- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003


HARARE, Zimbabwe — Builders are putting the finishing touches to a retirement estate for President Robert Mugabe that will rival the most extravagant of African leaders’ residences.

The project is the latest sign of how his regime is prospering while vast numbers of his country’s people are close to starvation. The World Food Program estimates that 5.5 million Zimbabweans — almost half the population — will need hunger relief by the end of the year.

Several architects who have seen aerial pictures of Mr. Mugabe’s new mansion, 16 miles north of Harare, say it looks as large as a medium-size hotel.

Surveyors in Harare estimated the cost of the building at $5.89 million — a colossal sum in a country where some factory workers earn less than $10 a month. Final costs, including for landscaping, security and interior decoration, are expected to push the bill to more than $9 million.

Contractors are working feverishly on the fittings, and two lakes built for Mr. Mugabe on the southern boundary are being filled.

The residence offers more than 3 acres of accommodation, mostly on three floors, including two-story reception rooms, an office suite, and up to 25 bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms and spas. The Chinese-style roof is clad in midnight-blue glazed tiles from Shanghai. The ceilings were decorated by Arab craftsmen.

Sources in the building industry say landscaping and interior decoration — supervised by Mr. Mugabe’s wife, Grace, known for her expensive tastes — will be done by South Africans.

The site manager, Alexandre Illic, said last week that the building had been completed about a month ago. It was built by a former Yugoslav company, Energoproject, which has had close links with Mr. Mugabe.

The mansion is more than three times the size of Mr. Mugabe’s present official residence and his offices at State House in the capital, Harare.

Its scale has raised opposition concerns that if — as is widely expected — Mr. Mugabe steps down as leader of his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front party at the annual congress in December, or maybe after his 80th birthday in February, real power will move from his official government offices to his new residence.

“It had always been assumed that Mugabe himself has not been corrupt. The size of this house would suggest otherwise and will further complicate the negotiation process as Mugabe seeks to secure a peaceful exit,” said David Coltart, the justice spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. “He must explain to Zimbabweans where he got the money from to build such a mansion.”

The Daily Telegraph faxed questions to Mr. Mugabe’s Harare office, asking how the residence was financed, but received no reply.

Since coming to power 23 years ago — first as prime minister and then as executive president — Mr. Mugabe has officially earned a total of less than $1 million, including various allowances. Last month, he increased his annual salary 1,000 percent to the equivalent of about $36,000.

The European Union and the United States have refused to fund regional projects in which Zimbabwe is involved and have imposed sanctions to protest Mr. Mugabe’s disputed re-election last year, which was judged fraudulent by some international observers.

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