflation in 2008) to allow it to print money. A proposed bailout from China has been stalled. And foreign investment is drying up because of Mr. Mugabe's rules on "indigenization" – requiring foreign-owned businesses to surrender a majority stake to black Zimbabweans.
It's all a sharp contrast to Mr. Mugabe's grandiose promises in the election last year, when he pledged to create 2.2 million jobs and grow the economy by 7.7 per cent annually – targets that have gone from improbable to ridiculous.
Just 14 years ago, Zimbabwe was one of the wealthiest economies in Africa. Today it has fallen into the bottom half of the continent's economies. Mr. Mugabe's misrule has cost Zimbabwe about $96-billion (U.S.) in those 14 years, according to an analyst at the U.S.-based Centre for Global Development. The country's GDP would be more than twice as big today if it had followed the growth pattern of neighboring Zambia in that period, he noted.
"Mugabe has the ignominious distinction of being the only African head-of-state to preside over an average decline in both economic output and life expectancy since 1980," says Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, a U.S.-based organization that works with civil-society groups in Zimbabwe.
Yet despite the economic collapse, Mr. Mugabe's government has found plenty of money for personal benefits for him and his cronies. According to media reports from Zimbabwe, his government spent about $1-million to celebrate his 90th birthday in February and a further $5-million on his daughter's wedding in March.
There was a major scandal this year when Zimbabwe's media revealed that the bosses of some government-owned corporations were receiving salaries of up to $500,000 a month. Among them was the chief executive of Mr. Mugabe's biggest propaganda outlet, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, who was pocketing $40,000 a month. The executives were quickly suspended, but the revelations confirmed the widespread belief that the government's money is routinely funneled to Mr. Mugabe's inner circle.
Misrule or not, Mr. Mugabe continues to be glorified by his supporters. It emerged last month that the government has spent $5-million on two monuments of Mr. Mugabe to mark his 90th birthday. One of them is a nine-metre-high bronze sculpture, costing about $3.5-million, to be erected in Harare. A smaller sculpture will be placed in a new museum in his rural hometown.
Both monuments, perhaps appropriately, were built by an art factory in North Korea.
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