, MARONDERA, Feb 23 – Thousands of people turned out Sunday to celebrate the birthday of Zimbabwe’s veteran President Robert Mugabe, who threw 90 balloons into the air to mark his 90th year and continuing hold on power.
Fresh off the plane from Singapore, where he had travelled for eye surgery last week, Mugabe was in typically defiant mood as he launched his birthday celebrations at Marondera stadium, east of the capital Harare.
“I feel as youthful and energetic as a boy of nine,” Mugabe said before cutting his cake.
Dressed in a black suit, red tie and white shirt, he moved around the venue on the back of a truck waving his fist to a crowd made up largely of school children bussed in for the occasion.
In a speech that lasted over an hour, Mugabe told the crowd that his ZANU-PF party’s election win last year had confounded his critics in the West.
“Those opponents of ours who had imposed sanctions on us were baffled,” he said.
“The truth is ZANU-PF won, ZANU-PF had the support. ZANU-PF had the message, had the history, ZANU-PF has the people.”
Mugabe, who turned 90 on Friday while he was still in Singapore, has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist ever since the former rebel led the country to independence from Britain in 1980.
His party won another resounding victory in August elections – taking two-thirds of the vote – although critics say he used state power to intimidate voters and opponents.
“At times I think of how I have survived over the years, escaping death, many of my friends and relatives have died. It saddens me at times, but at the same time you are happy that you have turned 90.”
Huge cakes were on display in the centre of the stadium, while the crowd wore red scarves, as is traditional on the president’s birthday, and waved national flags.
A series of speakers led the crowd in chanting ZANU-PF slogans, and denouncing the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which has spent years unsuccessfully trying to overturn Mugabe’s rule in the face of catastrophic economic decline.
Mugabe returned to familiar anti-colonial themes in his speech, saying: “The British – we don’t hate you, we only love our country. We love our freedom.”
Senior government officials, security chiefs and Mugabe’s children were also among the well-wishers.
Ambassadors from China and Russia also presented Mugabe with special messages of congratulation from their presidents.
A ZANU-PF youth leader heaped praise on Mugabe, saying he defeated the British during the war and after independence.
“In my view today we celebrate the birthday of a genuine conqurer of the British empire,” Absolom Sikhosana said.
Mugabe was presented with 90 sheep, while several cattle were also among his many birthday presents and 90 cattle were slaughtered for the feast.
Five huge cakes in an array of designs including the independence flame were at the celebrations, one weighing a massive 90 kilogrammes (almost 200 pounds).