President Robert Mugabe turned 82 on Tuesday and was showered with praise and birthday wishes despite Zimbabwe’s mounting economic woes.
The state daily Herald published a 16-page supplement of pictures of the long-serving leader and congratulatory messages from government departments and private companies while the private Daily Mirror dedicated eight pages to his birthday.
“We wish you many more years and hope you will continue to steer the country with your wise leadership,” said a message from Absolom Sikhosana, who heads the youth league of Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe National African Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) that was published in two dailies on Tuesday.
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, winning re-election in 2002 in a vote that western observers and the opposition said was flawed. He has said that he would be ready to step down when his term ends in 2008.
“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,” the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority said in its birthday greeting in the Herald.
Zimbabwe’s Parliament praised him as “a living legend” while the Farmers Union expressed the wish that Mugabe’s “visionary selflessness, dedication and shrewd acumen continue to inspire us”.
A lavish birthday party is planned for Mugabe in the eastern city of Mutare on Saturday with thousands of Zanu-PF supporters expected to attend.
Mugabe has come under criticism in recent years for presiding over a failed economy characterised by triple-digit inflation, 70% unemployment and chronic shortages of goods like fuel and the staple cornmeal.
State radio on Tuesday played songs praising Mugabe including one, popular in the late 1980s with lyrics that went: “Let’s praise President Mugabe. One day he will liberate the whole of Africa.”
In an interview broadcast ahead of his birthday, Mugabe scoffed at Western powers and the media that have labelled him a despot.
“Those who say I am wrong, I am a dictator if you look at them, are our erstwhile enemies, the colonial power Britain, supported by America,” Mugabe said in an interview aired on Sunday on state television.
“They never supported us from day one of our independence. The image of Mugabe in the British media was as ugly as it is today. I don’t look nice to them but I look nice and handsome to my people.
“My people say I am right in the things I do and that’s what I listen to.”
More than two-thirds of Zimbabweans consider food shortages as one of the most important problems they are facing, according to findings of a private survey released on Tuesday.
A total of 46% of Zimbabweans surveyed said they had gone without food often in the past year, according to the poll from the Afrobarometer public opinion institute.
“Food insecurity is by far the most troublesome problem for Zimbabweans and has in between mid-2004 and late 2005 … dethroned economic management as the number one problem,” according to the findings.
The survey was conducted from October 9 to 26, covering both urban and rural areas with a sampling of 1Â 112 respondents carried out by the Mass Public Opinion Institute, a Zimbabwean non-governmental research organisation.
United Nations aid agencies estimate that four million Zimbabweans out of a population of 11-million are in need of food aid following years of poor agricultural yields.
Asked to list their top three worst problems, about 45% of respondents listed management of the economy at the top while 39% chose transportation and 35% unemployment.
Health, HIV/Aids and education came in at the lower end of the list of the 10 top problems, with eight percent of respondents choosing those areas as their worst headache.
About 79% of respondents said they knew someone who had died of HIV/Aids.
The survey also revealed widespread pessimism about the economy, with 82% of Zimbabweans saying that they expect living conditions to be “much worse” in the year ahead. – AFP