PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe last week took a delegation of about 80 people that included cabinet ministers, security aides and support staff to attend the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly that started on Tuesday in New York, it has emerged.
Insiders say Mugabe left the country with a large entourage of officials and hangers-on who have turned the annual UN meetings into a shopping opportunity mainly as a result of travel bans imposed on the President and some members of his Zanu PF inner circle since 2002.
"The effect of such trips on the fiscus is unbearable considering that we have just come from an election that gobbled up more than a hundred million dollars," a senior government official said.
Using Treasury circular No 8 of 2009 and at a minimum per diem rate of US$300 for the United States, government would have had to fork out a minimum of US$120 000 for the delegation for five days on the trip. But the amounts are likely to be much higher now and sources say up to US$500 000 would be spent.
The source also questioned why Mugabe should go to New York and spend five days when some leaders normally attend only important meetings, leaving after a few days.
"Most of the leaders only attend important meetings and leave after a few days, but Mugabe and his team are likely to spend five days before his address yet everyone knows how expensive New York is," the source said.
Mugabe, accompanied by his wife Grace, Foreign Affairs minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi and senior government officials, left the country a week before the day he was supposed to address other world leaders, yesterday.
In 2010 Mugabe stole the media limelight after he was spotted browsing in a downmarket drug store in New York.
Karen Kelley, US Embassy Harare spokesperson and counsellor for public affairs, refused to state how many visas the embassy processed for Mugabe's trip.
"Due to the confidential nature of the visa issuance process, we are unable to provide statistics on the question of the number of visas issued for government of Zimbabwe officials attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York," Kelley said. "What I can confirm is that the US Embassy's consular section processed 100% of the visas requested without any delays."
Another government official said since the meeting coincides with the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) summit, Mugabe should have taken with him only ministers of Foreign affairs, Health, Labour and Social Welfare and Education.
"It does not need 80 people," said the official. "What he needs are the relevant ministers, supporting staff and aides, not an army of officials."