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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 15:50 GMT
Funds sought for Mugabe birthday
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Mr Mugabe's supporters always celebrate his birthday
People in Zimbabwe are being asked to contribute funds towards a big birthday party for President Robert Mugabe, who turns 83 on 21 February.

The celebrations, due to be held in the central town of Gweru, will cost thousands of dollars, an official said.

Zimbabwe is mired in its worst economic crisis, with annual inflation at a record 1,593% - the world's highest.

President Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980.

The campaign to raise funds for the birthday celebrations is being run by a youth organisation called the 21 February Movement, which was founded in 1986 in honour of Mr Mugabe.

"We are looking to raise 300m Zimbabwe dollars ($1.2m at the official exchange rate; $65,200 at the unofficial rate) that will be used at the birthday celebrations in Gweru," Emmanuel Fundira, chairman of the movement, told the AFP news agency.

According to the government, one US dollar is worth $Z250, but on the street, the US dollar can be sold for Z$4,600.

Economic problems

Mr Mugabe's birthday has traditionally been enthusiastically celebrated by his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) with a massive party for loyalists and diplomats.

Zimbabwean schoolchild has a lesson outdoors
Thousands of children are unable to attend school because of the crisis

That went largely unnoticed when Zimbabwe was a regional economic role model.

But times have been hard for the last eight years as the country has continued on a downward economic slide.

This has led to severe problems with health workers and other government often going on strike over unpaid or low wages.

Families often have to miss meals, or make do with fewer ingredients, and many have to cycle or walk long distances to work, correspondents say.

Education and health care have also become scarce commodities with many unable to send their children to school or get proper medical treatment.

Morals count

Mr Mugabe blames foreign governments and his opponents for the crisis, but his critics say the problems started when he launched a controversial program to take back land from white farmers.

This has seen agricultural production - once the back-bone of the country's economy - plunge by 40%.

Amid these circumstances, the celebrations are seen as unwarranted by many locals, correspondents say.

The local Standard newspaper stated in an editorial comment on Sunday that "it was ironic that the government saw nothing amiss in hosting an ostentatious birthday bash".

But the Zanu-PF's youth secretary, Absalom Sikosana, insisted that the celebrations were important as they brought young people close to the president.

"That day is a day where he will be closer to them, encouraging them to have good morals," he said in comments to the state-controlled Herald newspaper.

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