Zimbabwe's Leader Takes Care of His Own

After riots come special benefits for national leaders. Late last month Zimbabwe endured violent protests against the government's severe mismanagement of the country's economy. Army helicopters sprayed tear gas to quell the disturbances. But now, a bill put before parliament by the executive proposes to award generous retirement packages to President Robert Mugabe and Vice Presidents Joshua Nkomo and Simon Muzenda.

Despite public dismay at the spiraling cost of living in Zimbabwe, and a widespread belief that the recent actions of President Mugabe and his government are responsible for last year's collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar and wildly escalating staple food prices, the proposed Presidential Benefits and Retirement Amendment Bill would enable retired leaders to continue indefinitely the luxurious lifestyle they now enjoy.

What's more, the bill includes minor children of deceased and former presidents and vice presidents in its provisions, even beyond the age of 18. Neither of the current vice presidents has minor children. But President Mugabe does. Indeed, since his marriage in 1996 to his young secretary, the first family has included three of their children, all minors, including two born before their marriage, and a stepson. Out-of-wedlock children are specifically provided for in the proposed legislation.

According to the legislative provisions, minor children are entitled to one-third of a president's or vice president's pension upon the office-holders' deaths. Spouses receive two-thirds of the late president's salary. President Mugabe earns about $27,000 a year, an enormous sum by local standards. Presidents and vice presidents also enjoy generous housing, clothing, food, entertainment, transport, medical, and security allowances. All of the pensions to their kin are tax-free.

Moreover, after they leave office, presidents, vice presidents, and surviving spouses will receive domestic services, security services, free transport, free air travel, medical attention, office space, secretarial services, entertainment allowances, and on and on.

No other African country has ever proposed anything so lavish, or so transparently acquisitive. Local observers have for several years wondered about the influence of President Mugabe's new wife. His shopping trips to Europe in the last 12 months have been the stuff of legend. Rumors abound, including the tale that he has purchased a castle or manor house in Scotland.

Whether or not the rumors are verifiable, the timing of the proposed legislation is extraordinary. At a time when the government is attempting to recover from a near economic and political disaster, and when its popular legitimacy is low, such a bill shows a clear disregard for public opinion. The independent press in Zimbabwe has howled with outrage, as have university lecturers and the one active opposition member of parliament. Margaret Dongo has already called the government "corrupt" in parliament. Now she is further affronted.

Last fall, President Mugabe proposed what seemed like generous pensions for 39,000 veterans of Zimbabwe's freedom struggle. The International Monetary Fund reminded Zimbabwe that it hardly had such funds, but the finance ministry has promised to find them by borrowing and by cutting its own expenses. Whether or not it can is an open question.

Perhaps President Mugabe, who also fought against the white Rhodesian regime for independence and has governed Zimbabwe with an authoritative hand since 1980, views himself as an undercompensated veteran, and his young children as his underprivileged heirs. Or perhaps he understands that the Mugabe dynasty can't perpetuate itself, and just provision should be made.

Long-lived leaders and governments sometimes do themselves in. When they demonstrate contempt for their constituents, and the people more generally, the ends of their hegemonies may be predicted.

* Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

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