Zimbawe's President Robert Mugabe arrives at Fiumicino airport in Rome, Italy, on Monday. He is banned from traveling to the European Union over allegations of human rights abuses and election rigging.
By Alastair Jamieson, Staff writer, NBC News
Zimbabwe's long-ruling President Robert Mugabe on Monday arrived in Rome, where he is expected to join other leaders at Tuesday’s installation of Pope Francis.
The 89-year-old is banned from traveling to the European Union amid allegations of human rights abuses and election rigging.
However, the papal state of Vatican City is not part of the EU.
Italy does not to enforce the ban on those using its territory to reach Vatican City, which is encircled by Italy and has no airport of its own.
Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pontiff, will be officially installed as the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church on Tuesday.
As the new Pope Francis has been greeting tens of thousands in St. Peter's Square this weekend, worldwide leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, are arriving for his inauguration on Tuesday. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.
Lombardi told reporters on Sunday he had "no idea" if Mugabe would be attending, the Guardian said.
Mugabe, a conservative Catholic who has ruled the southern African country since independence from Britain in 1980, last visited the Vatican in April 2011 when he joined world dignitaries for the beatification of Pope John Paul II.
He has staunchly opposed gay rights that he says are immoral and not compatible with African cultural practices in Zimbabwe.
Vice President Joe Biden and the president of Jesuit-run Georgetown University will be among the Americans attending, The Associated Press reported.
Pope Francis, who was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, met Argentine President Cristina Fernandez on Monday.
Fernandez said after the meeting that she had asked the pope to intervene in support of Buenos Aires in a dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, according to Reuters.
"I asked for his intervention to avoid problems that could emerge from the militarization of Great Britain in the south Atlantic," Reuters quoted her as saying. "We want a dialogue and that's why we asked the pope to intervene so that the dialogue is successful.''
That's 217 dollars, not $217 million or $217 billion.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti said Tuesday that that was all that was left in the country's public accounts after it paid its civil servants last week, the South African Press Association reported. He told reporters in the capital, Harare, that some of them were probably better off than the state.
But the debt the country built up during those years of nationalist rule by President Robert Mugabe left it with a minimal tax base and few cash reserves, the IMF said, leaving Zimbabwe vulnerable to economic "shocks."
One of those would appear to be the regular wage bill for civil servants — which accounts for 73 percent of the national budget.
Biti, an opposition member of Mugabe's coalition, said the lack of cash threatened elections that are expected some time after a March referendum on a new constitution.
Residents of Zimbabwe's second largest city, Bulawayo, are being asked to flush their toilets at the same time, in a move city officials hope will unblock sewers following days of severe water rationing, the BBC reported.
The Bulawayo City Council has asked its more than 1 million residents to flush their toilets simultaneously at 7:30 p.m. when water supplies are restored. City officials say "synchronized flushing" is needed to clear waste that would have accumulated in sanitary facilities that will have been affected by days of water outages.
Residents can go without running water for three days at a time, the BBC reported.
Bulawayo's two main supply dams have been drying up because of drought conditions prevailing in the arid, southwestern part of Zimbabwe, raising fears of worsening water shortages before the rainy season starts in November.
According to the BBC, the first synchronized flushing took place Monday. City workers had warned residents they risked a fine if they didn't participate.
"I made sure my wife and children flushed the toilet at 19:30 to avoid blocking our own toilet. So far, the flushing of toilets was a success here in Cowdray Park township," Dumisani Mpofu told the BBC.
The lack of water in the system has led to a build-up that's causing sewer pipes to burst all over the city, according to NewZimbabwe.com. The city plans to have the synchronized flush at the same time twice a week - on Mondays and Thursdays.
The proposal was met with skepticism by some residents.
"I don't think the exercise will be a success because when the flushing comes at 7:30, many townships would be without water," Bulawayo United Residents Association chairman Winos Dube told the BBC.
"Our leaders are a joke," Petros Ncube told the BBC, adding: "What they should be doing is finding money from donors to buy new sewer pipes."
Synchronized flushing was first introduced to Bulawayo two decades ago at the height of a drought that ravaged the southern African nation.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe signs an agreement on Tuesday calling for the 2013 UNWTO General Assembly to be co-hosted by Zambia and Zimbabwe.
By msnbc.com staff
The United Nations has appointed Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a "leader for tourism," sparking criticism from human rights activists, the Guardian reported.
The UN World Tourism Organization endorsed Mugabe, 88, along with his political ally, Zambian President Michael Sata, 75, as international envoys for the tourism initiative. The two African leaders will also co-host the organization's general assembly in August 2013.
Speaking in Victoria Falls, UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai endorsed Zimbabwe as a safe tourism destination, according to The Herald, Zimbabwe's state-owned newspaper.
"I was told about the wonderful experience and the warm hospitality of this country," Rifai said. “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination."
Mugabe and Sata also attended and signed the UNWTO agreement.
The development came as a shock to human rights activists. Widely regarded as a pariah in the West, Mugabe is blamed for running Zimbabwe's economy into the ground and for massive human rights abuses to keep his grip on power. He is also subject to a travel ban.
"I can't see any justification for the man being an 'ambassador.' An ambassador for what? The man has blood on his hands. Do they want tourists to see those bloody hands?" The Guardian quoted Kumbi Muchemwa, a spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, as saying.
Advocacy officer Dewa Mavhinga of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition also criticized the appointment, telling the British newspaper: "It sends the wrong message to Mugabe that he is now acceptable to the international community. This is the same guy who last week was bashing gays and lesbians, who he says are worse than dogs."
Critics have also said that Mugabe's appointment damages the UNWTO's credibility.
"It undermines the reputation of the UNWTO as being detached from the reality on the ground in terms of human rights violations and political instability," University of Zimbabwe politics professor John Makumbe told The Guardian.
UNWTO said it had not awarded Mugabe an official title.
"Correct would be to say UNWTO has presented both presidents with an open letter which calls for them to support tourism as a means to foster sustainable development in their countries to the benefit of their people and consequently ask them to support the sector in this respect," communications coordinator Sandra Carvao told The Guardian.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is greeted by Vice President Joice Mujuru as he returns home to Harare, April 12, 2012, after a trip to Singapore that had ignited speculation the veteran leader was seriously ill.
President Robert Mugabe returned home on Thursday, looking fit after a trip to Singapore that had ignited speculation the veteran Zimbabwean leader was seriously ill.
The 88-year-old president, who has ruled the southern African country for more than three decades, landed at Harare's main airport in a chartered plane accompanied by his wife Grace.
Information minister Webster Shamu blamed Western media for spreading rumors about Mugabe's health. Media had speculated that Mugabe went for vital medical attention in Singapore, where he traveled for check-ups eight times last year.
"As you can see, he is fit as a fiddle. Why do we spread rumors? It's all lies told by a press driving an imperialist agenda," Shamu told a group of reporters at the airport.
Three hours after his arrival just after 7 a.m., Mugabe was chairing a weekly cabinet meeting that had been rescheduled from Tuesday, senior government officials told Reuters.
Mugabe went round the cabinet room greeting and laughing with ministers, including those from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by his bitter rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the officials said.
Mugabe and Tsvangirai share power in a fragile coalition formed three years ago.
A Reuters reporter had earlier seen Mugabe at the airport joking and laughing with Vice President Joice Mujuru, a possible successor.
The former guerrilla leader has been the subject of several health scares, with some reports saying he has prostate cancer, but in February interviews with state media he laughed off suggestions that he was seriously ill.
Mugabe and close aides have kept his health a closely guarded secret.
Some members of his ZANU-PF party are afraid that, should Mugabe die in office without settling a bitter succession battle, the party could erupt in internal conflict and destabilize the country.
Although ZANU-PF officials rally behind Mugabe in public, in private many want him to retire and pass the baton to a younger person as they fear his advanced age may cost the party victory in an upcoming election.
But while some ZANU-PF members see Mugabe as a political liability, they recognize him as the only person able to control the highly partisan Zimbabwean army led by veterans of the 1970s independence war.
Many are also unsure whether his potential successors can defeat ZANU-PF's most formidable opponent, Tsvangirai, in a free election. Elections must be held by next year under the terms of their power-sharing deal.
Zimbabwean officials on Tuesday dismissed reports that President Robert Mugabe was critically ill in Singapore, saying he was well and on vacation there with his family, and was expected to return home this week.
Mugabe is one of Africa's longest serving leaders and has ruled the former British colony in southern Africa since 1980. He is sharing power with political rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in a fragile coalition formed three years ago.
The 88-year-old president has been the subject of several health scares in recent years, with some reports saying he has prostate cancer, but in February interviews with state media he laughed off suggestions that he was seriously ill.
However, two senior officials from Mugabe's ZANU-PF party angrily denied the reports. "The president is well and away on a private holiday to help his daughter prepare for post-graduate studies, but we are expecting him home this week," said one of the two officials, who declined to be named.
"But some sick and malicious people are spreading false stories about him being seriously ill while others are saying he is dead or dying out there," he added.
Asked whether the president had also used his 10-day visit to Singapore for a medical check-up, one of the officials said: "We are not going to be engaged over rumours, speculation and wishful thinking."
Mugabe has made frequent visits to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
A terse Zimbabwean government statement saying a weekly cabinet meeting set for Tuesday had been postponed to Thursday had fed the rash of media speculation about the president's health. Mugabe usually chairs cabinet meetings.
Mugabe, who celebrated his 88th birthday on Feb. 21, was endorsed by his party as its presidential candidate for a general election he wants to be held before the end of this year despite opposition from his major political rivals.
Analysts say Mugabe will face a tough challenge convincing voters to extend his 32-year rule after a devastating economic crisis many blame on ZANU-PF.
Although ZANU-PF officials rally behind Mugabe in public, in private many want him to retire and pass the baton to a younger heir due to fears his advanced age may cost the party victory in the upcoming election.
This sentiment within ZANU-PF has intensified since reports, based on a June 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, that Mugabe is suffering from prostate cancer.
Reuters and msnbc.com's Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe greets the crowd upon his arrival for the official opening of the Zanu PF Congress in Bulawayo, on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. Loyalists of the Zimbabwe president's party are gathering for a party conference in preparation next year's election.
By Rohit Kachroo , NBC News Correspont
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe – Dancing erratically and singing passionately outside the conference hall, an elderly woman named Grace anticipates the arrival of the president. While many people refer to him simply as a “tyrant” and a “dictator,” she calls him “our liberation hero, Mr. R.G. Mugabe.”
His smiling face is stitched onto her outfit. She sings his name and throws her body from side to side close to the edge of the red carpet. “He is our savior, he freed us from the imperialists,” she says, referring to Britain, the old colonial power.
Suddenly she spots “His Excellency” walking toward the auditorium to open the congress of his party, ZANU-PF, where he is confirmed as a candidate for elections, expected next year. Grace joins the crowd that is following him – a mix of loyal supporters, loyal civil servants and loyal security guards.
Eventually, seven hours after he was due to begin, Mugabe delivers his speech.
Familiar rhetoric It suddenly becomes obvious where Grace has picked up her language. Her leader defines Zimbabwe’s enemies as “the imperialists,” too – in this case, the American and European powers involved in the NATO campaign in Libya, a “bloody tragedy” motivated by “oil and reconstruction projects.” Only “a dead imperialist” is a good one, he says.
It is a long speech, and some of the slogans about the West are familiar. The apparent evil of the white world, particularly Britain, has formed part of the rhetoric of Robert Mugabe for his whole political life. The ZANU-PF party congress started Thursday with Mugabe’s appearance and continues until Saturday.
Delivering his speech wearing a bright red suit, Mugabe throws his fist around, switching between languages as he works through the address. But the country and the world beyond the heavily armed gates has evolved much faster than the president’s favorite lines.
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP
Supporters of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe are seen before his arrival for the official opening of the Zanu PF Congress in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011.
For one, Mugabe’s closest enemies are no longer in foreign capitals, but a few blocks from the presidential state house in Harare.
Though he remains an autocrat in control of most organs of the state, the disputed results of elections in 2008 forced him into an uneasy power-sharing agreement with his party’s rival, the Movement for Democratic Change, led by the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai. “They are a party for women,” said one delegate, emulating part of Mugabe’s speech, though he then named the older enemy, Britain, as Zimbabwe’s true foe.
With school choirs singing celebratory songs in the background, many ZANU-PF supporters are keen to highlight Zimbabwe’s successes. Literacy rates are relatively high; the economy is growing as natural resources are exploited; the terrifying days of 2008, when hyper-inflation forced the economy into free-fall, have passed. But in the run-down townships a few miles from the conference hall, it is clear that extreme poverty and disease haunt many parts of Zimbabwe.
Divisions among the ranks There, many people no longer accept the president’s claim that they are suffering the destructive impact of international sanctions; some do not believe his proposed solution of ensuring that black Zimbabweans own 51 percent of foreign companies based within the country. And many are concerned that under Mugabe the country will never be far from another explosion of violence.
There are rumors of divisions at the congress – unheard of at previous meetings. Independent newspapers claim that delegates are worried about the ability of the 87-year-old president to fight an election campaign and they have been plotting to find a successor. One loyal supporter rolls his eyes when I mention such concerns. He is frustrated by the very suggestion, but his response suggests that it is one that he is used to hearing. Another senior supporter calls Mugabe “the fittest public figure in Zimbabwe.”
That may be a wildly exaggerated assessment for a man who appears to nod off during some meetings, but he seemed to be healthy as he stormed into the conference hall to speak for more than two hours. However, that will not have convinced some of his opponents. They claim that the octogenarian’s frequent trips to Singapore are not to visit his daughter, as his people claim, but for medical treatment.
The now banned South African Nandos "Last Dictator Standing" ad. The ad was deemed offensive by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and his supporters - so out of fear of violent reprisals, the ad was pulled from the airwaves.
'Last dictator standing' ad Then there’s one unexpected issue that has cropped up as a last-minute talking point on the fringes of the congress – a controversial fast food commercial that many see as a humiliating attack on the president. When I mention it to one delegate, he gulps and warns me that “‘Nando’s’ is a dirty word here.”
We’re talking, in hushed tones, about a TV commercial for the restaurant chain that stars an actor depicting Mugabe as “the last dictator standing.” To the soundtrack ‘Those Were The Days’, the look-a-like recalls the president during happier times – laughing uncontrollably during cozy moments with the dictators of the world – playing in the sand with Saddam Hussein and sharing the microphone with Mao Tse-tung at a raucous karaoke evening. After the reminiscing, a lonely “Mugabe” is seen sitting mournfully at the head of a presidential dining table set for his fallen foreign friends. “No one should ever have to eat alone” the voiceover guy tells us, with the final pitch for a family-size portion of fast-food chicken.
The ad, broadcast across southern Africa, was pulled because of fears of attacks on Nando’s restaurants in Harare, but only after raising many laughs and a few questions about Mugabe’s future after this year of revolution.
For Mugabe, heading into a likely election year, the Arab Spring simply teaches Zimbabwe to beware of the West and to consolidate sovereignty. His opponents worry what that might mean. They believe that the pace of democratic reform must accelerate, and the president must accept the need for change.
But Grace, his singing, dancing elderly supporter outside, believes “He must rule forever.”
According to the feverish rhetoric of the Congress, there can be no Zimbabwe without him.
Zimbabwe's famed colonial-era "Hanging Tree" crashed into the street after being struck by a workers' truck in Harare, Zimbabwe, Dec. 7. Mbuya Nehanda and other icons of the first uprising against white settlers were said to have been hanged from the tree in 1898. Witnesses said the 200-year-old Msasa tree, declared a historic site and national monument, fell Wednesday and some workers fled, believing it a sacred omen of "bad things to come." Crowds gathered at the felled tree Thursday to take pieces of it and a n'anga, known in the West as a witchdoctor, performed rites over the trunk and branches. The indigenous African tree, or brachystegia speciformis, was commemorated on a Zimbabwe postage stamp in 1996 and political rallies have often been held there.
The felling of Zimbabwe's famed colonial-era "Hanging Tree" is reviving legends and superstitions and has many believing it signals a new era for this troubled southern African nation, whose hardline 87-year-old president is in the winter of his long rule.
The fall of the tree came on the same day that President Robert Mugabe, suffering from ill health, marked the country's national tree planting and reforestation campaign by planting a tree in the second city of Bulawayo.
It also coincided with the annual congress of Mugabe's party, its last major gathering before crucial elections next year. The vote is meant to end a fragile coalition government with the former opposition of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai formed after disputed elections in 2008 that were plagued by violence and allegations of vote rigging.
"It's got to be a sign something big is going to happen," street vendor Mathias Vinyu told The Associated Press of the tree fall.