PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe turned 84 yesterday, defiant as ever but facing an unprecedented challenge in an election due next month.
Mugabe, Zimbabweâ€™s sole ruler since Independence in 1980, won a controversial endorsement from his ruling Zanu PF party to stand for re-election, but could face stiff resistance from a former ally who blames him for an economic meltdown. Former Finance minister Simba Makoni has vowed to grab the presidency from Mugabe in the March 29 vote, promising to help Zimbabweans plagued by the worldâ€™s highest inflation rate and severe food and fuel shortages.
Mugabe says he is “raring to go” against his opponents, including Makoni, who has been branded a sellout by state media.
Mugabe will celebrate his birthday at a huge rally in the southern border town of Beitbridge tomorrow where he is expected to set the tone of his re-election campaign.
Yesterday, Mugabe was expected to mark his birthday with a traditional private family dinner and meet with his staff.
But political analysts say the celebrations have been overshadowed by Makoniâ€™s entry into the race in which Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the main faction of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is also participating.
“Mugabe will try obviously to put up a brave face in public, but in private I think his approach would be to treat both Makoni and Tsvangirai as serious challengers,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.
“Mugabe tends to get his way by never leaving anything to chance or taking things for granted,” he added.
The MDC accuses Mugabe of hanging on to power through vote-rigging and repressive measures. It says Zimbabwe needs radical reform to ease a crisis that has left the country with the worldâ€™s highest inflation rate of 100 580,2%.
Mugabe says the economy is being sabotaged by Western opponents led by former colonial power Britain who want to oust him for seizing white-owned farms for landless blacks, a move critics say has ruined the key agriculture sector.
Analysts say Mugabe, whose government has effectively been under Western economic sanctions since Zanu PFâ€™s controversial election victory in 2000, is likely to deploy his political shock troops â€” independence war veterans with a history of intimidating rivals â€” into the election fray to win the poll.
Millions of Zimbabweans are expected to vote in the presidential, parliamentary and municipal polls. Mugabe and his opponents have described the event as a landmark election in the countryâ€™s post-independence period.
In a newspaper commentary last week on the March elections, Professor Stephen Chan of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and author of the book Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, said Makoniâ€™s chances would depend on influential figures rumoured to be backing him in Zanu PF.
“This is the lion cub taking on the lion king . . . and the people upon whom he must now rely must not let him down at the first opportunistic moment,” Chan said.
“Mugabe is a very powerful leader of the pride. There will be vengeance to come. Makoni knows he has to win, and he knows the chances are high that he will not.” â€” Reuters.