Zimbabwe's veteran president Robert Mugabe Picture: Mike Hutchings

Harare - President Robert Mugabe celebrates his 90th birthday on Sunday after some of the best summer rainfall in Zimbabwe in 15 years.

“Shabby, unkempt and beautiful,” said a former farmer after travelling south-east from Harare on Friday.

Smallholding farmers along his journey to some of the poorest parts of the country would have a good season, he said. And the tobacco price is terrific, the first bales of the season this week fetching about R50/kg.

That’s the good news for Mugabe, whose birthday was on Friday, but is celebrated on Sunday at Marondera, 70km from Harare. Marondera has become ever shabbier since commercial agriculture collapsed after 2000. Graders have scraped the road and filled potholes, and the town is being tarted up for the big day. Mugabe will hear giddying praise from impoverished citizens longing for good news to alleviate their misery.

A few thousand may get a bit of chicken and pap. The elite will get a cooldrink from Zanu-PF, and maybe a few crumbs from the usual huge cake supplied by the Chinese embassy in Harare.

This is his first birthday since last July, when he and Zanu-PF won their largest majorities in elections against the Movement for Democratic Change.

So Mugabe is in good spirits. The shabbiness of Marondera won’t bother him, as he can’t see much anyway, having just had a cataract operation in Singapore. But he is otherwise in good health, apparently. He had his remaining teeth out recently and has a new ill-fitting plate, which makes him slur a bit.

He spoke out against infighting in his Zanu-PF party to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation this week – a tad hypocritically, since Mugabe seems to have kept potential rivals or successors at each other’s throats over the years to avert challenges to his position.

But the “factionalism” is making headlines everywhere.

“It is terrible even to have your name mentioned as leader of a faction. But why should it (succession) be discussed when it is not due? Is it due? The leadership still exists that runs the country. In other words, I am still there,” Mugabe told ZBC.

Vice-president Joice Mujuru, who has majority support in Zanu-PF as Mugabe’s eventual successor, must fear what might happen if he died during his term. Hardliners within Zanu-PF, led by presidential hopeful Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, forced changes to the new constitution at the last minute last year that few Zimbabweans knew about.

The effect is that if Mugabe died in office before the next elections, his deputy Mujuru would run the country for just 90 days. Zanu-PF would then meet to choose who would take over for the remainder of the term.

Mnangagwa, supported by securocrats, makes no secret that he aims to defeat Mujuru. He detested Mujuru’s powerful husband, Solomon, who died in a mysterious fire two years ago. Mugabe was nervous of Solomon, whom soldiers respected and who wanted Mugabe to stand down as president about 10 years ago.

The latest internal discord in Zanu-PF is known as “salarygate”, the exposure of massive looting by civil servants in the parastatal sector who paid themselves excessively. Mugabe binned the report of a commission of inquiry held in the 1980s, chaired by former judge George Smith.

Mugabe did not refer on ZBC to electricity shortages. The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority had revenues of R900 million a month before elections last year, which have dropped to R150m, mostly because the government is not paying its bills.

Absalom Sikhosana, Zanu-PF’s 62-year-old youth leader, said of Mugabe’s birthday: “This is a very special celebration. Turning 90 is no mean feat. You cannot turn 90 years when you are a womaniser, a drunkard or a chain smoker. We will be celebrating the life of a very special person on a very special occasion.”

Sunday Tribune