By MacDonald Dzirutwe
MASVINGO, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - President Robert Mugabe marked his 92nd birthday at a nearly $1 million party organized by supporters on Saturday, 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 Feb. 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 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.
A giant cake made to look like the ancient ruins for which Zimbabwe is named was set out in a nearby marquee. School children, foreign diplomats, government ministers and security chiefs were also present.
Pupurai Togarepi, ZANU-PF's youth leader said 50,000 people were expected to attend and defended spending $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. All these things are worth more than money," Togarepi told Reuters.
Mugabe's lavish birthday parties have become an annual pilgrimage for loyalists and those seeking favors 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 $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.
"The money that is being budgeted for this ill-conceived birthday bash should actually be used to import maize to avert the impending starvation in Masvingo province and other parts of the country," he added in Friday's statement.
Critics blame Mugabe for many of the problems facing the country. They say his policies, including the seizures and redistribution of white-owned commercial farms, drove one of Africa's most promising economies into nearly a decade of deep recession until 2008 that cut its output almost in half.
Mugabe, whose ant-Western rhetoric has won him cheers in Africa, on Thursday donated 300 cattle to the African Union, saying this would dissuade the continent from over relying on external partners who bring donations with strings attached.
(Editing by Helen Popper)