Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe on Saturday marked his 91st birthday with lavish celebrations at Victoria Falls, defying Western criticism of his policies by vowing to expel the country’s last remaining white farmers from their land.
“We don’t need a white man to continue to guide us. No. We are now equipped with skills,” Mugabe told thousands of guests at a luxury safari lodge.
Songs in his honour, and poems recited by children, were part of the tribute to Zimbabwe’s leader of the past 35 years, who has faced criticism in the West for repression of the opposition, corruption and for redistributing thousands of white-owned farms to inexperienced black farmers.
Critics say the redistribution sparked food shortages and contributed to a massive inflation.
In a speech deviating from its original script and lasting more than an hour, Mugabe said he was “shocked” to discover that 163 farms were still owned by whites.
He made the remarks just a few days after he had admitted in an interview that his land redistribution policies had maybe not been ideal, because “I think the farms we gave to people are too large”.
Mugabe also told the birthday party he wanted blacks to enter the safari tourism business, which is largely controlled by whites.
The celebrations had drawn criticism from conservationists furious about the reported slaughter of two elephants, two buffaloes and a lion to feed the guests.
“Mugabe once gave a speech on television saying that he looks after all the animals in the country, right down to the insects,” said Johnny Rodrigues, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
“There are so many people starving in Zimbabwe and the people invited to the party will not be those who are starving,” he added.
The organisers of the party, the youth wing of the ruling party Zanu-PF, had pledged to raise a million dollars for it.
That came at a time when 72% of the country’s population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Mugabe claims to be in good health despite falling in public recently and despite his frequent trips for medical treatment abroad.
The president has refused to name a successor while a battle over who will eventually take over has raged behind the scenes.
“It may not be either of the vice presidents,” Mugabe said recently.
The two were appointed after the ouster of his deputy and main rival Joice Mujuru in December.
The president’s comments fuelled speculation that he could be succeeded by his 49-year-old wife Grace.
The guests at the birthday party included representatives of anti-colonial movements from South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo.