Why Mugabe's trips to Singapore sealed his downfall

Singapore played host to all that was rotten about the Mugabe regime, hastening its inevitable collapse.


Just the Basics

  • Robert and Grace Mugabe have been going to Singapore for medical and shopping purposes for years

  • Mugabe’s trips to Singapore have only highlighted the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans and the former dictator’s contempt for them

  • Even after their ousting, Singapore remains an important destination for the Mugabe family


SINGAPORE: Behold five-figure shopping sprees, luxury apartments and a jet-set lifestyle. No this is not a reference to Crazy Rich Asians, but rather a description of how one of Africa’s most notorious dictators and his family lived the high-life in Singapore while their country spiralled into hyperinflation and economic stagnation. Singapore became something of a second home for Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and his family in the years prior to his ousting in 2017, and the city-state continues to play an important role in the Mugabe clan’s ongoing saga.

Indeed, Singapore has even been tapped as a potential exile for Mugabe and Grace following their ousting in late 2017. Moreover, Mugabe’s first trip overseas since his ousting was to Singapore, with video of him captured in the country his first public appearance since the 2017 coup. Could Singapore become the new base for Mugabe now that he no longer rules Zimbabwe? For instance, even prior to his downfall, online news portal New Zimbabwe ran a story titled “Mugabe off to Singapore Hideout” in December 2016.

Such speculation has merit, considering that Mugabe’s daughter Bona graduated from the Management Development Institute of Singapore in 2013. Mugabe owns property in Singapore and has installed Bona there. Mugabe also purchased a $5 million property in Hong Kong shortly before Bona began her studies at the University of Hong Kong. Bona continues to reside in Singapore with her husband and even gave birth to Mugabe’s grandson in May 2016. Naturally the dictator and his family travelled to Singapore to welcome the new arrival, with Bona expecting a second child as of December 2017. Whether the Mugabe clan will move to Singapore on mass remains to be seen, but the family already has a firm footing there.

 
 

Singapore’s rapid rise was in large part due to the leadership of the late Lee Kuan Yew. Lee’s strongman governing style saw him in lead Singapore for almost 60 years and he has since become an idol of many rulers across the world, particularly in Africa. Leaders such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame have sought to emulate Lee, with countries such as Rwanda, Djibouti and Mauritius all being described as the ‘Singapore of Africa’ by various commentators. After Mugabe’s forced retirement in 2017, even the New York Times opined about whether the tiny Asian nation could be a role model for post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.

Mugabe began frequenting Singapore in 2009 as the ageing dictator sought out medical services for several conditions. Mugabe underwent cataract surgery in Singapore 2011 and again in 2014, and in 2011 Wikileaks cited a U.S diplomatic cable claiming that Mugabe was suffering from prostate cancer, although this has never been officially confirmed. Similarly, Grace Mugabe spent several weeks in Singapore in 2015 ostensibly to have her appendix removed, but the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper, citing family sources, claimed that she had undergone surgery for colon cancer.

 
 

Whereas Western governments have denied Mugabe entry citing concerns about corruption and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, there has been no such resistance from Singapore. Speaking on permitting Burmese junta leaders to seek medical treatment in Singapore, Lee stated in 2007 that “somebody who is sick, he wants to come to Singapore, he needs treatment and you’re telling me that I shouldn’t treat him because he is not a good man? It goes against the Hippocratic oath of doctors.” Lee’s blanket approval for authoritarian leaders has been extended to Mugabe and his family, both during and after his time in power.

Mugabe’s medical tourism only highlights Zimbabwe’s broken healthcare system

In visiting Singapore, Mugabe also highlights the stark contrast between Zimbabwe’s and Singapore’s healthcare systems. Despite $23 million being allocated for personal travel in 2016, Mugabe managed to spend $53 million on travel expenses during that year, more than twice the amount spent on upgrading Zimbabwe’s hospitals and health centres.

With state finances a shambles, healthcare spending in Zimbabwe has long been woefully inadequate, with many health facilities lacking even basic supplies such as bandages or painkillers. “Mugabe trashed our health delivery system. He and his family go outside of the country for treatment in Singapore, after he allowed our public hospital to collapse,” lamented the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) spokesperson in 2017. At same year supply shortfalls led to strikes by Zimbabwean doctors, but Mugabe chose to continue his foreign excursions and medical trips to Singapore.

 
 

As Mugabe alighted his plane to visit Singapore for holidays in December 2016, opposition spokesperson Obert Gutu launched a withering salvo at Zimbabwe’s leader.

“This is a colossal embarrassment to have the entire First Family and their in-laws flying more than 10,000 kilometres away for an extended holiday at state expenditure [...] Mugabe has always been consumed by xenomania: he enjoys travelling to foreign lands. Whilst more than ninety percent of Zimbabweans are going to experience a bleak and miserable Christmas holiday because they have got no money, Mugabe and his extended family will be blowing millions of state funds somewhere in Singapore [...] This is tragic. God help us!”

By July 2017, Mugabe had already taken over ten trips abroad, and was well on his way to racking up another eight-figure travel bill before he was ousted from power in late November of that year.

While Mugabe’s opponents had long given up hope of him resigning, many were hoping that the autocrat would finally succumb to the ravages of time, yet as he stubbornly continued to survive, his foreign medical treatment became increasingly politicized. Existing complaints about Zimbabwe’s broken healthcare system were now joined by Mugabe’s medical tourism as another example of corrupt privilege. Growing anger at Mugabe’s medical trips riled the Zimbabwean government, with regime spokesperson George Charamba hitting back at Mugabe’s detractors, claiming in 2017 that the dictator’s doctor “is not only Zimbabwean, but he is actually black … he is very, very, very black.” Of course even if Mugabe’s doctor is from Zimbabwe, the physician’s race is moot if he is based in a private clinic on the other side of the world.

 

Compared with the conditions facing ordinary Zimbabweans, Singapore’s luxury is like another planet.

 

As Mugabe continued to survive, in no small part due to his foreign medical outings, Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was slowly succumbing to the effects of colon cancer while in exile in South Africa. While Tsvangirai lived to see Mugabe ousted from power, he died in February 2018 from the complications of colorectal cancer. Had Tsvangirai had access to kind of medical care enjoyed by Mugabe, the landscape of Zimbabwean politics today might have been radically different.

Not sleeping, just resting his eyes

Mugabe’s longevity bucked (and as of writing, continues to buck) Zimbabwe’s dismal life expectancy trends, as foreign medical care played an increasingly prominent role in Mugabe’s 80s and 90s. For instance, his treatment for cataracts in Singapore was accompanied by a sensitivity to bright lights. Footage of Mugabe appearing to doze off during official meetings or public events were explained away by the government as being due to his need to rest his eyes. Even if this is true, Mugabe’s apparent somnolence made him a laughing stock at home and abroad, further cementing concerns about his age and undermining the image of a virile leader propagated by his inner circle.

 
 
Singapore is literally his home now. The country is stagnant today because the Zanu president is running the show from his hospital bed
— Zimbabwean opposition spokesperson, 2017

Mugabe’s trips to Singapore became highly visible reminders that the nonagenarian’s health was fading. “Mugabe’s health impacts entirely on Zimbabwe’s political landscape,” noted the Zimbabwe Mail in 2011.“Everything revolves around his health and age.” Autocrats always run the risk of being ousted when they travel outside their countries, and having to delegate day-to-day control of Zimbabwe to others not only accustomed them to ruling without Mugabe, but offered glimpses of what a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe might look like.

Anyone but Grace Mugabe

As it became increasingly likely that Mugabe’s wife Grace would be his designated successor the possibility of the Mugabe dynasty ruling Zimbabwe for decades to come loomed on the horizon. Four decades younger than Mugabe, his wife Grace famously declared that Zimbabweans would even vote for Mugabe if he stood for re-election as corpse, offering to wheel his body to the polls if need be. Grace Mugabe joins other spouses of autocrats in eliciting just as much, if not more, hatred as their authoritarian husbands. Combining levels of inter-party disdain akin to Jiang Qing (aka Madame Mao) and public hatred a la Elena Ceausescu, Grace has long courted controversy.

 

Robert and Grace Mugabe at a rally in Zimbabwe in 2013 | DANDJKROBERTS

 

Nicknamed ‘Gucci Grace’ and the ‘First Lady of Shopping’ by her detractors, Grace’s lavish lifestyle -  she is currently suing a jeweller for failing to deliver a $1.35 million diamond ring she ommissioned for her wedding anniversary - has been a particular sore spot in debt-ridden Zimbabwe. Grace’s spendthrift reputation was firmly confirmed in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, with Zimbabwe’s former first lady shilling out almost $72,000 for marble statues in Vietnam as well as over $11,000 for a single handbag in Singapore during just one overseas shopping spree in 2009. British tabloid The Sun also claims that it once obtained photos of Mugabe and Grace taken in the first-class lounge in Singapore’s Changi airport surrounded by fifteen trolleys worth of electronic goods and exotic food.

Alongside their expensive foreign shopping trips, Mugabe and Grace also conducted illict business deals while in Singapore. Specifically, the couple long used their position to smuggle valuables out of the country, much of which was later sold to buyers in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. In 2010, a Wikileaks release implicated Grace in money laundering and diamond smuggling, and since then she has also been found to be guilty of abusing her position to facilitate ivory smuggling.

 
 Mugabe and Grace smuggled untold amounts of ivory (and other goods) out of Zimbabwe during their time in power

Mugabe and Grace smuggled untold amounts of ivory (and other goods) out of Zimbabwe during their time in power

 

By exploiting her exemption from security screening, Grace was able to smuggle substantial amounts of gold, diamonds, ivory and rhino horns out of Zimbabwe. While exempting diplomatic luggage from screening is a standard proceed internationally, Mugabe issued an Airport Security Protocol stating that airport security was prohibited from searching or scanning any and all cargo connected to the First Family and its entourage.

This in turn allowed both Grace and Mugabe to smuggling substantial quantities of illegal goods during their trips to Asia. For instance, following their fall from power in November 2017, the couple left for Singapore in December of that year. On the same day some 200 kilograms of ivory destined for Kuala Lumpur were seized at Harare airport - a clear indication that their clout had evaporated.

Grace’s lavish lifestyle did little to endear her to ordinary Zimbabweans, and her repeated outbursts while travelling overseas only further marred her reputation. In 2009, Grace ordered her bodyguards to attack a press photographer in Hong Kong, later joining in the beating: she subsequently avoided prosecution by invoking diplomatic immunity. Following a similar incident in South Africa, Grace once again made headlines for her pugilism, this time in Singapore.

Mugabe’s July 2017 trip to Singapore was leaked to the press the same day he left, so that upon arrival in the Asian nation Mugabe and his entourage were met with a flurry of press attention. As Mugabe attended Gleneagles Hospital, Grace - always sensitive about perceptions of her husband’s health - waded into the press scrum outside the hospital and began assaulting reporters, attempting to destroy their equipment. One hapless reporter had his phone snatched from him by Grace and thrown into a nearby fish-pond.

Unsurprisingly, the following day the hospital played host to even more reporters eager to witness more drama. Once again Grace obliged the press, attacking members of the media and managing to hurl yet another mobile phone into the very same fish-pond. At this point both hospital staff and members of the press called the police who promptly arrived to find Grace embroiled in fisticuffs with reporters. The police in turn threatened to prevent Grace and her party from leaving the hospital unless she reimbursed the press scrum for equipment damages. After much cajoling Grace’s handlers agreed to pay some $1,300 in damages to the reporters in question. All this from the person who was supposed to inherit Zimbabwe’s mantle of leadership.

Zimbabwe still footing Mugabe’s travel bills

Mugabe was finally forced to retire in 2017: by July of that same year he had thrice travelled to Singapore for “routine medical reviews.” Speaking in July, an opposition spokesperson claimed that Singapore “is literally his home now. The country is stagnant today because the Zanu president is running the show from his hospital bed.” The timing of Zimbabwe’s regime change in the same year leaves little doubt that senior members of the ruling ZANU-PF party saw their chance and took it. This pre-emptive move by Emmerson Mnangagwa to seize control of Zimbabwe was spurred by fears about a succession crisis should Mugabe die. In particular, party insiders as well as ordinary Zimbabweans feared that Mugabe’s wife Grace was being groomed to succeed him - an abhorrent proposition to many in the country.

 

Emmerson Mnangagwa (left) shakes hands with former South African president Jacob Zuma in 2017 | GOVERNMENT OF SOUTH AFRICA

 

Interestingly, despite tensions between the Mugabe family and Zimbabwe’s new leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe is still footing the bill to shuttle the ageing ex-leader and his wife to Singapore. Arranging flights for the couple to Singapore continues to cost the Zimbabwean treasury some $550,000 per flight, as dedicated long-haul aircraft from Dubai need to be chartered. Mnangagwa wants to ensure that the ex-leaders are treated well, in part to prevent anger among Mugabe loyalists and in part to set a good example (e.g. paying another $550,000 to fly Grace back from Singapore to attend her mother’s funeral), lest he too be ousted and be placed at the mercy of his replacement.

Consequently when Mugabe declined to attend Mnangagwa’s inauguration in late August 2018, citing ill health and the fact that Grace was in Singapore for medical care, Mnangagwa faced a conundrum. Having Mugabe present would help present the image of a legitimate transition of power, so in order to avoid any misunderstanding he read out the letter he had received from Mugabe in front of tens of thousands of Zimbabweans before his inauguration at Harare’s National Sport Stadium. Even after leaving office Mugabe’s health continues to dominate politics in the country.

The Bottom Line

What began as a means for Mugabe to circumvent Western sanctions and access medical care quickly became a sustained and ongoing connection with Singapore. The millions spent by Mugabe on world class healthcare and travel expenses highlighted not only his increasing frailty but also the decrepit state of Zimbabwe’s health care sector. By absconding to Singapore, Mugabe and his family not only demonstrated their contempt for the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans but also provided brief glimpses at what a post-Mugabe world might look like.

 
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Singapore also served (and continues to serve) as a stage showcasing the excess and corruption of the Mugabe family. Eye watering shopping bills, deals with smugglers on the black market and undignified tantrums only cemented popular hatred of Mugabe and Grace in particular.

Despite having being ousted from power, the former First Family continues to use Singapore as a base. The current Zimbabwean government offered immunity to the Mugabe family as part of their regime change deal, and as such the Zimbabwean taxpayer continues to pay for Mugabe and company’s lavish retirement / exile. While Mugabe stubbornly continues to survive, Emmerson Mnangagwa hopes to shuffle the Mugabe clan out of the public spotlight (and therefore keep them quiet) by maintaining them in the style to which they are accustomed. Even out of power Mugabe’s health continues to be a dominant theme in Zimbabwean politics: who knows what mischief he will unleash on the country when he does finally die.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.