Robert Mugabe celebrates his 83rd birthday Wednesday as his supporters prepare a cake-and-fizzy-drinks party in the central city of Gweru.
Africa's oldest leader and the world's oldest head of state and government is fit, active and alert, according to senior sources in his ruling Zanu Party. But he is under pressure as never before.
The party has been deducting money from civil servants' wages and bullying near-bankrupt businesses for donations to raise the 300 million Zimbabwean dollars (about $58,600 at real rather than official rates) to pay for the celebration on Friday. In attendance will be the 21st of February Movement, an organization of children established with the sole purpose of gathering on this day each year to pay homage.
Together with hundreds of Mugabe's rich and powerful cronies, they are expected to hear a long address from the "most consistent and authentic revolutionary leader" — his official title. The cost of the party would supply 300 Aids sufferers with antiretroviral drugs for a year in a country where only 50,000 people out of 500,000 infected have access to them.
"If they said, 'Come and join us', and sent a car here to fetch me, I would never go," Abigail Zvikomo, who sells vegetables on the streets of Harare, said. "Even though I am starving, I would not go. I hate him."
The price of bread rose 136 per cent yesterday. Four loaves would cost a farmworker 15,000 dollars, which is about a month's wages. On Friday the government doubled the price of maize-meal, the national staple, to the point where it will take a farmworker two months to pay for a 130lb bag, which is about enough for a family of six for a month.
With inflation at 1,600 per cent, the country is seething with discontent. The 450-odd junior doctors who run the hospitals are in their eighth week of a strike. So are about a quarter of the 100,000 teachers. The civil service is mooting similar action. And, while the president's guests party on Friday, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions will review his failure to bring workers' salaries into line with the cost of living and decide whether to strike.
"We send him regular reports on the situation," said a provincial head of the Central Intelligence Organization, Mugabe's secret police. "We tell him the truth, that the population is fed up with the economic situation and that it is building up to an explosion."
On Sunday morning, when supporters of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change gathered in Harare for the launch of its campaign for presidential elections, due next year, they were met by armed riot police with teargas grenades and a water cannon, in defiance of a high court order the day before that mandated that police not to interfere with the rally.
Mugabe has no intention of holding elections next year. He is whipping the central committee into shifting the date to 2010, thus extending his tenure.