State of Zimbabwe, in 28 minutes

A hesitant President Robert Mugabe got through a whole state of the nation address this week,  without a single mention of bond notes, or the vexed question of whether he would retire.

But there was a brief moment in this 28-minute speech when anything seemed possible: “I wish to take this opportunity…” Mugabe said, sitting underneath the giant ivory tusks of his presidential chair in parliament.

And then the 92-year-old president hesitated. And chuckled.

“I wish to take this opportunity… to wish the nation an accident-free festive season,” he concluded.

Watching Mugabe, few in this cash-strapped, politically-divided southern African nation could doubt that the president knew exactly what Zimbabweans were thinking.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had said before this speech that Mugabe’s announcement of his retirement would be the best present he could give the nation. He has been in power in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.

Apart from that moment, this was a lack-lustre speech that gave little sense of the hardships Zimbabweans are suffering on the ground. Tourism is improving, Mugabe said – though the room occupancy rate in the first six months of the year only went up from 41 to 42 percent.

Power cuts were less frequent too, the president said. That’s certainly true but most analysts put that down to the fact that industry is running at such a low capacity that it’s hardly using any power. “Government is concerned about the high-level of gender-based violence,” Mugabe said.

But he made no mention of the concerns that government opponents and Western embassies have raised over alleged incidents of state-sponsored violence against activists. The latest alleged victim is Ishmael Kauzani, a member of the Tajamuka protest movement.

Political unrest has been on the up in Zimbabwe on the back of the #ThisFlag protest, started by Harare pastor Evan Mawarire in April. He has since fled into exile. Mugabe made no reference to bond notes, the controversial paper money that the central bank introduced 10 million US dollars’ worth of eight days ago.

Many here fear the notes will drag Zimbabwe back to the dark days of hyperinflation seen between 2006 and 2008.

There was one nod to “economic hardships” but not in the way critics might have hoped.

“I want to pay tribute to our peace-loving people who have endured all manner of economic hardships since we embarked on the historic land reform programme,” launched in 2000, the president said.

He may have been sitting under ivory – but Mugabe appeared to be ignoring the elephants in the room.

Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said it was not a useful exercise for Zimbabweans to hope that things would change for the better with Mugabe and Zanu PF in power. “Besides, the statement was embarrassingly short for a State-of-the-Nation Address. What was even more embarrassing was the heckling he was subjected to and it is sad that the head of State has allowed himself to sink that low.

“This also reflects how Zimbabweans no longer have confidence in Mugabe and the state. The sight was very undignifying and you do not often see that anywhere else in the world,” Mandaza said.

Former Finance minister Tendai Biti said as long as Mugabe — who is the only leader to have led Zimbabwe since the country’s independence from Britain in April 1980 — was still in power, the country would not move forward.

“There is nothing new that he has said. We have heard all that before and it was a waste of time to listen to his speech. In fact, his legacy has been of destruction. We used to be the Switzerland of Africa but now we are truly the Zimbabwe ruins,” he said.

Biti added that it was also time for opposition political parties to “swallow their egos” and come together to unseat Mugabe and his Zanu PF government from power.

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