HARARE - President Robert Mugabe has come under withering attack for donating 300 cattle to the African Union (AU) to help it become less dependent on outside donors, instead of coming to the aid of Zimbabwean villagers in the middle of one of the worst droughts in decades.
The ridiculed donation of cattle, handed over to AU deputy chairman Erastus Mwencha on Thursday, was said to be an honour of a pledge to the AU Foundation made in June 2015 by the 92-year-old president, who held the rotating AU chair until last month.
Mugabe’s donation comes just after he has declared a drought emergency in Zimbabwe, and urged international donors to offer aid promptly for relief operations to support over 1,5 million people critically short of food, according to the UN, amid one of the worst droughts in decades that has left children malnourished, killed livestock and damaged livelihoods.
The relief operation by the government, World Food Programme (WFP) and charities needs $1,6 billion this year.
Critics said Mugabe should have put in place measures to transport the cattle to drought-stricken parts of his impoverished country — where some farmers have started selling livestock to ease the pressure on grazing as the crisis strains the nation.
It was not immediately clear how the AU official planned to transport the cattle to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the continental union is headquartered.
Mainstream MDC spokesperson Obert Gutu said: “This is a joke in very bad taste. It’s a joke that’s not funny at all. How can...Mugabe, knowing that at least 3 million Zimbabweans are facing starvation because of the El Nino-induced drought, coupled with the effects of a disastrous land reform exercise, find it fit and proper to donate 300 cows to the AU?
“This is a question of lopsided priorities by Mugabe. He just enjoys being a populist and a showman.
“Instead of donating those 300 cows to the AU, the Zanu PF regime should actually have sold those beasts and raise money to import maize.
“With a president like this, who needs enemies?"
Mugabe said he wanted the cattle “to play some part in...making the (AU) foundation keep going”.
“It just struck me that no one had ever thought of a gift by way of cattle to the AU and since we are cattle people, why shouldn’t we also make a gift to the AU in cattle form?” the nonagenarian said.
The AU subsequently thanked Mugabe in a tweet that hailed “his exemplary leadership in demonstrating the ability of Africans to fund Africa’s development”.
During his year-long tenure as AU chair, Mugabe lamented the continental body’s dependence on external funding.
Spokesperson of the opposition PDP Jacob Mafume said the 300 cattle were a most inconvenient donation to the AU.
“It will rank among the most bizarre donations that an international body has received,” Mafume said.
“If you take into consideration the fact that Zimbabwe is behind in paying its dues to the AU by a considerable amount then it all becomes farcical and rank madness.”
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, AU Commission chairperson, has said some member states, including Zimbabwe, have failed to pay their dues to the continental body.
The AU collected $84,6 million from member states last year much less than the anticipated $138,5 million, resulting in the AU failing to execute some of its planned programmes.
“How many people’s cattle have perished because of drought and he thinks it has merit to give away cattle to a body which does not need it at this time,” Mafume said.
But UK-based Zimbabwean scholar George Shire said: “Mugabe’s property does not belong to you or me and it does not belong to Zimbabwean people either.”
“How he chooses to spend his money has nothing to do with government priorities,” Shire said.
“They are his cattle and he can give them to whoever he wants. Now that (deposed Libyan strongman Muammar) Gaddafi who used to feed and finance the AU is gone, maybe it’s his ironic way of getting the AU to think of innovative ways to fund itself. We have to wait and see how the AU uses those cattle.”
Shire said Zimbabwe’s opposition parties need to ask themselves what they would do to address the adverse impact of El Niño and if anyone of them would donate their personal wealth to ordinary Zimbabweans.
“A lot of noise that many people in Zimbabwe and elsewhere make about these issues has nothing to do with politics or the political. It does keep the president’s name in the headlines and there are no votes for the opposition in it,” he said.
Joey Mabenge of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition — a conglomeration of 350 rights groups — said the donation shows that Mugabe’s priorities were certainly misplaced.
“Donating 300 cattle to the AU is not only strange but mind-boggling,” he said.
“The national herd in his own country is under serious threat because of El Nino-induced drought and villagers in remote parts of Zimbabwe who need the cattle most have lost their livelihoods.
“Why not donate the cattle to the neediest in hard-hit remote rural areas and save livelihoods? Charity begins at home.”
Academic and newspaper columnist Reason Wafawarova said it is not clear under what circumstances this pledge was made last year, but it appears this was meant to be both a symbolic and material expression of support to the AU foundation and its goals.
“It is also not clear if the herd of cattle is single-handed donation from the president, or a collective donation by a number of farmers, given in the name of the president in support of his declared vision at the AU,” he said.
“The question of who deserves this donation more between the poor of Zimbabwe and the AU foundation is a morally understandable one.
“It is like Judas Iscariot’s question when a woman poured expensive oil on the feet of Jesus, at a time the oil could have been sold with proceeds channelled to the poor.
“Jesus’ answer was clear in saying there are times when symbolism takes precedence over morality, and perhaps this is a similar case where we face competing views over the symbolic and moral implications of this donation.”
Youth activist and spokesperson of the National Informal Economy Network, said it was a populist display of warped priorities which he said was also reflected by Mugabe throwing a lavish party yesterday in the heart of Masvingo — the province hardest hit by drought.
The drought is as severe in Masvingo as the one in 1992, when failed rains caused a famine in one of the poorest provinces in southern Africa per capita and where many people rely on subsistence farming.
“He could not even donate a loaf of bread to Tokwe Mukorsi (villagers). But now donating 300 cattle to the African Union just for show off is clearly mind-boggling.”