Africa’s oldest head of state, Robert Mugabe, turned 90 years old Friday, amid concerns about his health and the cost of his birthday festivities.
The Zimbabwean president left the country on Monday for what his office said was a eye cataract operation in Singapore, where he travels periodically for medical treatment.
A spokesman said he would return for birthday celebrations on Sunday but the timing of the trip raised speculation that his health is failing. A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks said Mugabe had prostate cancer.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reports that Zimbabwe is spending about $1 million on festivities for the longtime president.
The paper quotes critics who say the amount is excessive when the country’s chronically weak economy is declining again and layoffs are on the rise.
A leader of the country’s liberation war, Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe as either prime minister or president since the country won independence from Britain in 1980.
He was often praised in the early years of his rule but drew increasing condemnation from abroad after 2000, when he launched a chaotic program to take white-owned farms and give them to blacks.
Agricultural production plunged, and Zimbabwe has dealt with food shortages and a generally poor economy ever since.
That, along with documented human rights abuses and election rigging, led Britain, the U.S. and other Western countries to impose financial and economic sanctions on Mr. Mugabe and his allies beginning 2002.
Throughout it all, Mugabe has remained defiant. He defended the land reform program as necessary to correct colonial-era imbalances, and blames the country’s economic troubles on foreign interference.
He has also turned back repeated challenges to his power by the rival MDC party and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
The two men entered into a power-sharing deal after the disputed 2008 elections, but Mr. Mugabe easily won victory in the most recent election last year.
The president’s age and the lack of a succession plan have set off concerns Zimbabwe could slide into chaos when he dies or can no longer serve.