Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who is facing mounting discontent at home, blamed his country’s economic crisis on the European Union and Britain during celebrations Saturday for his 83rd birthday.
Mugabe, who has been in power since independence in 1980, also claimed the main opposition group was a front for former colonial power Britain. The group is opposing the president’s plans to extend his term by two years.
This past week, the EU renewed targeted sanctions including a travel ban and asset freezes on Mugabe and more than 100 of his top associates to protest the southern African nation’s poor human rights record and Mugabe’s dictatorial rule.
“Our nation faces continued socio-economic challenges from the illegal sanctions (imposed) on us by our detractors as punishment for repossessing our land,” Mugabe said in his speech, referring to his program of white land seizures, which has caused agricultural production to plummet by at least 40 percent in the last six years.
Money, resources in short supply
Zimbabwe is suffering its worst economic crisis since independence, with acute shortages of hard currency, food, gasoline, medicines and essential imports. The meltdown is blamed largely on disruptions to the agriculture-based economy after the often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms began in 2000.
Annual inflation is the highest in the world, around 1,600 percent, and bread has all but disappeared from supermarket shelves in the capital Harare, residents say.
The economic crisis did not seem to put a damper on Mugabe’s birthday festivities. Thousands of people, including ministers, diplomats and ruling party officials, gathered at a soccer stadium in the central town of Gweru for the celebrations, which were billed at more than $1 million.
The celebration came at the end of a week of rising tensions as authorities banned rallies across the capital following skirmishes between police and opposition supporters last Sunday.
Meanwhile, the country’s main labor body, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, announced workers would go on a two-day strike in early April because the government had failed to halt the economic meltdown.
Top officials blacklisted
Doctors and nurses at four major hospitals in Harare and Bulawayo have been on strike for more than eight weeks. Some teachers also went on strike this week. State media claimed Friday they had been awarded a pay hike and had agreed to resume lessons.
The EU sanctions include a ban on 125 Zimbabwe government officials, ministers and those from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front party from traveling to the 27-nation bloc, officials said. The blacklist names those allegedly involved in human rights violations.
The sanctions were first imposed in 2002. They also include a ban on arms sales and freezes Zimbabwean assets in European banks.
The State Department last year put Zimbabwe on a list of six countries where restrictions on rights were particularly severe, along with China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and North Korea.
Despite the growing pressures on his regime, Mugabe insisted his party would remain in control.
“There will never be a regime change,” he said.