God on Zimbabwe’s side, Mugabe’s kin says

Dixon is a Times staff writer.

Comrade Mugabe leans forward, eyes popping behind glinting spectacles. To him it’s obvious: The global financial meltdown, coming after endless Western ridicule of Zimbabwe’s economy, is no coincidence.

It’s an act of God.

“The world is tumbling, but ours is going on. Doesn’t that surprise you?” he says, with a meaningful glance.

“What is happening in Wall Street -- what relationship does it have with this little country called Zimbabwe? It’s divine intervention. Absolutely.”

This Mugabe is not the big man who has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years. It is his nephew, Leo Mugabe: businessman, farmer, former lawmaker, channel surfer of religious programs and, like his uncle, target of international sanctions.

Mugabe notes, with a smile of satisfaction, that the Western financial mess makes Zimbabwe look good by comparison. The country may have inflation of 231 million percent, but America’s bank bailout has even more zeros.


Leo is the son of President Robert Mugabe’s sister Sabina and is described as Mugabe’s favorite nephew. He runs an engineering company called Integrated Contracting Engineers, which is powerful by virtue of his connections and has won several big government infrastructure projects.

A tall, slim figure with a wispy goatee and salt-and-pepper hair, the 51-year-old sees Zimbabwe almost as a chosen country: Any other would have crumbled with just half Zimbabwe’s inflation, yet it still somehow struggles along, he says.

Expansive and relaxed, he offers a fervid defense of the government, reflecting the view of his uncle’s ZANU-PF party that the entire crisis boils down to the West’s determination to use sanctions to oust a plucky regime that thwarted colonial exploitation on the African continent.

“God has answered. But he has not finished answering them for the illegal sanctions. I believe you’ll see more floods, cyclones, fires and economic woes, just by us kneeling down and asking God to rescue us from them.”

Leo Mugabe’s name was added to the list of individuals facing U.S. sanctions early this year. He also faces European Union sanctions as director of Zimbabwe’s state-owned arms dealing company, Zimbabwe Defense Industries.

The sanctions freeze assets in Europe and the U.S., ban travel there and bar U.S. companies from doing business with him and Europeans from trading with the arms company.

Mugabe, a Roman Catholic, is profoundly religious. He attends Mass regularly and claims to be able to tell which TV preachers are crooks and which ones are pure because “I know how to communicate with God,” and he mutters without elaborating that there was one requirement of the faith he had been unable to live up to.

His wife, Veronica, sued him for divorce this year, accusing him of womanizing. The divorce writ led to a flurry of scandal in the press. Demanding a half-share in his property, she asserted that he owned three farms -- a claim he denies.

Mugabe has had several brushes with controversy. He was arrested and briefly jailed in 2005, accused of smuggling flour into Mozambique; the case was dropped for lack of evidence. He used to chair the national soccer governing body, the Zimbabwe Football Assn., until late 2002, when there was a vote of no confidence in his leadership over accusation of misappropriation of a $61,000 youth development grant, a charge he has denied.

Mugabe’s farming sideline is not unusual in Zimbabwe: Nearly every top politician, banker, judge and general is also a farmer, on land handed over to them by the government.

Busy with their town jobs, many ZANU-PF beneficiaries produce virtually nothing on their farms, one major factor in the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agriculture after private farms started being seized from white owners in 2000.

ZANU-PF has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, but disputed elections this year led to a power-sharing deal with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, a deal now in doubt with the parties quarreling over Cabinet posts.

Mugabe said the regime’s willingness to give the posts to the opposition was a magnanimous gesture based on the interests of the country, but warned that if opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai failed to take the deal soon, he’d end up with nothing.

“We are an economy under siege, and obviously we are experiencing challenges which have resulted in this political settlement so we can create a political environment conducive to better economic performance, because all political parties have their country at heart,” Mugabe said.

But he said the deal was not a power transfer: “We share what we have. It comes from he who holds it. He’s sharing,” he said with careful precision.

Optimism tends to run in short supply in Zimbabwe these days, but Leo Mugabe exudes it: It will rain. There will be a good harvest.

“And our life will begin to be the way it should be. Don’t forget -- God is here in Zimbabwe now.”