HARARE: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who turned 93 this week, celebrates his birthday on Saturday with a lavish party attended by thousands of loyalists outside the second city of Bulawayo.
The ruling ZANU-PF party is hosting the event for Mugabe, who has held power since 1980 during a reign marked by repression of dissent, vote-rigging and the country’s economic collapse.
Now the world’s oldest national leader, his actual birthday on Tuesday has been celebrated in a week-long extravaganza with state media filled with tributes and praise.
The annual party — reported to cost up to $1 million (0.9 million euros) — includes a multi-course feast and vast birthday cakes, angering many Zimbabweans as the country endures severe food shortages.
Holding the event at a school in Matobo has also riled locals as it is close to where many victims of Mugabe’s deadly crackdown on dissidents in the early 1980s are thought to be buried.
At least 20,000 people are believed to have been killed in the massacres by North Korean-trained Zimbabwean troops, according to rights groups.
“This should not be a place for celebration,” Mbuso Fuzwayo, spokesman for the Bulawayo-based campaign group Ibhetshu Likazulu, told AFP.
“The whole area is a crime scene where the bones of victims of the massacres are buried.”
Mugabe gave a faltering television interview this week, vowing to remain in power despite growing signs of frailty.
During the pre-recorded birthday broadcast, Mugabe paused at length between sentences and spoke with his eyes barely open.
“The call to step down must come from my party,” he said. “If I feel that I can’t do it any more, I will say so to my party so that they relieve me. But for now, I think I can’t say so.”
The state-owned Herald newspaper on Tuesday published a 24-page supplement of congratulatory messages from government departments and regime loyalists.
Local ZANU-PF party activist Sibongile Ndiweni described hosting of the party as “a blessing”.
“It’s an honour and privilege to have such a luminary icon celebrating with us,” he said.
“President Mugabe is a national president who has the right to have an event wherever he feels like.”
ZANU-PF has endorsed Mugabe as its candidate for general elections next year, and he remains widely respected as a liberation hero by other African leaders.
He has avoided naming a successor, but his wife, Grace, 51, is seen as a possible candidate along with vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Born on February 21, 1924, Mugabe trained as a teacher and taught in what was then Rhodesia and Ghana before returning home to join the guerrilla war against white-minority rule.
He became prime minister on Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980 and then president in 1987.
All schools around Bulawayo were closed on Thursday and Friday.
“Our children were told their classrooms have been turned into boarding facilities, and they are being frogmarched to join the birthday party,” local poet and opposition activist Desire Moyo told AFP.