Festivities for Mugabe’s birthday feed anger in hungry nation

President turns 85 today – but the event will be a pale imitation of previous years

By Daniel Howden,Africa Correspondent
Saturday 21 February 2009 01:00

While all else in Zimbabwe falls apart, one thing endures: Robert Gabriel Mugabe turns 85 today.

The landmark was met with little celebration in the country which, under his stewardship, now has the lowest life expectancy in the world – 34 years. Attempts by his Zanu-PF party to raise funds for a national celebration on 28 February have so far failed to meet the planned cost of US$250,000 (£175,000). The business community, which faces annual threats and extortion to fund related events, could not provide the money, despite funding past events to the tune of US$1.2m.

News of lavish celebrations to mark yet another of the autocrat’s birthdays has sparked anger in a country where more than half the population is being fed by international aid and a crumbling sanitation system has fuelled a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 3,500 people.

The octogenarian leader’s supporters have been busy fundraising for a party at his rural home of Chinhoyi. But one Harare resident called Milton noted that there has not been much publicity about the birthday this year. “I don’t believe the party in Chinhoyi will attract the thousands of people we saw in years past. If I were to go to Chinhoyi it’s a matter of just taking advantage of free food and buses since we are so broke and can’t afford to travel and buy food any more,” he said.

“As Mugabe throws parties in Zimbabwe for his 85th birthday, one in 10 children in his country are destined to die before their fifth birthday,” said Sarah Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, one of the foreign NGOs that has been working to save lives amid the wreckage of Zimbabwe’s crumbling health system. “Most of their mothers won’t even live to half the President’s age,” she added.

While the veteran leader’s controversial wife, Grace, was expected to hold an exclusive dinner party at the couple’s mansion in Harare last night, a UN assessment team arrived in the country to take stock of the multifaceted humanitarian crises.

Mr Mugabe’s traditional birthday address to the nation was the subject of fierce speculation last night with fevered reports suggesting that he was going to resign. Most observers agreed, however, that this was wishful thinking.

Senior MDC sources said the battered unity government, which has been losing credibility with each passing day, was hoping for an amnesty for all political prisoners to be announced. That would include Zimbabwe’s new Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Roy Bennett, who has been in jail for the past week on terrorism-related charges. Authorities yesterday restricted visiting rights to Mr Bennett at the remote Mutare prison where he is being held. The outspoken white farmer, whose property was seized during the disastrous land invasions, can only have one visit a week.

“[This] is clearly a vindictive move to punish Roy Bennett, by wardens at Mutare,” said Nqobizitha Mlilo, an MDC spokesman. Mr Bennett is being kept in such “deplorable conditions that one person in his cell died yesterday and the body is still to be removed”.

In addition to Mr Bennett, other opposition activists including the human rights campaigner Jestina Mukoko have not been released despite the swearing in of the new power-sharing administration. Last week, the MDC laid out a number of conditions by which the success of the unity government could be judged, including the release of political prisoners, the sacking of the central bank governor and the attorney general. As of last night none of these conditions had been met.

Despite this lack of progress and continual harassment from hardliners within Mr Mugabe’s party, the new Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, is attempting to attract foreign investment back into the pariah state. Mr Tsvangirai was in South Africa in search of US$5bn, the estimated cost of restoring the ravaged economy. “Obviously as a country that is emerging from such a dire situation, foreign direct investment is one of the areas of focus … anything that is inhibitive for foreign direct investment … has to be reviewed,” he said in Cape Town.

Accompanied by his Finance Minister, Tendai Biti, the Prime Minister said the country would not be adopting its neighbour’s currency. This week the US dollar was used to pay key civil servants, and the Harare stock exchange began trading in the US dollar. However, Mr Tsvangirai said the country would adopt a “multi-currency” solution, deepening the confusion over how it will operate.

Mugabe’s birthday: What the people think

A housewife, Harare

I am not bothered by this birthday. Why should we celebrate one birthday when millions of people are dying of cholera with no drugs available? Mugabe is no longer popular now, so his birthday is insignificant. We have better things to think of, such as food, school fees, shelter and medication.

Chimombe, Bindura

I have lost everything in the hands of Zanu-PF. People who celebrate Mugabe’s birthday have something to gain at the end of the day: for example looting and political favours. To me 21 February will remain an ordinary day full of anguish. This day will only serve to remind me that the worst dictator in the history of the world is still surviving. I wish God would give him more years to live so that he experiences hell here on earth. We have had enough of this old man.

Mobile phone recharge card vendor, Harare

Time is money, I can’t afford to lose a day of work at all, because I won’t be able to pay rent. Mugabe was a hero of the liberation struggle just after 1980, but now we can’t think of him like a hero. We are not concerned any more. If he still insists on having a big party for his party, we should also expect another one for the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Shelly, Harare

I am 29 years old, just as old as Zimbabwe, but I haven’t seen what the proceeds from Mugabe’s birthday are used for. We have a lot of orphans and destitutes all over in Harare but it’s only Zanu-PF people who benefit. The world is changing therefore Mugabe and Zanu-PF should also change – just like Barack Obama said.

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