Originally published on The Guardian
When Grace Mugabe summoned a number of supporters to her sprawling private compound at Mazowe, north of Harare, in 2014 – she told them that all suggestions her husband was a wealthy man were wide of the mark.
Standing in front of the 30 or so luxury villas that she has had built on the property, she insisted that the truth was that Mugabe was the poorest head of state in the world.
“We are blessed because we have Baba Mugabe,” she said. “He is the poorest president the world over. I have never seen him asking for money from anyone.”
Nobody listening believed a word of it, of course. Grace enjoys a number of soubriquets in Zimbabwe, all of them reflecting a widespread belief that she enjoys squandering the country’s wealth: the First Shopper, Gucci Grace, and even DisGrace.
The couple’s home in Harare is said to be extraordinarily opulent, so much so that when their daughter Bona was married there, photographers were said to have been ordered not to take any pictures that showed the property in the background.
According to some estimates, Robert Mugabe has about £1bn-worth of assets, much of it invested outside Zimbabwe. A 2001 US diplomatic cable, later released by the whistle-blowing organisation WikiLeaks, quoted this figure, and said that while reliable information was difficult to find, there were rumours that his assets “include everything from secret accounts in Switzerland, the Channel Islands and the Bahamas to castles in Scotland”.
Grace Mugabe is said to have bought a number of properties in the affluent Sandton suburb of Johannesburg and there are reported to have been property purchases in Malaysia, Singapore and possibly Dubai.
The first lady is reported to have the sort of designer shoe collection that might be expected of a dictator’s wife and, notoriously, is said to have spent $75,000 (£56,000) on luxury goods on a single shopping spree in Paris.
Grace denies this, although there is plenty of evidence of extravagance within the Mugabe family. Earlier this year the couple’s youngest son, Bellarmine Chatunga, posted on Instagram a photograph of his watch with the caption: “$60,000 on the wrist when your daddy run the whole country ya know!!!”
Shortly afterwards, a video emerged showing the 21-year-old dousing his watch with champagne from a bottle of Armand de Brignac gold champagne, which retails at around $400 a bottle.
A small glimpse of Robert and Grace Mugabe’s wealth came to light in 2015, during a dispute over ownership of a $7.6m home in Hong Kong. There was a second glimpse earlier this year when the government-owned Herald newspaper reported that Grace had ordered a $1.35m diamond ring to mark her wedding anniversary.
However, there has been little sign of the couple’s riches outside the country since 2002, when the European Union began imposing sanctions and asset seizure orders on senior regime figures. This came after the government launched a violent crackdown on opponents, refused to permit the monitoring of elections and evicted some white farmers from their farms.
So little has come to light that the Herald at one point said: “Nothing has been found despite the celebrated international intelligence network of the Americans, British and other western super powers.”
But in Zimbabwe itself, the couple have been more brazen. As well as the compound at Mazowe and the palatial home in the capital’s wealthy Borrowdale district, they have a number of land holdings.
The best known is the Omega Dairy farm, one of the largest dairy farms in southern Africa. Opposition politicians have claimed that the Mugabes actually own 14 farms in the country, which would be in contravention of the constitution, which limits land holdings.
Further diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks offer intriguing insights into the kleptocracy that the couple helped to create.
In one, headlined “Doing business Zimbabwe-style”, a US diplomat recounts a story about a high court judge taking possession of a white commercial farm north of Harare in 2002, in defiance of a order issued by his own court.
“The farm was near the Mugabe rural home,” the diplomat reported. “In 2009, the farm caught the eye of First Lady Grace Mugabe, who apparently wanted it for her son from her first marriage.”
She is said to have ordered the judge off the land. He countered with a lawsuit “but unsurprisingly”, the diplomat noted, no court was willing to hear the case.
The judge then found another farm, and demanded that the owner leave. But a government minister, who was “a patron” of the owner, told him to desist and look for another farm.
So he found another large farm and demanded a portion of that. The owners were reported to be “a bit miffed” that he was demanding 900 hectares, when his original farm had been just 600. “They ultimately negotiated,” the diplomat said.
Source: Ian Cobain, The Guardian