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Succession Battles Swamp Mugabe Birthday Celebrations

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (R) and his wife Grace cut his birthday cake in Harare, Feb. 22, 2016. Staff in the President's office organized a surprise birthday celebration ahead of Saturday's birthday bash.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe celebrates his 92nd birthday on February 27, with no signs of relinquishing power. But it seems his party is split on what the future holds for him and the ruling Zanu-PF.

Mugabe made an unannounced State of the Nation address last week, during which he condemned two factions within his ruling party that seem to be angling to take over.

“We must not have the fights and quarrels that appear to be taking place now. Let’s work for our people to survive. Lets remain united. So those who are saying we belong to this faction or that faction, I say to them shut up," Mugabe scolded, adding "You belong to Zimbabwe. Shut up and let us not hear any divisive voices from you - the G40s or what you call Lacoste, whatever. Shut up!”

The two factions Mugabe alluded to are headed by Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa - who is sometimes referred to as "Lacoste" and his wife, first lady Grace Mugabe, who is sometimes referred to as "G40."

Since the address, not much has changed. According to Nyamutatanga Makombe, an independent political analyst, Mugabe may weather the storm if he clearly shows his preferred successor. But "if he continues trying to balance out the two factions, it might cost him ultimately."

"His power is dwindling because we do not know where those who used to support him stand given the configurations at the moment," Makombe said. "The other storm brewing around him is his age. People might also be taking a queue from his age. That is why there is this dog fight.”

Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence from Great Britain in 1980, has refused to indicate when he will step down. At the Africa Union summit in January, he said he would continue to lead his country until God asks him to "join the other angels."

At his 92nd birthday party in Masvingo, an impoverished area about 350 kilometers south of Harare this weekend, the issue of who will succeed him might not be discussed officially, but it will remain on people’s minds.

Analyst Makombe questions the need for a large birthday celebration, particularly in an area where hunger is pervasive.

"Any normal thinking political party could have said we are not going to hold them [celebrations] this year," he noted. "We are talking here of massive hunger where people are going to be celebrating with cakes, blowing balloons, even the government itself has sent an SOS, have declared a state of emergency. At one entry level people are celebrating, and the other level people are suffering.”

Jasmail Mhlanga, 64, one of those scoffing at the $800,000 birthday bash, also thinks the lavish party is a bad idea, given the state of the economy and the "people who are suffering." He suggested Mugabe show empathy and forego the celebration.

"He fought for this country, but the fighting goes on. We won on the political front. We want to win on the economic front," Mhlanga said. "He must be wise enough to show regard to what is happening to the economy. It’s like I know you have been hungry for two-three days, and I eat nice food in front of you, how do [would] you feel?”

The Mugabe government has made an international appeal for $1.6 billion to import grain for about three million citizens facing hunger. Mugabe's Zanu-PF party has defended the planned elaborate birthday bash, saying it should go ahead for the “iconic and selfless leader” who has made “many sacrifices for his nation.”