ZMBABWE – At Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s 91st birthday party last year, the aging autocrat didn’t want a big show. Instead, the oldest head of state in the entire world dressed in a pinstriped suit and red tie, wrapped a red scarf around his neck, and looked on with pride as his 20,000 some guests feasted on buffaloes, impalas, cakes the size of mattresses, and even a baby elephant slaughtered specially for the occasion.
He topped off the celebration — which took place at Elephant Hills resort near Victoria Falls and is estimated to have cost around $1 million — by releasing 91 balloons into the air with the help of his then 49-year-old wife, Grace.
This year, Zimbabwe is facing its most major drought in recent history. Roughly one-fifth of the country’s more than 14 million people urgently need aid, and economic growth has ground to a near total halt.
But more importantly to Mugabe, on Sunday he turned 92 — and the extravagant celebrations will continue all week, as they typically have since his birthday was first nationally recognized in 1986.
Last Friday, many of Zimbabwe’s most elite gathered for a banquet to honor the controversial president, who Washington has accused of launching a major crackdown on human rights and democracy. Attendees paid thousands of dollars to reserve tables at the event, which raised funds for Mugabe’s upcoming birthday parties, including the ones this week.
The amount of time and money being put into multiple parties while the country suffers through a drought is “a microcosm of the Mugabe administration’s misplaced priorities over the past four decades,” said Jeffrey Smith, an American human rights activist (and occasional Foreign Policy contributor) who specializes in Africa.
Over the weekend, Mugabe’s opposition disparaged Friday’s lavish dinner as an insult to those suffering from Zimbabwe’s ongoing environmental disaster.
But its organizers dismissed the criticism, and said helping those suffering from the drought and celebrating Mugabe’s birthday are not mutually exclusive.
“To be able to mobilize resources to honor one of Africa’s finest icons during such a difficult time proves our resilience,” said Tongai Kasukuwere, a youth member of Mugabe’s political party ZANU-PF, who helped organized the dinner. “It is not like we are taking grain meant for drought programs to feed people at the celebrations. These are voluntary donors.”
Those donors aren’t the only ones eager to prioritize celebrations of Mugabe’s big day. On Sunday, the 92-year-old celebrated his birthday privately, but the country’s state-run Sunday Mail published a special edition of the newspaper that likened the leader’s birth to that of Jesus Christ.
On Tuesday, Zimbabwean daily newspaper the Herald said Mugabe’s staff surprised him with a large cake, adorned with a portrait of him. He thanked them with a speech and bragged that with the help of the Zimbabwean people, he and the country have created a successful legacy.
Washington probably wouldn’t agree: There have been targeted sanctions and travel bans in place against Mugabe and his leadership for more than a decade, and after a visit to Harare last May, State Department officials said they had no immediate plans to change their policies toward the aging leader’s administration. The United States continues to provide humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe despite the economic sanctions against Mugabe and his leadership team. But Mugabe has often called the sanctions a factor in Zimbabwe’s economic struggles — an accusation Washington has dismissed as off-base.
Smith told FP that Washington has been tougher on Zimbabwe than on other embattled leaders in the region. He also added that Zimbabwe is being hit harder by the drought than its neighbors because of poor governance and near total lack of infrastructure.
“Zimbabweans are poorer in general and more reliant on external help, but these are just symptoms,” Smith said. “The government’s willingness to spend extravagant amounts of money for a nonagenarian leader is indicative and emblematic of bigger problems.”
Mugabe’s real birthday party will take place this upcoming Saturday, with a public celebration in the southeastern city of Masvingo. Rumor has it the party will cost at least $800,000 and include a 92-kilogram cake. Whether zoo animals will be slaughtered again this year is currently unknown.