Bob's Birthday Bash

Critics appalled at extravagance of celebration at time when citizens face huge privations.

Bob's Birthday Bash

Critics appalled at extravagance of celebration at time when citizens face huge privations.

Tuesday, 28 February, 2006
For many years February 21 was the day many ordinary Zimbabweans felt naturally obliged to wish their state president, Robert Mugabe, "many happy returns" on his birthday.

But these generous-minded instincts have dried up since the turn of the century when Mugabe's disastrous policies set Zimbabwe into the steepest and most prolonged economic decline of any country on earth.

By the time Mugabe, who has ruled the country for the entire 26 years since independence, approached his 82nd birthday in February this year the hosannahs of "Long Live President Mugabe" had given way to private thoughts of "Please Go Mugabe" - though few would dare say so publicly in a country that has become a virtual police state.

This year Mugabe's birthday celebration, organised under the auspices of the ruling ZANU PF's special Mugabe birthday organisation, the 21st February Movement, cost ten billion Zimbabwe dollars, around 100,000 US dollars, a staggering amount at time when people are suffering so much hardship, say analysts.

They say the sum was enough to buy a month's supply of locally available antiretroviral drugs for 3,000 of Mugabe's fellow citizens living with HIV/AIDS; or for the purchase of 170,000 litres of increasingly scarce petrol for the 2,500 commuter minibuses that the majority of workers use every day.

The 21st February Movement was established in 1985, and supposedly groups children born after Zimbabwe's independence from colonial power Britain in 1980 who pledge themselves to emulate the leadership qualities and morals of Mugabe. The 21st February Movement is modelled on a similar organisation in North Korea which used to laud the "Great Leader", President Kim Il-sung, on his birthday and now does the same for his son and successor, President Kim Jong Il.

Lavish, extravagant praise, similar to that for North Korea's leaders, was showered on Mugabe in advance of his birthday. The country's only surviving daily newspaper, the state-owned Herald, ran sixteen pages of unrelenting sycophantic messages of tribute to the "wise leader". The Herald itself described Mugabe as "the greatest hero ever to grace Zimbabwe and Africa". But State Security and Land Reform Minister Didymus Mutasa did his best to outdo all others with his paean of praise, "Our leader quite honestly is the best in the world. He must have been sent by the Almighty God to lead Zimbabwe."

The Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, as befits tax gatherers, was a little more downbeat, "Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe, a true statesman and an icon who has carved a niche in the history books of our nation Zimbabwe, Africa and the world over."

"I just see God involved in what President Mugabe is doing, using him as a human agent, an agent of God," said the controversial Anglican Bishop of Harare Nolbert Kunonga, a fervent ZANU PF supporter who has alienated most of his flock and who accepted as a gift from Mugabe a huge farm near Harare confiscated from its white owner.

State radio broadcast an unrelenting barrage of songs eulogising Mugabe, including one whose lyrics went, "Let's praise President Mugabe. One day he will liberate the whole of Africa."

Desperate to make the day memorable for the increasingly unpopular Mugabe, ZANU PF and the 21st February Movement resorted to writing letters to private companies asking them to donate towards the lavish bash in Mutare, capital of the mountainous eastern province of Manicaland.

"Once again as a nation we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 21st February Movement which coincides with His Excellency Comrade RG Mugabe's birthday who is the patron of the movement," wrote ZANU PF's national secretary for youth affairs, Absolom Sikhosana. "The 21st February Movement seeks to instil our cherished national values among our youth."

The letter concluded, "We are kindly appealing for cash or kind (sic) to make this year's event a historic and memorable one for the children. Kindly make cash donations payable to 21st February Movement."

Critics said the letter amounted to extortion. But business people have learned to comply quietly with these requests. Companies that failed to cough up for what cynics dubbed "Bob's Birthday Bash" were liable to find themselves cut out of government contracts, labelled stooges of British premier Tony Blair and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and targeted for retribution by ZANU PF's militias.

A state-appointed commission running Mutare, the country's fifth largest city, ordered owners to repaint and renovate their properties at their own expense in advance of Mugabe's birthday.

Nearly every remaining business in Zimbabwe is battling to keep operating under harsh economic conditions, including 613 per cent inflation, 80 per cent unemployment and a drying-up of foreign exchange that critics blame on Mugabe.

University of Zimbabwe political scientist John Makumbe said it was disgraceful for Mugabe to have celebrated his birthday with huge fanfare and expense in the face of nation's debilitating crisis. "It's a depressing situation. Things are collapsing around us," said Makumbe. "Everything which can go wrong has gone wrong and still he chose this egocentric celebration.

"Unemployment and poverty are rampant. Repression is worsening. Political temperatures are rising and the situation once again will soon reach boiling point. Zimbabwe has become a Hell on earth. Everyone is unhappy - the army, the police, the general population. It's a matter of time."

Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly which groups many civil organisations campaigning for democratic reform, said, "It is shocking that Mugabe spent ten billion dollars on his birthday when the Zimbabwe situation is worsening."

Madhuku, constantly harassed by Mugabe's police and security services, went on, "Mugabe has stayed in power for 26 years by systematically destroying all of the key institutions that could have played an effective watchdog role. The judiciary has been prostituted, the independent media obliterated, the army and police heavily compromised. State security agencies and ruling party militias have been used to beat people into submission.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, and was hugely popular when he assumed power as prime minister in 1980 on the back of a massive electoral victory. He was viewed as a model "new era" leader for Africa by many western countries. Zimbabwe was able to feed itself and export excess grain as well as other foreign exchange earners such as tobacco, beef and cotton. But today the country that was once Africa's breadbasket has become its basket case, reliant on foreign donors to avert mass starvation and malnutrition.

While Mugabe and his guests consumed huge quantities of beef, chicken and champagne to celebrate his 82nd birthday, police crushed attempts to protest the festivity and the erosion of human rights and people's livelihoods.

Police in Harare beat and arrested 73 women aligned to the National Constitutional Assembly who defied laws preventing the gathering of more than two people without police permission to protest against the president's birthday party. The women had tried to march on Mugabe's offices in the centre of the capital. An estimated three hundred or more women were arrested after similar demonstrations elsewhere in the country.

This year there was no repeat of prayers by Mugabe's fiercest and most fearless critic, Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube, and his congregation for Mugabe's early death. "The sooner the Lord takes him away, the better," said the Archbishop. "He is a very, very evil man."

With Mugabe's physical and mental health widely rumoured to be deteriorating, there is no guarantee he will still be around for his 83rd

birthday celebrations next year. However, having won a controversial election in 2005, he is set to rule until he is 86, completing 30 years in power. State Security Minister Mutasa has warned Zimbabweans that they should not expect or hope that Mugabe will step down before then, asserting, "In our culture kings are only replaced when they die, and Mugabe is our king."

Tino Zhakata is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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