Harare (AFP) – Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans marched through Harare on Wednesday in support of veteran President Robert Mugabe after the main opposition party staged a rally last month calling for him to resign.
“It’s glory that you are giving to the president, but the president says in a reciprocal way that it’s our glory together,” Mugabe told cheering crowds, many of whom were transported to the capital by bus.
Organisers had dubbed the event a “million-man” march, but AFP reporters on the ground estimated the turnout at between 30,000 to 60,000.
The marchers sang songs praising Mugabe and wore t-shirts displaying his image as they gathered at a central park to hear his 90-minute speech.
Mugabe, 92, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, has vowed to stand again as president in elections due in 2018.
His decades in office have been widely criticised for economic decline, repression of dissent, vote-rigging and mass unemployment and emigration.
“We are happy that we are marching for our president to prevent the opposition from distracting the country’s leader,” Taremedzwa Chikara, 56, a housewife and loyal supporter of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, told AFP.
“Our president has the people at heart, and we support that a lot.”
– Loyal supporters –
Learnmore Muzarabani, 28, a farmer, said he was marching to show his allegiance to Mugabe over controversial land reforms to resettle landless blacks and government policies that force foreign firms to cede majority stakes to locals.
“We are here because we love our president. He has done a lot for us. He gave us land and now we are supporting his indigenisation programme,” Muzarabani said.
ZANU-PF supporters, many of them young and waving small national flags, arrived in Harare from across the country by bus, train and truck.
“Comrade Mugabe is not sick, people lie,” supporters sang in one song defending the elderly president, who has been the subject of regular stories about his alleged ill health or even death.
“Forward with President Mugabe,” others chanted, as they carried placards carrying messages such as “Youths march in solidarity with the visionary and iconic leadership of President Robert Mugabe.”
Police in anti-riot gear surrounded the park, searching people while heavy security patrols were on the streets of Harare in vehicles and on horseback.
Last month, a few thousand supporters of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party attended the biggest public protest in nearly a decade calling on Mugabe to step down.
Similar anti-Mugabe demonstrations have been ruthlessly crushed in the past.
Despite signs of ageing, Mugabe appears regularly in public walking unaided and on Wednesday he delivered a trademark fiery speech.
He called for unity in the ZANU-PF party that has been divided by rival factions jostling to succeed him, and he renewed his attacks on the western powers that he blames for Zimbabwe’s troubles.
“There should never be little groups to promote so and so. Those little groups are treasonous groups, they poison the party,” he said.
“I belong to my people. I don’t like to be American, I am not a Yankee. I am not a Briton… I belong to Zimbabwe,” he said.
“I am at the service of the people. If the people feel I should go, I go,” he said.
“But at the moment where do you want me to go? I am not going anywhere.”