Harare, Zimbabwe - Once again, 89-year-old former guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe has taken oath of office.
On Thursday - which the veteran ruler declared a public holiday - under a clear blue sky streaked with a few wisps of crisp white clouds, Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for the past 33 years, was sworn in for a seventh five-year term as head of state amid a full day of pageantry, with a several African leaders in attendance.
But there was a suppurating topic that no amount of sunshine or military band could play away: the challenge to his re-election, which saw his longtime foe and opposition challenger Morgan Tsvangirai staying away from the festivities held at a national sports stadium in the capital, Harare.
"[Movement for Democratic Change] president Tsvangirai is not attending a robber's party," Tsvangirai's spokesman Luke Tamborinyoka said. "Whilst some external and internal institutions have endorsed Robert Mugabe's fraudulent victory, the people of Zimbabwe whose vote was stolen have certainly not endorsed him."
But Mugabe defiantly sprinkled his celebratory speech with a dig at his rival, the outgoing prime minister, who he accused of being a sore loser.
|Mugabe says Zimbabwe elections free and fair
"Except for a few dishonest Western countries, our election has been declared free and fair by SADC, [the] African Union, Comesa, the ACP, the UN and many nations of goodwill have praised our elections here," Mugabe said. "We welcome this encouragement, this positive spirit ... There will always be bad losers, real spoilers."
Africa's longest serving leader called for rejection of what he called blackmail by the United States.
The US has said the recent election was flawed and will continue sanctions against Mugabe's government.
Mugabe spoke directly to comments made by a US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Monday who said: "The United States stands by our assessment that these elections, while relatively peaceful, did not represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people due to serious flaws throughout the electoral process."
Reacting to Psaki's statements, Mugabe said: "Today it is America and their illegal sanctions with all that past of enslaving us. It is America which raises a censorious voice over our affairs, and says our elections were not fair, were not credible. Yes, today it is these Anglo-Saxons who dare contradict Africa's verdict over an election in Zimbabwe, an African country. Who are they, we ask? Who ever gave them a gift of seeing better than all of us?"
The 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), which helped broker a power-sharing deal after the disputed 2008 elections, and the African Union, have said the vote was free and peaceful, backing Mugabe's re-election.
Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front party (ZANU-PF) has said it wants to alleviate tensions in its foreign policy, and will keep its doors open for Western countries who wish to open a new page of "mutually respectful re-engagement".
|Mugabe (L) greets Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete at his inauguration ceremony in Harare [AFP]
But it seems no matter how forward-looking he wants to be, his presidency, at least in its early days, is going to be dogged by the past. Several Western countries, including the US, have signalled that they will keep their distance from Mugabe because of vote rigging allegations. That may end up being difficult as mineral-rich Zimbabwe is strategically important to most industrialised countries looking for raw materials.
Some Western envoys attended the inauguration.
While five serving African heads of state attended the inauguration, that was interpreted by some Zimbabweans as a snub because 40 presidents had been invited. China, an ally of Zimbabwe and a big buyer of the country's natural resources, sent a high-level delegation from Beijing, and many African countries sent deputy heads, including SADC facilitator and South African president Jacob Zuma who was represented by his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe.
Among the dignitaries were Armando Guebuza, Mozambique's president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, president of Namibia, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, Joseph Kabila of the DRC and Equatorial Guinea leader Teodoro Mbasogo.
[H]e now faces the challenge to plan succession in a way that ensures that after him there will be a Zimbabwe with a future to talk about and to ensure that the Zanu-PF succession battle does not lead the country into chaos, violence and lawlessness.
Mugabe delivered a long list of things he planned to do: accelerate a drive to transfer ownership of foreign firms to local blacks, create employment for youths, increase salaries for government workers, set up factories to add value to minerals before exporting them and expanding power generation.
He congratulated the nation for holding a complicated "harmonised" election in peace.
Dewa Mavhinga, senior researcher for Zimbabwe and Southern Africa at the Human Rights Watch, said Mugabe's greatest challenge now is the same one he faced when he became prime minister in 1980 - to deliver on his undertaking to promote and protect the rights of the people of Zimbabwe and to uphold the constitution and rule of law.
"But in addition, he now faces the challenge to plan succession in a way that ensures that after him there will be a Zimbabwe with a future to talk about and to ensure that the ZANU-PF succession battle does not lead the country into chaos, violence and lawlessness," Mavhinga said.
Academic Takura Zhangazha said Mugabe's major challenge was the national economy.
"He has to tackle unemployment, social service delivery, foreign direct investment and basic infrastructure rejuvenation," Zhangazha said. "He also has to do this in tandem with entrenching democratic values and principles in the political culture of Zimbabwe and committing to curtailing tendencies of impunity over and about human rights."
Question of legitimacy
The swearing-in ceremony, held in a packed Chinese-built stadium in Harare, capped an exhausting election period. On July 31, over 3 million Zimbabweans went to the polls, with some standing for hours to cast their ballots.
Election officials declared Mugabe the outright winner by a landslide, but the second-place finisher, Tsvangirai, who just stepped down as prime minister, cried foul, pointing to widespread "rigging". He challenged the results, but Zimbabwe's Constitutional Court upheld Mugabe's victory on Tuesday.
Obert Gutu, the outgoing deputy minister of Justice and Legal Affairs and a key ally of Tsvangirai, said Mugabe faced insurmountable challenges.
"ZANU-PF stole the people's vote and so the initial challenge is lack of domestic legitimacy," Gutu said. "Going forward, the economy will scream because no meaningful investment will come into the country in fear of ZANU-PF's populist and retrogressive economic policies. I foresee massive and unprecedented capital flight coupled with crippling disinvestment. The economy will contract and corruption shall be the order of the day. Ultimately, the system will just crumble like a deck of cards."
Towards the end of the festivities, after local and international musicians including Jamaican reggae band Black Uhuru had performed and the brass horns went quiet, Mugabe ascended the steps of a military truck and made a victory lap around the stadium, amid wild cheers, before exiting the stadium.
Follow Gift Phiri on Twitter: @giftphiri