[HARARE] The world's oldest leader, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, turns 91 on Saturday with much to celebrate - even as critics condemn as "obscene" his lavish birthday party plans in a country he is accused of plunging into poverty.
After years of international criticism, the European Union is resuming aid to the country and has already lifted sanctions on some senior government figures, while Mr Mugabe has taken up the rotating chair of the African Union.
"To put it very bluntly Mugabe has won," said Richard Dowden, director of the London-based Royal African Society.
"An immense amount of Western pressure to step down and reverse some of his policies - and he's done neither." When he came to power in 1980, Mr Mugabe was a hero of the fight against white minority rule in the former Rhodesia.
He won international praise for his declared policy of racial reconciliation and for extending education and health services to the black majority.
But critics say that over the following decades he turned the 'breadbasket of southern Africa' into a basket case, with human rights, justice and democracy trampled.
Mr Mugabe's violent seizure of white-owned farms was followed by food shortages and hyper-inflation. Rigged elections saw Europe and the US impose sanctions.
Ostracised by the West, but still respected as a liberation hero by other African leaders, Mr Mugabe has remained defiant.
"Down with imperialism. There was no country in Africa that was opposed to Zimbabwe becoming chair [OF THE AU], not even a single one," he boasted after his appointment last month.
Mr Mugabe once quipped that he would rule his country until he turned 100 - and he shows every sign of trying to achieve that goal.
He has recently purged his ruling Zanu-PF party of senior ministers and officials seen as allies of his former deputy, Joice Mujuru, who was accused of plotting to succeed him.
Despite a recent fall on the red carpet after his return from the AU meeting in Ethiopia - which was gleefully seized on by opponents on social media - he appears remarkably fit for his age.
"If his aim was to rule Zimbabwe and become the king of Zimbabwe for a long time, and whatever happened to the country he would stay there and become a continent-wide hero, I think he's achieved those aims," Mr Dowden said.
"The fact that Zimbabwe has been ruined in the process and it's now just run by thieves who call themselves ministers, looting the place continually, I don't think that worries him a bit."
In an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent on Friday, Didymus Mutasa, a long-time Mugabe ally who was expelled from the ruling party this week, said: "His legacy is in ruins and the party of liberation is in tatters and shambles." But that has not stopped Mugabe from planning a birthday party reportedly costing a million dollars and including a feast of animals including two elephants.
The party is set for February 28 at a luxurious hotel in the prime resort town of Victoria Falls, with ordinary citizens pressured into contributing to the cost.
The leader of the Progressive Teachers' Union, Raymond Majongwe said schoolteachers were being forced to contribute up to US$10 towards the feast.
"In many provinces people are being forced to donate towards the birthday and we now know where they intend to get the money to charter a plane and bankroll the expensive party," Mr Majongwe said.
The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), wants the funds "collected to bankroll this obscene jamboree" to be used instead to rehabilitate collapsed hospitals and schools, said spokesman Obert Gutu.