HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe turns 91 on Saturday, with his supporters saying they will back him to run his full term until 2018 and beyond despite nagging questions about his health and an economy that is crumbling under his watch.
Mugabe's recent fall at Harare Airport fuelled renewed speculation that old age is catching up with the man who has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980. The spry Mugabe, however, succeeded in breaking his fall and apparently was not injured. His officials say he is in good health.
In addition to being in power in Zimbabwe, this year Mugabe is also chairman of the 54-nation African Union and the 15-nation Southern African Development Community.
Low key events marked Saturday's birthday but lavish celebrations are planned next Saturday (Feb. 28) in the resort town of Victoria Falls. Those celebrations will be held by the 21st February Movement, the group that has planned Mugabe's birthday celebrations since 1986. Members of Mugabe's ruling paty, ZANU-PF, say they are raising more than $1 million for the festivities.
The celebrations are leaving a sour taste in the mouth for some Zimbabweans battling to survive under economic deterioration that has led to company closures, massive unemployment and successive food shortages.
Zimbabwe's once prosperous economy took a severe knock in 2000 when Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms. Allegations of vote-rigging and violence in elections that year brought the United States and the European Union to impose travel and financial sanctions on Mugabe, his inner circle and some state institutions and firms.
An empowerment law forcing foreigners to sell at least 51 percent of their shareholding to government-approved black Zimbabweans has scared investors, said economist John Robertson. Mugabe's "Look East" policy encouraging Chinese investment has failed to stabilize the economy, he said.
"The celebrations show what has gone wrong in this country. Only those close to Mugabe feast while the rest of us starve. Look around, everyone is now a vendor," said John Ratambwa, an unemployed 23-year old Harare resident. "At 91 one has to rest. Ninety-one years is too old an age to lead a vast country like Zimbabwe," he said in downtown Harare, whose sidewalks now teem with people selling wares.
The African Development Bank says 65 percent of Zimbabweans now rely on the informal sector for survival due to the decline in industry. Mugabe's government in the past year has struggled to pay its workers.
Mugabe won disputed elections in 2013 and his supporters say they want him to contest the 2018 elections at 94.
Nelson Chamisa, an opposition legislator, said Mugabe should hand over the baton. "I would equate what ZANU-PF is doing to abuse of the elderly," he said. "He needs to rest. Even our constitution stipulates that we have an oblation to take care of our elderly. Look at what happened at the airport, a very embarrassing situation."
Mugabe's wife Grace, 42 years his junior, has recently become prominent in Zimbabwe's politics. At this week's ZANU-PF politburo meeting she sat next to Mugabe in the seat previously taken by ousted vice president Joice Mujuru. Grace Mugabe is secretary for women's affairs in the politburo.
Didymus Mutasa, who worked with Mugabe since the 1960s until he was fired from his presidential ministerial position last year and from the party this week for allegedly plotting to oust Mugabe, said Grace is now the power behind the throne.
"Grace has effectively taken over," he said. "Power now revolves around her and this is sad because she is inexperienced and will cause more damage."
Supa Mandiwanzira, the minister for Information and Communications Technology, said Mugabe is still in charge.
"I sit in cabinet every Tuesday with the president, he is totally, fully in charge," he said, dismissing criticism of Mugabe's birthday festivities.
"The celebrations are worth every cent. This is an icon we are talking about," said Mandiwanzira. "He is pushing for the empowerment of blacks through the land reform program and the indigenization policy."