HARARE: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, described by his wife Grace as “the poorest president the world over”, suffered embarrassment when she was dragged to court by a businessman in a dispute over a $1.4million (R19.3m) diamond ring.

The expensive ring was meant to be Mugabe’s 20th wedding anniversary gift to his wife. Sources told The Star yesterday that before Lebanese businessman Jamal Ahmed filed an urgent court application, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa was alerted by intelligence officers that Grace’s dispute with the diamond dealer was threatening to blow into the open, with devastating consequences for the president’s image.

On December 3, Mnangagwa called off a trip to his farm 300km south of Harare and instead spent the weekend trying to mediate between Mugabe’s wife and the businessman. But the vice-president’s efforts came to naught. The businessman’s lawyers told Mnangagwa that Grace’s bodyguards must vacate his three Harare mansions before any meaningful talks could begin.

Documents show that in April 2015, Grace placed an order for a $1.4m diamond ring in Dubai through Thatchfree Investments, a company owned by Ahmed. Grace paid for the ring through an electronic transfer via the Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe. But the deal went sour when Grace decided she no longer wanted the ring and began demanding a refund.

When the businessman told Mugabe’s wife that he had paid for the ring through a third party and needed time to raise a refund, she angrily demanded that the $1.4m be deposited into her Dubai bank account. When he told her it was impossible, she sent armed men to forcibly occupy his three upmarket houses.

The diamond dealer has now approached the high court to order the first lady to vacate the mansions.

Opposition leaders and the public have reacted with outrage, condemning Mugabe and his wife for leading a lavish lifestyle in a country where 72percent of the population live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 (R17) a day.

The source of the money has been queried, considering that Mugabe’s official monthly salary is $12000. An average civil servant in Zimbabwe earns $400. Mugabe’s only known business, a loss-making dairy, Alpha Omega, is reeling under an unsustainable $20m debt, even after receiving generous loans from state-owned banks.

Former finance minister Tendai Biti said Mugabe takes $4m cash from the treasury every time he travels abroad. By some estimates, he spent more than $80m on foreign travel in the first six months of 2016, including 10 trips to Singapore, where he regularly receives medical treatment.

In 2014, Grace told traditional chiefs: “Mugabe is the poorest president the world over.” She also revealed in an interview with South African television presenter Dali Tambo that when she married Mugabe in 1996, he was so poor “he had nothing to his name”.

Gorden Moyo, secretary-general of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, described Grace’s lavish spending as obscene.

“This is gluttonous politics. Her (Grace’s) insatiable appetite for vanity is only comparable to Ferdinand Marcos’s wife. She should be warned that the people are watching,” Moyo said.

Marcos is a former Filipino president.

The jet-set lifestyle and financial dealings of Mugabe’s wife are discussed with a sense of outrage by poverty-stricken Zimbabweans. Harare abounds with stories of her overseas shopping expeditions. She reportedly blew $90000 in one day on luxury goods during a 2003 trip to Paris. Travellers at Singapore Airport were astonished when she entered the first-class lounge with 15 trolley-loads of shopping.

Thabitha Khumalo, an opposition Movement for Democratic Change legislator, said the diamond ring scandal showed how Zimbabwe’s ruling elite had lost all moral credibility.

“How can somebody buy a ring worth $1.4 million when people are dying in our hospitals because there are no drugs? And children can’t go to school because of hunger.”