Mugabe to turn 85 with a bang

The former liberation hero, who is Africa’s oldest leader, is now shunned by many for presiding over the collapse of a once prosperous nation while lavishing his family with cosy lifestyles.

This disparity has been highlighted by Mugabe’s plans to celebrate his birthday with a lavish feast on February 28 in the farming town of Chinhoyi in his home province of Mashonaland West.

The youth league of the veteran leader’s Zanu-PF party held a fund raiser earlier this month and scraped together $110 000 with promises to nearly double the amount.

The appeal, at a time when nearly half of Zimbabweans depend on food aid, also netted 80 cattle, 70 goats, 12 pigs, dozens of loaves of bread and five tons of corn-meal for the birthday menu.

An intellectual who initially embraced Marxism, Mugabe was widely praised when he won the election that ended white minority rule in 1980, a few weeks after Zimbabwe gained independence.

‘Ostentatious’ lifestyle

But over the years he has lost the friendship of former allies in the West and been strongly criticised for his economic mismanagement and alleged human rights abuses.

"He has metamorphosed from what he was in the 1980s to what he is now," Edred Masunungure, a University of Zimbabwe analyst, told AFP.

"It appears there are ostentatious dimensions to his lifestyle which were not present during his first two decades in office and are inconsistent with the state of our economy."

But for Masunungure, Mugabe is not in the same league of some notorious African dictators such as former Zaire leader Mobuto Sese Seko, whose pillaged the Democratic Republic of Congo to support his extravagant lifestyle.

Mugabe’s house is in the plush Borrowdale suburb of Harare, home to the country’s rich and famous. His youngest son attends a top primary school.

His second wife Grace, dubbed the "first shopper" instead of first lady and Mugabe’s junior by some 40 years, has made headlines for displaying a penchant for retail therapy on overseas trips.

Grace Mugabe was more recently in the news for allegedly assaulting a photographer during a trip to Hong Kong, where Britain’s Sunday Times reported that the couple had bought a $5.8m property.

From hero to eccentric ruler

"He has changed from the hero idolised by many to an egocentric ruler who has developed a cult personality rewarding his cronies and those close to him," said Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist from Masvingo state university.

"If he had retired in the late 1980s he would be one of Africa’s greatest sons."

Born on February 21 1924, at Kutama Mission northwest of the capital Harare, Mugabe qualified as a teacher at the age of 17.

He took his first political paces when he enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, where he met many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders.

Mugabe then resumed teaching, moving to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Ghana, the home of his first wife Sally, before returning to what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1960.

As a member of various nationalist parties banned by the white-minority government, he was detained with other leaders in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.

Economic ruin

In his early years Mugabe was credited with improving health and education for the black majority: services that later collapsed as his rule descended into hyperinflation and economic ruin.

Mugabe last week swore in his rival Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister as part of a unity government that is bidding to pull the country out of crisis.

The decision, after months of delays and an elections fiasco, marked the first time that Mugabe has loosened his 29-year stranglehold on power.