President Robert Mugabe has insisted he is not due for retirement as he marks his 90th birthday today – but no-one knows if he will make it to his party.
“The leadership still exists that runs this country. In other words, I am still there,” the veteran leader said in a pre-recorded interview with state television.
After 34 years in power, Mr Mugabe said he found it “shameful” and “terrible” that top party cadres were jostling to succeed him, a clear reference to vice president Joyce Mujuru and her rival, justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mr Mugabe has been in Singapore this week, officially for a cataract operation although the trip has fuelled rumours that his health is failing. It is an open secret that the Zimbabwe leader has prostate cancer and makes frequent trips to the Asian island city for treatment.
His spokesman, George Charamba, insisted Mr Mugabe would be back “well in time” for Sunday, when loyalists plan a lavish £600,000 party in the town of Marondera.
But uncertainty mounted yesterday after claims from a Zanu-PF insider who blogs as Baba Jukwa that “truckloads” of furniture hired for the occasion from a South African events management company were being returned unused.
Preparations for the party start weeks in advance. After contributions in cash and cattle went missing ahead of the birthday in previous years, this time fundraisers turned their attentions to teachers and soldiers, who have been forced to contribute £1.20 each to help pay for the event.
Raymond Majongwe, head of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, told the independent Newsday newspaper “This is extortion. Why are they milking a stone? Teachers have no money.”
But Zanu-PF youth leader Absalom Sikhosana said recently: “Turning 90 is no mean feat. You cannot turn 90 years when you are a womaniser, a drunkard or a chain smoker. We will be celebrating the life of a very special person on a special occasion.”
Harare economist Vince Musewe said: “People are asking where the money’s coming from. One million kids are out of school, there’s this Tokwe-Mukorsi Dam disaster [in which floods have displaced thousands] and people are having parties. It’s just irresponsible.”
Analysts fear Zimbabwe is on the brink of economic meltdown as job losses and company closures mount and a return to the discredited Zimbabwe dollar appears increasingly likely.
Mr Mugabe claimed victory in last July’s election, beating his longtime rival Morgan Tsvangirai in a poll Britain and the EU do not believe was free and fair. The bloc retained sanctions on Mr Mugabe and his wife Grace this week.
The Zimbabwe president has been in power since independence in 1980 and is Africa’s oldest head of state. Ahead of the elections a new constitution was voted in, allowing him to stand again for election in 2018, meaning he could rule until he is 99.
“When the day comes and I retire, sure, yes, the day will come but I do not want to leave my party in tatters. I want to leave it intact,” Mr Mugabe said in his birthday interview.
Zanu-PF is currently rocked by a corruption scandal, with revelations that top party allies have been paying themselves salaries of tens of thousands of pounds. They include the head of the civil servants’ medical insurance scheme PSMAS, Cuthbert Dube, who paid himself £300,000 per month – and regularly donated Mugabe’s novelty birthday cakes.
Ill and ageing, forced to watch the party he created devour itself, Mr Mugabe appears stuck in a trap of his own making.