Harare — When Pope Benedict XVl announced that old age was forcing him to resign at month's end, did he know how much excitement this would cause thousands of kilometres from the Vatican? Animated conversations in bars and office corridor whispers suggest that here in Zimbabwe even non-Catholics can't help but contrast the pontiff's voluntary retirement with their aging president's ambitions.
It's been 33 years since Robert Mugabe became his country's founding leader and, sure enough, he's gunning for a sixth term. Crisis-weary Zimbabweans feel their long-serving president should take a cue from the pope, who is in fact four years Mugabe's junior. But it's the politician's extravagant birthday bash early next month that has really drawn the ire of his people - most of whom still struggle to get a modest meal on the table.
Local newspapers are bleeding with huge advertorials congratulating Mugabe on turning 89. Though his birthday is 21 February, its celebration, an annual ritual in Zimbabwe's political calendar, is set for 2 March. Devout followers are scrambling to raise US$600,000 in donations from businesses and rich individuals.
This will perhaps be the most expensive birthday party in Zimbabwe and probably the whole of Southern Africa. One of many efforts to raise the event's profile, it will see two of the country's most popular football clubs, the Highlanders and the Dynamos, battle it out under the Bob 89 Super Cup. On 1 March, the country's top musicians will play an all-night concert in honour of Bob, as Mugabe is affectionately known. The next day's affair in the mining town of Bindura provides the icing on the cake: a keynote address by the birthday celebrant himself.
But not everyone is in the mood for partying. Mugabe's ostentatious gigs stand in glaring contrast with his starving people.
"I find it insulting that our president finds it worthwhile to hold an expensive birthday while the rest of us suffer," says Memory Mlambo, a 48-year-old widow who sells vegetables in central Harare. She has four children and a wheelchair-bound mother to care for and feels that Zimbabwean leaders should show similar enthusiasm when it comes to finding solutions for those left impoverished by Mugabe's policies.
Social and economic rights activist Hope Gumbo, 34, says that apart from providing his fawning lieutenants a platform to massage his ego, Mugabe's expensive soirees draw attention to his old age. "While there is nothing bad about celebrating one's birthday, it is the birthday party of a rich president who is leading poor citizens that is cause for concern," says Gumbo. "While he and his followers will be feasting and making-merry, we, the ordinary Zimbabweans, will be reminded that there is indeed need for leadership renewal. Surely his old age is well punctured by his extravagant birthday bash."
Meanwhile, Mugabe has managed to muscle out a clause in the country's draft constitution that caps the age of aspiring presidents at 70. (The constitutional referendum is scheduled for 16 March.)
Die-hard supporters of the leader defend the profligate birthday parties and his cling on power. They believe Mugabe is still strong enough to run for another five-year term even. They don't seem bothered by reports in 2011 that he drew US$3 million from treasury to finance each of his trips to the Far East for medical treatment.
Alson Darikai, a vocal champion of Mugabe's youth empowerment policies, thinks the president deserves more time at the helm so he can see through his black empowerment drive. "Let's not take a cue from what one pope and the Vatican have done. Ours is a different situation all together," he says. "Let's take this time to celebrate this living legend. Long live Robert Mugabe!"
Other followers claim the festivities are in the name of charity under the so-called 21st February Movement. The movement's leader, Absolom Sikhosana, says they appeal to the conscience of Zimbabwean youth, inciting them to align with Mugabe's "revolutionary ideals".
Sikhosana, who at age 60 also serves as Zanu-PF youth affairs secretary, defends the celebrations. "The programme is the brainchild of the Zanu-PF youth league, which is doing this in honour and recognition that this great man."
Jonathan Nkanyezi, a top official in Mugabe's party, insists no amount of criticism could negatively sway his thoughts. About the octogenarian leader, he says: "They may say he is old, but we will rally behind him, even when he is wheelchair-bound, we will bring him here to address us."