Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe celebrated his 92nd birthday with an extravagant $800,000 party in the drought-stricken Masvingo province Saturday. The televised event was replete with thousands of guests, dozens of balloons, a band, poetry reading and giant cakes, including one in the shape of Africa and a 203-pound edible replica of the Great Zimbabwe ruins.
The world’s oldest leader, Mugabe marked his Feb. 21 birthday with several parties this week, but the main event was the enormous celebration in Masvingo. The president throws himself a birthday party every year, but the event drew more criticism than usual this year, Reuters reported.
The lavish festivity stood in stark contrast to the thousands of Zimbabweans facing food shortages, amid a severe drought linked to a potentially record-breaking El Niño weather system. A government minister said last month as many as 3 million people in Zimbabwe will likely need food aid this year, which is double the previous estimate, according to Zimbabwe’s state-owned newspaper the Herald.
Drought is becoming more frequent and severe in southern Africa as climate change worsens. Combined with El Niño this year, it is taking a heavy toll on Zimbabweans. Weather agencies worldwide have said the current El Niño may become the strongest in history. Marked by a warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the phenomenon has affected rainfall across southern Africa over the past year, killing crops, interrupting hydropower production and forcing local water authorities to implement strict rationing in some areas, Reuters reported.
Masvingo, the site of the celebration Saturday, is one of the hardest-hit regions, where parched conditions have destroyed 75 percent of the staple corn crop. Mugabe’s critics slammed his ruling ZANU-PF party for hosting such an event during a time of crisis.
“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,” Obert Gutu, a representative of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said in a statement cited by Reuters.
This month, Mugabe declared a “state of disaster” in rural areas of Zimbabwe hit by severe drought, and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa appealed for almost $1.6 billion in aid to help pay for grain and other food. Still, the opposition has accused Mugabe’s administration of showing “a casual and rather lackadaisical attitude” toward the evolving food crisis. Gutu said the state-owned grain silos, which should hold food stocks, are “still empty and in serious state of disrepair.”
“There are no concrete plans that have been activated to ensure that our grain silos are timeously restocked,” he wrote in an op-ed piece published Jan. 31 by the Zimbabwean, an independent weekly. “The effects of global warming cannot be wished away.”