The birthday of the world's oldest president had more than a touch of the tragic and the absurd.
President Robert Mugabe turned 92 years old last Sunday, but the festivities continued well into Saturday for the leader, who has ruled Zimbabwe since the southern African country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1980 -- and presided over brutal crackdowns and economic collapse. Now, the country is contending with its worst drought in over two decades. Zimbabwean officials said this month that some 3 million people -- nearly a quarter of the population -- lack access to sufficient food.
But the president and his friends were not going hungry.
A lavish banquet was held in Mugabe's honor. His office threw him a "surprise" birthday party (he said he wasn't surprised). The state-run newspaper compared the aging leader's birthday to that of Jesus Christ.
On Saturday, in one of Zimbabwe's most stricken provinces for drought and hunger, Mugabe staged his biggest birthday celebration yet this week.
At the $800,000 celebration in Masvingo, southeastern Zimbabwe, Mugabe listened to speeches and songs in his praise, before cutting a giant cake in the shape of the ancient ruins that the country was named after. The cake, per tradition, reportedly weighed 92 kg (more than 200 pounds), one kilogram for each of his 92 years of age. Ninety-two balloons were released into the air.
State media said 50,000 people attended the ceremony and feasted on 50 cattle, quite the luxury, considering nearly 20,000 of the farm animals have died as a result of the recent drought, according to Zimbabwean officials.
The day before his birthday bash, Mugabe donated 300 cows to the African Union Foundation, a newly created development arm of Africa's 54-country alliance. The foundation aims to fund African development in science, technology and agriculture and enlist public and private sector contributions across the continent, stressing the importance of African self-reliance.
Mugabe first proposed his livestock donation to the organization last year, when he pledged to persuade his wife to part with 300 of their many cattle to spearhead African contributions and help the foundation steer clear of foreign aid.
"It just struck me that no one had ever thought of a gift by way of cattle to the African Union," Mugabe said Friday, according to state media. "And since we are cattle people, why shouldn't we also make a gift to the African Union in cattle form?"
African Union officials said they have yet to decide whether to sell the cows to raise money or keep them and grow the herd.
Zimbabwean opposition leaders were furious at Mugabe's lavish celebrations.
“Our dear leader is preparing a big birthday bash ... among starving people,” opposition politician Simba Makoni told local media. "How cruel and uncaring at a time the chiefs and headmen in those areas are appealing for food assistance, and for ways of saving their dying livestock."
An opposition supporter posted a photo on Twitter this week purporting to show people in struggling Masvingo province protesting the party, holding banners reading "We want jobs, not bash."
One Zimbabwean economist, John Robertson, estimated that the $800,000 spent on Saturday's party could pay a year’s school fees for 1,000 disadvantaged children.
Event organizers defended the lavish party, which they said Mugabe supporters had funded. "It is not like we are taking grain meant for drought programs to feed people at the celebrations," said party organizer Tongai Kasukuwere, according to The Associated Press.
Mugabe took the opportunity to make an hour-long speech in which he rejected foreign aid, despite recently declaring a state of disaster in parts of the country, and bizarrely suggested food assistance would be linked to LGBT rights.
"If aid, as I understand, is to be given on the basis that we accept the principle of gay marriages, then let that aid stay were it is," he said. "We don't want it. It is rotten aid, filthy aid and we won't have anything to do with it."
Mugabe blames his country's economic woes on foreign sanctions. Critics say his government's economic mismanagement and campaign of seizing land from white farmers is largely to blame. The country's economy shrunk 50 percent during nearly a decade of recession before 2008, causing hyperinflation and widespread poverty.
Despite his advancing years, Mugabe has no intention of giving up his title as the world's oldest leader. "As long as I am alive I will rule the country," he vowed last month.
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