Zimbabwe’s president and guests to enjoy a $1m party at a luxury golf course amid widespread child malnutrition and high unemployment
John F Kennedy being serenaded by Marilyn Monroe apart, most presidents tend to make their birthdays private, low-key affairs. Not Robert Mugabe. Year after year the leader of Zimbabwe holds a lavish celebration, regardless of the state of the economy, and his 91st birthday will be no different.
There will be music, dancing and elephant meat on the menu as an estimated 20,000 guests gather on a luxury golf course near Victoria Falls for a jamboree set to cost at least $1m (£650,000). Opposition MPs have branded the feast obscene in a country where the UN says one in three children are stunted because of hunger.
Mugabe’s longevity puts Zimbabwe, a nation of 14 million people that ranks low in every global development and governance index, on top of the world by one measure. He is the oldest leader on the planet, ahead of Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, 88, and Malaysia’s 87-year-old supreme head of state, Abdul Halim of Kedah.
“It’s a record to be ashamed of, not only for Zimbabwe but for Africa,” said Dewa Mavhinga, senior researcher for Zimbabwe at Human Rights Watch. “It points to the foolishness of respecting age too much without acknowledging that there is a law of diminishing returns. The world over there are young leaders taking over and bringing fresh ideas, but in Zimbabwe there is an old leader who brought virtually nothing during his 34 years in power.”
Mugabe’s birthday is on Saturday but the party will be held a week later, on 28 February, at a championship golf course at Elephant Hills, a plush hotel resort with spa, pool and tennis courts near the Victoria Falls. Local farmer Tendai Musasa has reportedly pledged to donate two elephants, two buffaloes, two sables, five impalas and a lion worth a combined £78,000, much to the chagrin of conservationists.
The 21st February Movement, set up in 1986 to raise funds to celebrate Mugabe’s birthday each year, is reportedly aiming for at least $1m this time. Kennedy Mandaza, a South African-based spokesman for the governing Zanu-PF party, said: “There is nothing wrong to raise that amount of money, especially when there are so many well-wishers willing to donate to the president, given what he has done for the country and continues to do today.”
The event will be funded by private individuals rather than state coffers, Mandaza insisted. “People are offering resources they have got from their hard work. Yes, we are going through a rough space in Zimbabwe but that does not mean everyone in the country has not been able to give money.”
The party is likely to feature merchandise including a “happy birthday” music video by the band Offspring of Land and T-shirts that narrate Mugabe’s life and career through photographs. Their designer, Xenophon Tome-Garan’anga, told the state-controlled Herald newspaper: “I have always looked up to President Mugabe, who inspired me from a very early age. He will forever be my role model and I could not think of any better way to honour him.”
The contrast between such opulence and a country lurching from crisis to crisis has become an annual sore point in Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s 89th birthday party featured a cake weighing 89kg. Last year’s landmark 90th was said to have cost about $1m. Zimbabwe’s per capita income in 2013 was $600, putting it 227th in the world – with only the Democratic Republic of the Congo lower. With factory closures, banks under pressure and unemployment sky high, the economy is stagnating and the government is accused of a “let them eat cake” attitude.
Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has called for the party to be cancelled and all money raised to be redirected to hospitals and schools. Obert Chaurura Gutu, its national spokesman, said: “The irony of it all is the fact that the bash will be taking place at a time leading economists have since announced that the average incomes in Zimbabwe are now at their lowest in 60 years.
“The majority of the people of Zimbabwe are living in penury, squalor and destitution and thus it would be grossly offensive for Robert Mugabe and a few of his hangers-on to wine and dine at the Mosi-oa-Tunya [Victoria Falls] … It is high time that the Zanu-PF regime showed some respect and empathy for the toiling masses of Zimbabwe.”
Others joined the condemnation. Tendai Biti, a former finance minister and now secretary-general of the breakaway MDC Renewal, said: “In a country where the majority of people are surviving on 35 cents a day, it’s an absolute obscenity that this kind of consumption can go on. It’s totally unacceptable. It’s been going on since 1980 [Zimbabwe’s independence] because of the deification of the leader.”
Mugabe is the only president Zimbabwe has known since independence and the Zanu-PF youth league has called for his birthday to be declared a national holiday. His frail health was back in the spotlight recently when he stumbled after stepping off a podium. He is often said to fall asleep during meetings. But for years he has travelled to east Asia for medical attention, rumoured to include a mysterious treatment involving blood transfusions, and returned to declare himself “fitter than two fiddles”.
Ibbo Mandaza, an analyst at the Southern Africa Political and Economic Series Trust, said the birthday bash reflects political manoeuvring in the seemingly never-ending succession race. “It’s being done less for him than those around him. It underlines the political context. Those who are harbouring ambitions for the future want to be there as long as they can in the hope that they can get through the door.”