Harare, Zimbabwe | AFP | Every February, in different venues around Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe would throw an extravagant birthday party with thousands of guests, huge cakes and a defiant speech.
But the annual jamboree also exposed the leader’s declining health as his physical and mental strength drained away, his voice weakened and he appeared increasingly detached from the celebrations.
At his 89th birthday party in 2013, he showed little sign of fatigue, laughing and joking as he released 89 balloons into the sky and delivered a trademark fiery hour-long address.
But just four years on, Mugabe struggled to walk unassisted and sat impassively through proceedings at what would be his last birthday party as president before his ousting later in 2017.
When he spoke from a podium at that event, he appeared gaunt and badly stooped, mumbling and pausing at length between sentences, though he remarkably still talked for more than an hour.
Then the world’s oldest ruler, having come to power in 1980, he needed help from his wife Grace — aged 51 at the time — and children cutting his birthday cake. Aides limited his time in the public view.
“It’s not always easy to predict that, although you are alive this year, you will be alive next year,” he said in a rambling speech that year, wearing a cowboy hat and his usual birthday attire of a colourful jacket with his own face printed on it.
“We should thank the Almighty God that I was able to live from 92 years last year to 93, but much more than that, I was able to live from childhood to this day — that’s a long, long journey,” added Mugabe, whose death was announced on Friday.
– Novelty cakes –
The birthday parties always stirred controversy over their budget — estimated in later years at between $500,000 and $1 million — and reports of elephants, buffalo and other wild animals being slaughtered for the feast.
Several huge cakes were a centrepiece of the occasion, even as the country’s economy collapsed and food shortages worsened for millions.
The biggest cake each year was said to weigh the same number of kilogrammes as his age. It took several men to carry it into the marquee.
Often the cakes’ elaborate designs reflected the party venue — Victoria Falls, the balancing rocks of Matopos National Park or the Great Zimbabwe ruins.
Other designs included his official Mercedes-Benz limousine, a crocodile, the national flag, his own head and the African continent.
Presenting Mugabe with the same number of sheep or cattle as his age was another tradition that drew fury from regime critics.
Dancing, poetry, football competitions and beauty parades were laid on for entertainment.
But the event was often marred by ZANU-PF party officials and dignitaries enjoying a lavish multi-course meal inside the marquee while outside many of the thousands of ordinary “guests” were left unfed under the supervision of unsmiling security forces.
– Fawning press –
His birthday week was generally marked by a fawning television interview with gushing messages of congratulations from government departments and regime loyalists filling hours of screen and radio.
State-owned newspapers printed 30-page supplements — accompanied by pictures of a younger Mugabe — with slogans such as “Thank you Bob, We now have a voice, since 1980”.
The party was officially hosted each year by the local ZANU-PF branch, which would pressure members, government employees and others to donate money to the costs.
Political opponents, activists and rights groups slammed the event as the wasteful self-glorification of a cruel dictator. But criticism could be risky.
In 2012, a man watching the celebrations in a bar was arrested after jokingly asking if Mugabe still had the breath to blow up his birthday balloons.