A picture taken on February 21, 2017 shows a cake bearing a portrait of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe during a private ceremony to celebrate Mugabe's 93rd birthday in Harare.
BULAWAYO - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe celebrated his 93rd birthday with a lavish party on Saturday attended by thousands of loyalists outside the second city of Bulawayo.
The ruling ZANU-PF party hosted the event for Mugabe, who has held power since 1980 during a reign marked by repression of dissent, vote-rigging and the country's economic collapse.
Now the world's oldest national leader, his actual birthday on Tuesday has been honoured in a week-long extravaganza with state media filled with tributes and praise.
The party -- held in a large marquee decorated with portraits of a younger Mugabe -- included a feast and several vast birthday cakes, angering some Zimbabweans as the country endures severe food shortages.
One of cakes was shaped like Mugabe's official Mercedes Benz limousine.
Holding the event at a school in Matobo has also riled locals as it is close to where many victims of Mugabe's deadly crackdown on dissidents in the early 1980s are thought to be buried.
At least 20,000 people are believed to have been killed in the massacres by North Korean-trained Zimbabwean troops, according to rights groups.
"This should not be a place for celebration," Mbuso Fuzwayo, spokesman for the Bulawayo-based campaign group Ibhetshu Likazulu, told AFP.
"The whole area is a crime scene where the bones of victims of the massacres are buried."
- Increasingly frail -
Mugabe gave a faltering television interview this week, vowing to remain in power despite growing signs of frailty.
During the pre-recorded birthday broadcast, Mugabe paused at length between sentences and spoke with his eyes barely open.
"The call to step down must come from my party," he said.
"If I feel that I can't do it any more, I will say so to my party so that they relieve me. But for now, I think I can't say so."
The state-owned Herald newspaper on Tuesday published a 24-page supplement of congratulatory messages from government departments and regime loyalists.
"It’s written on earth and in heaven that our leader is RG Mugabe,"ZANU-PF national youth leader Kudzai Chipanga told guests at the party.
"We find it hard and impossible to talk about any other leader except yourself."
ZANU-PF has endorsed Mugabe as its candidate for general elections next year, and he remains widely respected as a liberation hero by other African leaders.
Party guests -- some dressed in clothing that showed Mugabe's image -- chanted "Long live the African icon" before the president's speech expected later in the afternoon.
He has avoided naming a successor, but his wife, Grace, 51, is seen as a possible candidate along with vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa.
A coalition of opposition activism group said in statement that the party was "a mockery and a direct insult to the concerns of the citizens", alleging that poor farmers had been forced to donate cattle to feed guests.
Born on February 21, 1924, Mugabe trained as a teacher and taught in what was then Rhodesia and Ghana before returning home to join the guerrilla war against white-minority rule.
He became prime minister on Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980 and then president in 1987.
All schools around Bulawayo were closed on Thursday and Friday to prepare for the celebrations.
"Our children were told their classrooms have been turned into boarding facilities, and they are being frogmarched to join the birthday party," local poet and opposition activist Desire Moyo told AFP.