A pox upon this vermin

The Australian - ZIMBABWE began a week of lavish celebrations yesterday to mark the 85th birthday of President Robert Mugabe, Africa's oldest leader, with a party at a luxury hotel in the capital. A crowd of 2,000 was expected to feast on beef in sauce or roast chicken, rice and vegetables last night, with serenades from a variety of musical acts at the Rainbow Towers in Harare.

The dinner was in part a fundraiser to make up a short-fall in donations for further celebrations next weekend. Organisers have complained angrily that businessmen and farmers have reneged on promised contributions. Mugabe and his family are used to extravagant birthday parties.

Last year his supporters raised £175,000. This year, with the country bankrupt, almost half the population needing food aid and unemployment at 94per cent, donations have failed to meet targets. ......The country’s bankrupt public sector used tens of thousands of US dollars – now the currency in Zimbabwe – to place large newspaper advertisements congratulating the president.

The prison service, which does not provide food or clean water for political prisoners such as Jestina Mukoko, the human rights monitor who was jailed in December, spent $2,000 on an advertisement paying tribute to “the resilient and true Son of the Soil . . . the force that binds us together”.

The grain marketing board, which cannot provide even a subsistence diet for Zimbabwe’s people, spent $1,500 praising Mugabe’s “sacrificial dedication, shrewd leadership and vision”. The defence ministry described the president, who has been in power since independence in 1980, as a “mighty crocodile” who has remained “resilient, focused and resolute” in securing the country.

Even the Zimbabwean parliament, now led by an opposition speaker, splashed out on a gushing advertisement saluting Mugabe’s “unwavering determination and commitment” to consolidate the gains of independence. The climax of the week-long celebrations will be in Chinhoyi, 63 miles northwest of Harare. Its hotels used to be filled with tourists stopping to visit nearby caves.

They are now deserted. Mugabe’s party will not provide the town with any business. His guests will stay in the town’s university, conveniently empty of students who have not been allowed to resume their studies this year. Mugabe’s daughter Bona, 20, is studying for her degree in Hong Kong where the Mugabes have a £4m house.

“There has not been one piece of maintenance, nothing, for three years at the university, but now everything is being painted so Mugabe can say it’s all modern,” said a student union spokesman. “When he goes the university will close down again.” For days thugs from the 21 February Movement, a body devoted entirely to the annual birthday celebrations, have visited farms and businesses in the area demanding contributions. Even hard-pressed small-holders have been asked for a goat or a bag of maize meal.

One said: “If I don’t contribute, I know I’ll get a visit from an angry group of war veterans.” A supporter of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party said the catering at the Chinhoyi party would be generous. “They like plenty of beef, which is very well cooked, sadza (mealie meal porridge), bread and relish. And there’s always plenty of beer and whisky, too. The whisky must be Scottish.”

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