MASVINGO – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest leader, hosts lavish celebrations to mark his 92nd birthday on Saturday at a time of severe drought and increasing friction over his succession.
Tens of thousands of party loyalists, officials and members of the public are expected to attend a day of concerts, street parades and parties in Masvingo in the southeast of the country.
“Organisers have been working flat out to ensure the celebrations are a success,” Simon Khaya-Moyo, spokesman for the ruling ZANU-PF party told AFP. “Everything is in place and we are looking forward to tremendous events.”
Mugabe, who turned 92 on Sunday last week, has ruled for 36 years during an era marked by vote-rigging, mass emigration, accusations of human rights abuses and economic decline.
On his actual birthday, state media poured praise on his leadership since independence from Britain.
In its 16-page special supplement, the Sunday Mail said on its front cover: “Thank You Bob, We now have a voice, since 1980”.
The main party on Saturday will be held in a large tent at the Great Zimbabwe ruins, a Unesco world heritage site that was built in the 13th century as the headquarters of the Munhumutapa empire.
Cattle and wild game will be slaughtered for the feast, with organisers claiming that as many as 50,000 guests are expected.
The scale of the celebrations, costing a reported $800,000 (R12.9-million) this year, attract annual controversy in Zimbabwe, which recently declared a “state of disaster” due to the drought and widespread food shortages.
‘Very little to celebrate’
“There is very little to celebrate for a 92-year-old who has presided over the collapse of the economy, reducing the country to a nation of vendors and beggars,” Takavafira Zhou, a political analyst at Masvingo State University, told AFP.
“There will be wining and dining at the venue while all around people are starving.”
Zimbabwe has suffered a series of food crises and hyper-inflation since Mugabe’s land reforms when farms were seized from white farmers for redistribution.
Despite his advanced age and recent speculation over his health, Mugabe has avoided naming a successor, fuelling infighting within Zanu-PF.
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa is viewed as the likely next president, but in recent weeks he has been publicly criticised by Mugabe’s wife Grace in a sign of growing rivalry.
The president continues to give lengthy speeches, often launching tirades against his Western foes, but he has become increasingly frail.
He courted ridicule in September by reading the wrong speech to parliament, unaware that he had delivered the same address a month earlier.
On Tuesday, scores of young supporters from the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party staged a protest in Masvingo.
Protest placards read: “No birthday when children are starving” and “We want jobs, not bashes”.
Last year, Mugabe’s 91st birthday celebrations included a cake that weighed 91kg.
Local media reported that party activists ordered teachers and villagers in the rural districts of Masvingo to make cash donations to help pay for this year’s celebrations.