JOHANNESBURG – Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's longtime leader, has sought to brush away concerns that his wife controls him, saying she is "not the power behind my throne."
The remark came ahead of a lavish birthday party for Mugabe — he turned 91 a week ago — on Saturday in the resort town of Victoria Falls that caps 35 years in charge of the southern African nation. Over the decades, Mugabe has sidelined and sometimes crushed dissent, and sparred frequently with the West over his human rights record, casting himself as a champion of post-colonial Africa.
Despite his tumultuous rule, Mugabe has at least a ceremonial role in representing the continent, becoming chairman of the 54-nation African Union in a rotating position that lasts one year. He is also head of a regional group of 15 southern African nations, recently offering support for democratic elections to be held Saturday in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
Lesotho's record of coalition government places it apart from Zimbabwe and many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa where liberation movements that fought colonialism and white minority rule morphed into dominant political parties for decades.
Rival political leaders in Lesotho agreed to early elections as a way to overcome tension that has spilled into violence among security forces several times since last year. As the rotating chief of the Southern African Development Community, Mugabe met Prime Minister Thomas Thabane of Lesotho last week in South Africa, where regional leaders expressed hope for a peaceful vote.
"There's a lot hanging in the balance" in Lesotho's election, said Jeff Smith, Africa program officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. He said the military had pledged to stay in its barracks but that underlying tensions can only be overcome if political factions accept the results, which are expected to produce another coalition government rather than any clear-cut winner.
Thabane suspended parliament in June to avoid a vote of no-confidence after his coalition government splintered. He fled to South Africa, alleging he was the target of a coup attempt, and returned under the protection of South African forces.
He is an election contender. Lesotho's king, Letsie III, has a ceremonial role in politics. The parliament has 120 seats and the country has 1.2 million registered voters.
Lesotho has little strategic significance although it is a vital source of highlands water for parched South Africa, which has one of the continent's biggest economies and has been heavily involved in trying to stabilize its small neighbor.
The African Union and the southern African group that Mugabe now leads forced the Zimbabwean leader into an uneasy power-sharing deal with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change after 2008 elections marred by violence and fraud allegations.
Mugabe, who again won disputed elections in 2013, has purged perceived rivals within his party who were said to oppose the political rise of wife Grace, who has become secretary for women's affairs in the ruling party. While Zimbabwe's economy is in a dire state, Mugabe's political standing — and that of his 49-year-old wife — appear solid.
"She is not the power behind my throne," Mugabe said in an interview aired Thursday on state broadcaster ZTV. "She came to me and said, 'Women want me to lead them' and I said. 'It's up to you.' But because of the dynamism with which she came out, it started giving people ideas with some saying she is now the power behind the party, she is now running what the president is doing. But we have a machinery of the party, we discuss."
Associated Press writer Farai Mutsaka contributed to this report from Harare, Zimbabwe.