Zimbabwe's Mugabe Hangs on to Power

President Robert Mugabe celebrates his 83rd birthday Saturday. He has been Zimbabwe's leader since the nation gained its independence in 1980. He has rejected opposition demands to resign.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The president of Zimbabwe celebrates his birthday this weekend with a big bash. The festivities planned for Robert Mugabe, who's ruled the country for 27 years, will reportedly cost 300 million Zimbabwe dollars. But with the country's yearly inflation rate now running at 1,600 percent, the price tag will change by the time the party is over. And while the president is feasting, the average Zimbabwean can't even get a loaf of bread.

We go now to NPR's special Africa correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Hello?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Hello, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Give us a sense, before we talk about the party, of how bad things are these days in Zimbabwe.

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Renee, the lights are about to go out literally in Zimbabwe. As you know, it's been on a downward spiral since about the year 2000 when Mugabe started his controversial land reform program. But today, even people that he can depend on normally, like the military and the police, are all demanding more money. People simply cannot live in a country where the food prices, even the basics like meat and cooking oil and a bus trip, would cost a person one month's salary. That's less than $60 a month these days.

Moreover, the lights really are about to go out because the national electrical system is in disrepair. There's a huge problem with the water treatment system. It's broken. Three people have died from cholera. And just about everywhere you look, there are signs of an economy that is just about on the brink of collapse.

MONTAGNE: So why is Robert Mugabe throwing such a lavish and very public party for his 83rd birthday?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Renee, it's a really strange thing. And I don't see rational people could come up with the answer to that. I mean, friends of Mugabe are supposedly raising this money for this party and, you know, the government has been in a state of denial for a long time. I mean, they blame the country's economic problems on the West, on sanctions and, you know, everything but their own mismanagement of the economy.

So this is just one more example of the kind of wonderland that they're living in.

MONTAGNE: Well, just very briefly, last question. The European - you've mentioned sanctions - the European Union has renewed sanctions against Zimbabwe for its political problems, yet Mugabe has made it clear he doesn't plan to leave office, possibly postponing next year's elections to 2010.

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, at the last party meeting, they did put up a proposal that his tenure, which is supposed to end in two years, be extended until 2010. But there is growing disenchantment within the ruling party. You know, he used to rule without question. But now, I'm not sure how that's going to work.

The sanctions aren't having a real impact and Zimbabwe officials are saying that it makes no difference to them. Even though there continue to be gross violations of human rights, curtailment of freedom of speech, they've also instituted a virtual state of emergency banning any kind of demonstrations, making them illegal. It's really a terrible situation, especially for the people of Zimbabwe.

MONTAGNE: NPR's special Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, speaking to us from Johannesburg, South Africa. Thanks very much.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Renee.

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