This year’s festivities, held on Saturday, included concerts, parades and parties in his honor and reportedly cost $800,000. As many as 50,000 guests were expected to attend, organizers told Al Jazeera.
Just a few weeks prior, Mugabe declared a “state of disaster” in several rural areas affected by a drought.
“Initial indications were that 1.5 million people were food-insecure with all the 60 rural districts being affected,” Public Works Minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, said in a statement in early February. “Overall, the food-insecure population has since risen to 2.44 million — 26% of the population.”
Over 72% of the country live in poverty, with over a fifth of the population in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.
Further incensing critics, the celebrations took place in one of the worst stricken areas of the country, Masvingo.
In a speech at his birthday celebrations, Mugabe acknowledged the food shortages.
“We are doing our best to feed our nation. … We shall certainly get through this bad patch,” Mugabe said, according to local newspaper the Herald.
However, he said he would not take foreign aid if it meant changing his position against gay marriage.
“If aid is going to be given on the principle that we accept gay marriages, then let that aid stay where it is. It is rotten aid, filthy aid,” Mugabe said.
The country’s first black president, Mugabe has been in power for 36 years. Questions have been raised about his health at his advanced age and plans for succession. In an embarrassing gaffe last September, he read the wrong speech in front of Parliament — repeating one he’d already given the month before.
The country is also facing difficult economic times. Last June, the country finally abandoned its currency altogether, instead relying on the U.S. dollar and South African rand.
Zimbabwe spiraled into deep economic crisis after Mugabe introduced a radical policy of land distribution in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Facing chronic shortages of basic commodities, the central bank kept printing money to fund budget deficits, ultimately causing prices to go crazy. At the peak of the crisis, prices were doubling every 24 hours.
Mugabe is not the only African leader facing scrutiny over his alleged use of public funds. A court in neighboring South Africa is ruling on whether its President Jacob Zuma should pay back $15 million he used to renovate one of his private homes.