MASVINGO — President Robert Mugabe — the world’s oldest leader — yesterday celebrated his 92nd birthday at a lavish affair.
Thousands of party loyalists, foreign representatives and members of the public watched as Mugabe released 92 balloons in the air, with songs and ululations ringing out around him.
Several cakes were on display at the public festivities, one in the shape of Africa, another a whopping 92-kg replica of the party venue: the Great Zimbabwe ruins, a Unesco world heritage site built in the 13th Century as the headquarters of the Munhumutapa empire.
Balloons and cake, however, did little to hide the infighting that has defined the ruling Zanu PF party in the last year as Mugabe continues to avoid naming a successor, despite his advanced age and recent speculation over his health.
Mugabe, who turned 92 last Sunday, 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”.
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 scale of the celebrations, costing a reported $800 000 this year, attracts annual controversy in Zimbabwe, which recently declared a “state of disaster” due to an ongoing regional drought and widespread food shortages.
“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, said.
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.
On Tuesday, scores of young supporters from the MDC-T party staged a protest in Masvingo.
Protest placards read: “No birthday when children are starving” and “We want jobs, not bashes.”
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.
The MDC-T called the celebrations “obscene”.
Mugabe has dominated Zimbabwe politics since independence from the UK in 1980.
The event, which was televised and featured schoolchildren reading poetry about the president, was held in the drought-stricken Masvingo.
Money used for the event should be used to import maize “to avert the impending starvation” in Masvingo and other areas, said Obert Gutu, the MDC-T spokesman.
Eddie Cross, an MP for the MDC-T said: “The obscenity of this particular exercise is that he throws this bash not just based on public funds… but he does it in one of the worst-affected drought-stricken parts of the country.”
The UN’s World Food Programme said food production had fallen by half compared to a year earlier, because of a severe drought.
The government said about three million people were food insecure and earlier this month it asked for nearly $1,6 billion in aid.
Mugabe has blamed his country’s economic troubles on Western meddling.