MATOPO HILLS, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is celebrating his 93rd birthday amid granite hills where ancient spirits are said to dwell, defying calls to resign after nearly four decades in power in a region known for opposing the man who says he'll run again in 2018 elections.
Thousands of government supporters, some wearing clothing adorned with Mugabe's image, converged in Matabeleland on Saturday for a birthday bash and show of strength for the ruling ZANU-PF party, beset by squabbling in the past year as the elderly president weakened and factions, one including his wife Grace, sparred ahead of an expected power vacuum.
Mugabe, a former rebel leader who took power after independence from white minority rule in 1980, declared a few days ago that most Zimbabweans think nobody can replace him. The longevity of the world's oldest head of state is a source of heartache for Zimbabwe's splintered opposition and uncertainty for investors, leaving the economically struggling country in limbo.
Zimbabwe's challenges include a strike by doctors over working conditions that has forced army and police doctors to deploy in public hospitals. Conditions at hospitals were already deteriorating because of poor staffing and low supplies of medicine. The government has endured other crises, rejecting decades of opposition and Western allegations about human rights violations, voting irregularities and economic mismanagement.
Mugabe, who turned 93 on Tuesday, has been serenaded at a palace cake-cutting by singers who wished him "many more" birthdays. Air Zimbabwe, the cash-strapped national carrier, and other entities took out birthday notices in pro-government media. Dancers and musicians performed ahead of Saturday's party at a school in Matopo Hills, on the outskirts of Bulawayo city with caves and rock art dating back thousands of years.
The region, whose mystical-looking rock formations have been the setting for religious ceremonies, is also associated with the often violent fissures of pre- and post-colonial Africa. British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes is buried there. It is also the site of mass graves of some of the thousands of Ndebele people killed in the 1980s by a North Korea-trained military unit loyal to Mugabe, a member of the rival Shona ethnic group.
The memory of that episode prompted some anti-government activists to denounce the selection of Matopo Hills for Mugabe's birthday party, though ruling party figures said it will promote tourism in the area.
Mugabe's state security minister at the time of the killings, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is now a vice president and possible successor. Some ruling party members who support him have criticized Grace Mugabe, a leader in a rival faction who recently said her husband should run as a "corpse" if he dies before the next elections.
Mnangagwa is also sticking to the official script that Mugabe is the only option for now, denouncing any "mad young people" in the ZANU-PF party who want him to oust Mugabe. Such dissenters, some born after independence in 1980, should be expelled from a party with "a liberation struggle history," he said, according to the state-run Herald newspaper.
The ruling party, Mnangagwa said, "will rule forever" and will vote for Mugabe in next year's elections.
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