President Robert Mugabe, dictator of Zimbabwe, is celebrating his 85th birthday today with a lavish party costing an estimated $250,000 raised from private donations, mainly from his cronies. Congratulations are not wholly in order.
In the once-prosperous East African nation, 34 people a day are now dying from the country's cholera epidemic, which has infected more than 60,000 and killed more than 4,000. The country's inflation rate is the highest in the world and probably in history – 6 million percent a day. The average life expectancy is 34 years for women and 37 years for men. More than 500 people a day become infected with HIV. Starving, unemployed workers flee to neighboring South Africa at the rate of 18,000 a month, according to U.K. daily The Independent.
Militiamen with Mugabe's ZANU-PF party continue to seize white-owned farms, in spite of a recent ruling by a tribunal of judges that the seizures are illegal. The white farmers – who provided employment to tens of thousands of Zimbabwans – were once a principal source of Zimbabwe's prosperity through their hugely successful commercial enterprises. Food production in Zimbabwe has now virtually collapsed. Education and health care no longer exist in the country, since doctors' and teachers' wages amount to less than the price of a bus ticket.
The National Unity Government formed two weeks ago is united in name only. Under a power-sharing agreement that Mugabe agreed to sign, the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangerai (who won the majority of votes in the last presidential elections), is now prime minister and ostensibly in charge of the day-to-day management of the wrecked country. Mugabe has already released the names of his own hand-picked civil servants to run each ministry. Tsvangerai's own choice for deputy minister of agriculture, a white farmer named Roy Bennett, has been imprisoned on charges of "terrorism." Other political prisoners -- mostly members of Tsvangerai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Party -- are still in jail though their release was part of the power-sharing agreement.
Thirty years ago, at the time of Zimbabwe's independence, Robert Mugabe was regarded as a revolutionary hero who bravely threw off the yoke of British imperialism. He still is regarded with respect by some people in Africa, notably the former South African president Tabo Mbeki. But over his three decades in power Mugabe has systematically destroyed his own country, skimming billions for himself, his family and the clique of generals, policemen and cronies who help preserve his power.
This week, the top two Anglican prelates in Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the African-born Archbishop of York, launched a public appeal for medical supplies, food and clean water for Zimbabwe. "We have been witnessing the slow death of a people," they said. But Mugabe himself appears to be completely indifferent to the suffering resulting from his own misrule. Those brave enough to speak out against him inside the country are beaten up, thrown in jail and, in some cases, burned alive. That was the fate of Dadira Chapiro, wife of a local opposition leader, who was attacked by militiamen during the presidential election campaign last summer. They cut off her feet and one hand, locked her into a hut and incinerated her.
As he celebrates another birthday, Mugabe expects to be in power for the rest of his life. He says that "Only God can unseat me." Nevertheless, he and his wife, Grace, have set up a multi-million dollar fortified residence for themselves in Hong Kong.