By MacDonald Dzirutwe
President Robert Mugabe has marked his 92nd birthday at a nearly US$1 million (NZ$1.50 million) party organised by supporters, drawing criticism from opponents who said the celebrations in a drought-stricken area were an affront to ordinary Zimbabweans.
Africa's oldest leader, Mugabe turned 92 on February 21 and shows no intention of stepping down, much to the frustration of feuding members of his ruling ZANU-PF party who have been long trying to position themselves for his succession.
Thousands of party supporters on Saturday (local time) gathered next to the Great Zimbabwe ruins to pay tribute to Mugabe, the country's only leader since independence from Britain in 1980.
Mugabe, who was accompanied by his wife, Grace, and their children, released 92 balloons and sat listening to poetry readings, songs and chants by supporters hailing him as an African icon and a visionary.
Pupurai Togarepi, ZANU-PF's youth leader said 50,000 people were expected to attend and defended spending US$800,000 on the birthday celebrations.
"Money is not the issue here. You cannot put a price on the contribution of President Mugabe to the history and development of this nation," Togarepi told Reuters.
Mugabe's lavish birthday parties have become an annual pilgrimage for loyalists and those seeking favours from the veteran leader, but this year's celebration in the drought-battered Masvingo province proved particularly controversial.
In Masvingo, 75 percent of the staple maize crop was destroyed by the parched conditions, making it the hardest-hit in the southern African nation.
Zimbabwe's worst drought since 1992 has left three million people facing hunger and Zimbabwe has appealed for nearly US$1.6 billion to help pay for grain and other food.
"ZANU-PF should be utterly ashamed of hosting an expensive birthday bash for their aging ruler whilst more than 90 percent of Zimbabweans are wallowing in grinding poverty caused by decades of Robert Mugabe's misrule and mismanagement of the economy," Obert Gutu, a spokesman for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said in a statement.