Mugabe birthday bash riles critics in drought-hit Zimbabwe
MASVINGO, Zimbabwe, Feb 27 (Reuters) - President Robert Mugabe marked his 92nd birthday at a nearly $1 million party organized by supporters in a drought-stricken area on Saturday, drawing criticism from opponents who said the celebrations were an affront to ordinary Zimbabweans.
Mugabe, Zimbabwe's only leader since its independence from Britain in 1980, said no-one would starve as a result of a drought which has left three million people in need and prompted the declaration of a state of disaster in most rural areas.
But in a characteristic gibe at Western countries, he said Zimbabwe would not accept aid if it came with conditions that the country should accept gay rights.
"If aid, as I understand, is to be given on the basis that we accept the principle of gay marriages, then let that aid stay were it is," Mugabe said during an hour-long speech.
"We don't want it. It is rotten aid, filthy aid and we won't have anything to do with it."
Zimbabwe has appealed for nearly $1.6 billion to help pay for grain and other food, but no aid organization is known to have attached such a condition to assistance.
Africa's oldest leader, Mugabe turned 92 on Feb. 21 and shows no intention of stepping down, much to the frustration of feuding members of his ruling ZANU-PF party who have long been trying to position themselves for his succession.
Mugabe thanked the ZANU-PF youth wing and thousands of party supporters for organizing the $800,000 party. Ninety-two balloons were released and he listened to poetry readings, songs and chants hailing him as an African icon and a visionary.
He cut a giant cake made to look like the ancient ruins for which Zimbabwe is named. School children, foreign diplomats, government ministers and security chiefs were also present.
Mugabe's lavish birthday parties have become an annual pilgrimage for loyalists and those seeking favors from the veteran leader, but this year's celebration in the drought-battered Masvingo province proved particularly controversial.
In Masvingo, 75 percent of the staple maize crop was destroyed by the parched conditions, making it the hardest-hit in the southern African nation in the worst drought since the early 1990s.
"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 spokesman for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said in a statement.
Critics blame Mugabe for many of the problems facing the country. They say his policies, including the seizures and redistribution of white-owned commercial farms, drove one of Africa's most promising economies into nearly a decade of deep recession until 2008 that cut its output almost in half.
"The British and the Americans in their cunning way as usual have also utilized such opportunities to offer huge sums of money to individuals both within and outside the party so as to cause factionalism," Mugabe said. (Editing by Helen Popper; editing by Ralph Boulton)