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Lavish party marks Mugabe's 92nd birthday as Zimbabwe languishes

The expensive birthday celebration for the world's oldest leader has come under scrutiny as the country faces drought and hunger. Last year Mugabe's elaborate buffet included elephant. What was on this year's menu?

Organizers from the ruling ZANU-PF youth wing said up to 50,000 people would celebrate at President Robert Mugabe's nearly $800,000 (730,000 euros) birthday party near the southeastern city Masvingo, the center of a devastating drought to hit Zimbabwe.

Mugabe let 92 balloons loose at the start of what one of the organizers told the state-run Herald newspaper would be a "top shelf celebration," replete with a giant cake in the form of the Great Zimbabwe ruins and beef and game.

The annual event has been held since 1986 to mark the strongman's birthday, even as the country has descended into economic turmoil. Mugabe's birthdays have become an opportunity for loyalists to show their support and seek favors.

Mugabe's actual birthday was on February 21, which he celebrated with a smaller gala dinner with his family and the country's elite.

The only ruler to run Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe has shown no signs he ever plans to step down, even as behind the scenes factions within his party wrangle to come out on top once the world's oldest ruler dies.

The celebrations have been a target of criticism as a drought forced Zimbabwe to declare a state of emergency and three million people face hunger. The country has appealed for nearly $1.5 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.

Opponents and economists argue Zimbabwe's troubles started with a disastrous land reform in 2000, during which white farmers were forcibly evicted and their productive lands confiscated. After the land reform many farms remained underused.

Mugabe's policies caused the economy to tank 50 percent between 1999 and 2008, making what was once a relatively successful African economy largely dysfunctional.

cw/jlw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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