Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe turns 83 on Wednesday, fit for his age and combative in the face of a crumbling economy, social unrest and a looming battle over who will succeed him.
Mugabe, the subject of frequent health rumours but who last year said he feels like a 28-year-old, will celebrate his birthday with a huge party on Saturday.
But gathering clouds risk overshadowing the festivities.
Critics accuse Mugabe — one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders — of plunging the Southern African state into a severe political and economic crisis through controversial policies.
Although Mugabe has managed to ride out the storm in the last seven years, political analysts say he faces a more potent threat now because the economy — seen by the World Bank as the fastest shrinking outside a war zone — could spark anti-government protests.
On Sunday, police riot squads fired teargas and water cannon to stop a major opposition rally that the government said was a launch pad for a new street campaign against Mugabe’s rule.
”The economic situation is deteriorating so fast … and as it does, Mugabe’s own situation gets more and more desperate,” said John Makumbe, a veteran political commentator and an outspoken Mugabe critic.
”The deteriorating economy may prove a much more implacable opponent, even for a cunning politician like Mugabe, and I think we are going to see more social unrest and that unrest will destabilise Mugabe and Zanu-PF [the ruling party],” he added.
Critics say Mugabe, a master of political intrigue, has so far seen off challenges through tough policing, vote-rigging, skilful use of political patronage to reward his supporters and terror to cow his rivals.
But Mugabe — who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 — is losing his grip on the economy, which has all but collapsed since he ordered the seizure of white-owned farms to give to landless black people in 2000, gutting the key commercial agriculture sector.
Along with the world’s highest inflation rate of 1 600%, Zimbabwe has seen unemployment climb to 80% while food, fuel and foreign exchange are in short supply.
”The state of the economy is going to define our politics this year,” said political science professor Eldred Masunungure of the University of Zimbabwe.
”And so far it is pointing to a year of labour and political unrest, although the unrest may not be strong enough to force a change in government.”
Meanwhile, Business Day newspaper in South Africa on Tuesday reported that Mugabe is expected to speak on ”his party’s explosive leadership succession race” in an embargoed one-hour interview on state television later in the day.
According to the paper, ”sources said the interview, two hours long before editing, was considered too revealing as Mugabe speaks out in a ‘rarely forthright and no-holds-barred’ manner about his succession”.
”State editors absorbed in Zanu-PF faction politics were attempting last night [Monday] to edit out sections of the interview,” said the paper.
Since the start of the year, Zimbabwe has suffered a spate of industrial strikes for higher wages, including by doctors and some teachers, and unions are threatening more job boycotts.
Outside the economy, analysts say Mugabe faces a battle in his own ruling party over his possible successor and whether to retire at the end of his current term next year.
Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has approved the first steps of a plan to postpone the 2008 presidential elections to 2010 — effectively handing Mugabe another two years in office — so that the polls are ”harmonised” and held together with a parliamentary vote.
But analysts say this has not won the backing of some top officials, who could organise themselves to challenge Mugabe.
The ruling party’s policy-making central committee is expected to debate ”the harmonisation programme” at a meeting before April, and likely push it for approval by Parliament by mid-year.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which has been weakened by a leadership split and Mugabe’s combative approach, is also threatening to tackle Mugabe on the issue with a resistance campaign.
”It’s a year full of fights, but it’s difficult to say at the moment who is going to win,” Masunungure said. — Reuters