Mugabe’s cataract costs $12m in 4 months

HARARE – President Robert Mugabe draws $3million from the treasury each time he travels to Singapore for medical check-ups, Finance Minister Tendai Biti has confirmed.\r\n

Biti refused to comment on the matter and flatly declined to give any details. But authoritative government sources said the state had paid $12 million towards medical bills accumulated by the head of state for his nagging ailments over the past four months.

The Zimbabwean understands that government has been footing all the hospital bills and transportation.  

Mugabe has travelled to Singapore four times already this year, including his annual holiday in January, where he is also understood to have undergone medical check-ups.

Presidential spokesman George Charamba has said Mugabe, 87, is undergoing "routine cataract surgery" and has rubbished mounting speculation that he is undergoing chemotherapy for prostrate cancer. But sources have told The Zimbabwean that Mugabe regularly consults his Malaysian urologist Mahmood Awang Kechik, who is his personal physician, whose medical practice has sent medical equipment to Harare for the president.

At his 87th birthday celebrations last month, an increasingly frail Mugabe said that even if his body "may get spent," his mind remained alert.

Apart from concern that he is wasting so much state money on his trips abroad for medical reasons, there is also concern about his long absences from work because of the frequently recurring medical check-ups. He has spent seven weeks in Asia since December – a full month of that time ostensibly for eye surgery.

The state budget provides for official presidential trips overseas, but Biti has lamented high budget overruns on foreign travel. He is on record as saying that government officials blew nearly US$30 million on foreign travel last year alone – which impacted badly on his austerity measures.

Up to October last year, foreign travel costs amounted to $29.2 million – some three percent of total recurrent expenditure over the same period. Expenditure overran the budget by $5million. Already this year Mugabe’s trips alone have blown half the travel budget. Economic analysts say this is unacceptably high in relation to other critical expenditure areas.

Biti said in his 2011 budget proposals that the treasury would move to enforce tougher restrictions on the government’s travel budget after it emerged that officials were spending more on foreign trips than the government did on healthcare for the entire civil service. He has, however, been powerless to resist Mugabe’s demands.

Besides his medical check-up trips, Mugabe has undertaken a series of overseas trips. During a recent UN trip he took with him about 80 hangers-on.

"It is worth reminding everyone that this is the people’s money being that is being spent," said political commentator Ronald Shumba. Critics say the numbers are too high at a time when Zimbabwe’s economy is struggling and when civil service heads have been ordered to cut all non-essential foreign travel. The massive foreign travel budget is an affront to the $200 paid to most civil servants, said one critic.

“The budget for presidential travel abroad is clear evidence of how the president has wasted money in the face of people’s poverty,” Shumba said. "Surely he can cut costs by seeking local treatment. We don’t have to be spending so much money on foreign doctors. It’s an affront on his indigenisation drive. Is he saying the local doctors are not good enough for him? Or this is the price we are paying for his obsession to keep his medical condition secret?"

He pointed out that, in addition to funds for official visits, the budget provided for the president’s clothing allowance as well as millions of dollars for security.