Robert Mugabe celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday, telling the British: ‘We don’t hate you, we only love our country better.’
He showed no signs of rumoured ill health as he released 90 red balloons at a football stadium in the small farming town of Marondera in Zimbabwe.
‘I am made to feel youthful and as energetic as a boy of nine,’ Zimbabwean President Mugabe told more than 45,000 people following his visit to Singapore, where he underwent eye surgery.
His aides have denied reports that he is suffering from advanced prostate cancer. But speculation about Mugabe’s health has fuelled a succession struggle in the country that he has ruled since 1980.
Speaking to the crowd for more than hour before walking around the stadium, he said: ‘God, I can’t thank you enough for that gift of life.’
Mugabe said his abstinence from alcohol and tobacco kept him fit, but he gave no indication of when he planned to retire. His aides have denied speculation he has been treated for prostate cancer.
Zimbabwe’s sole ruler since the former Rhodesia gained independence from Britain in 1980, Mugabe is under Western sanctions.
He denies human rights abuses and election fraud and blames former colonial power Britain for smearing his name.
‘The British, we don’t hate you, we only love our country better,’ he told the crowd, saying he had received many birthday greetings from compatriots and from foreign leaders including those of China and Russia.
Mugabe’s age and concerns about his health have fuelled a succession battle inside his ZANU-PF party.
Vice-President Joice Mujuru leads the field but faces a challenge from Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, a powerful former defence and security minister known as ‘the Crocodile’.
He told the crowd he intended to crack down on officials, including cabinet ministers, implicated in corruption and fraud in state companies.
Mugabe gave his trademark clenched fist salute to those gathered, as he and his 48-year-old wife, Grace, stood at the back of a truck that drove around the stadium.
Mugabe holds a giant birthday party in a different city each year, to take the festivities around the country.
He cut a 200lb cake, one of five served, and 90 cows were butchered for the massive party, estimated to cost £600,000, according to state media.
Mugabe’s actual birthday was on February 21 but he was away in Singapore for a ‘cataract operation’ on his left eye, according to his office. He returned to Zimbabwe on Saturday.
In recent weeks the country has seen allegations of massive corruption in state enterprises at a time when many Zimbabweans are surviving on less than £1.20 a day.