Lavish celebrations for Mugabe's birthday, despite drought

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Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has marked his 92nd birthday Sunday with private celebrations while a massive event is planned for next week amid the country's widespread drought.

The state broadcaster led bulletins with well-wishes for Mugabe, the world's oldest head of state who has been in power for 36 years, while the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper published a 16-page supplement for the birthday. "Mugabe's birthday is like that of Jesus Christ," proclaimed posters promoting the newspaper's special edition.

Public celebrations will be held on Feb. 27 in the southeastern city of Masvingo, near the historic site of Great Zimbabwe. Mugabe's birthday has been publicly celebrated since 1986 and while political leaders would not divulge the budget for this year's party, in the past the event has cost up to $1 million for the transportation, accommodation and food for thousands of guests.

This year's party will be held as Zimbabwe is choked by a drought that has left over 3 million people reliant on food aid, mainly supplied by the United States and the European Union, according to the World Food Program and the United Nations Development Program. The lavish birthday celebrations have been criticized by Mugabe's opponents, but the president's supporters insist the party will go ahead as planned.

Ruling party politicians and businesspeople paid from $5,000 to $100,000 for a table of 10 at a dinner Friday night to raise funds for the birthday festivities. The dinner on Friday was sold out, said Tongai Kasukuwere, a member of the ruling ZANU-PF party's youth wing and the event's organizer.

"To be able to mobilize resources to honor one of Africa's finest icons during such a difficult time proves our resilience," said Kasukuwere. "It is not like we are taking grain meant for drought programs to feed people at the celebrations. These are voluntary donors."

Outside the banquet, some Zimbabweans were bitterly critical of the birthday plans.

"Maybe they have no shame, openly feasting amid such hunger," said Denias Munongoza, 27, a college graduate who sells cigarettes and condoms to feed his family. "This year the president should have said 'no.'"

"Mugabe and his cronies are planning to feast instead of attending to the resuscitation of the comatose economy and addressing the effects and impact of the drought," said Obert Gutu, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-T.