When Pope Benedict XVl announced that old age was forcing him to resign at the end of the month, did he know how much excitement this would cause thousands of kilometres from the Vatican? Animated conversations in bars and office corridor whispers suggest that here in Zimbabwe even non-Catholics can’t help but contrast the pontiff’s voluntary retirement with their aging president’s ambitions.
By Nkosana Dlamini, Harare
It’s been 33 years since Robert Mugabe became his country’s founding leader and, sure enough, he’s gunning for a sixth term. Crisis-weary Zimbabweans feel their long-serving president should take a cue from the pope, who is in fact four years Mugabe’s junior. But it’s the politician’s extravagant birthday bash early next month that has really drawn the ire of his people – most of whom still struggle to get a modest meal on the table.
Local newspapers are full of ads congratulating Mugabe on turning 89. Though his birthday is on February 21, its celebration - an annual ritual on Zimbabwe’s political calendar - is set for 2 March. Devout followers are scrambling to raise US$600,000 in donations from businesses and rich individuals.
This will perhaps be the most expensive birthday party in Zimbabwe's history and probably the whole of southern Africa. One of many efforts to raise the event's profile will include a match between two of the country’s most popular football clubs - the Highlanders and the Dynamos - battling it out for the Bob 89 Super Cup. On 1 March, the country's top musicians will play an all-night concert in honour of Bob, as Mugabe is affectionately known. The next day’s affair in the mining town of Bindura will provide the icing on the cake: a keynote address by the birthday celebrant himself.
But not everyone is in the mood for partying. Mugabe’s ostentatious gigs stand in glaring contrast with his starving people.
Social and economic rights activist Hope Gumbo, 34, says that apart from providing his fawning lieutenants a platform to massage his ego, Mugabe’s expensive soirees draw attention to his old age. “While there is nothing bad about celebrating one’s birthday, it is the birthday party of a rich president who is leading poor citizens that is cause for concern,” says Gumbo. “While he and his followers will be feasting and making-merry, we, the ordinary Zimbabweans, will be reminded that there is indeed need for leadership renewal.”
Meanwhile, Mugabe has managed to remove a clause in the country’s draft constitution that caps the age of aspiring presidents at 70. (The constitutional referendum is scheduled for 16 March.)
The leader's die-hard supporters defend the profligate birthday parties and his cling on power. They believe Mugabe is still strong enough to run for another five-year term even. They don’t seem bothered by reports in 2011 that he drew US$3 million from the national treasury to finance each of his trips to the Far East for medical treatment.
Alson Darikai, a vocal champion of Mugabe’s youth empowerment policies, thinks the president deserves more time at the helm so he can see through his black empowerment drive. “Let’s not take a cue from what one pope and the Vatican have done. Ours is a different situation all together,” he says. “Let’s take this time to celebrate this living legend. Long live Robert Mugabe!"