|Media reports suggested the tab for the celebration reached an estimated $1m [AFP]|
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has called for elections to be held in 2012, a year ahead of schedule, as he addressed supporters celebrating his 88th birthday.
Saturday’s gathering in the city of Mutare concluded a week of celebrations across the country.
A cake baked in the capital, Harare, 270km away, was taken to Mutare under police escort, and livestock were slaughtered for the event.
Media estimates suggested the tab for the occasion had reached nearly $1m, money critics said should rather be spent on the country’s poor than on lavish ceremonies.
In his call for national polls, the veteran leader said the time had come to make up with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), with whom Mugabe was forced to share power after disputed and violent elections in 2008.
“I still have the strength. No going back. Forward ever, backwards never.“
– Robert Mugabe
“We used to fight each other, but time has come for us to do our politics in a much more cultured way,” he said in an hour-long address.
“Although our differences are political, we shouldn’t regard them as a source of hatred. No. No violence, no violence, no violence.”
Mugabe, who has held power since independence from Britain in 1980, has become a pariah in the West, blamed for running the economy into the ground and for massive human rights abuses to keep his grip on power.
In the more controversial part of Saturday’s speech, he told British Prime Minister David Cameron “to hell with you” over his calls to respect gay rights and accused non-governmental organisations of trying to destabilise the country.
“NGOs come with these stupid ideas, some to destabilise us. Quite often they support one party. We say to them get away from our country. Leave us to solve our political problems. Leave us to manage our own systems,” Mugabe said.
Lashing out at Cameron, who at the Commonwealth summit last year said countries receiving British aid should respect gay rights, Mugabe said: “Nature is nature. It has created male and female,”
“That’s how we were born, so we reject that outright and say to hell with you.”
He also urged voters to reject gay rights in a new constitution, currently being drafted as a key step toward new elections to replace Mugabe’s rocky unity government with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mugabe is pushing for elections to be held this year, arguing the unity government he formed with MDC leader Tsvangirai has broken down.
He repeated accusations of Tsvangirai and the MDC dragging their feet over crafting a new constitution in a bid to delay polls Mugabe says he will win.
Despite his advanced age and fears over his health, Mugabe has been endorsed as his ZANU-PF party’s presidential candidate.
Tsvangirai insists Zimbabwe can only hold elections after broad reforms, including a new charter.
A June 2008 US diplomatic cable released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks last year said Mugabe had prostate cancer that had spread to other organs. His doctor urged him to step down in 2008, according to the cable.
In his birthday speech, Mugabe sought to dispel concerns about his health.
“I still have the strength. No going back. Forward ever, backwards never,” he said, to cheers from the crowd.