HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe president's loyalists have converged for an annual party convention in the provincial city of Gweru, hoping to map out a winning election strategy to end a conflict-ridden four-year-old coalition.
President Robert Mugabe said in the state media Friday the convention should prepare for a convincing victory "that will leave no room for doubt." The longtime leader has said he wants elections in March, a target that doesn't seem realistic.
A year after violent and inconclusive elections in 2008, Mugabe formed a coalition government with then opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who's now prime minister. They've agreed on little since then and the government remains split along party lines.
Mugabe, 88, has been endorsed as his ZANU-PF party's presidential candidate and is expected to face Tsvangirai in the upcoming polls. The convention is being held in a new $6.5 million conference hall. The expenditure was criticized by some Mugabe opponents, coming at a time when at least 1.6 million Zimbabweans, according to the United Nations, need food aid. Organizers of the convention say the center was built to "show that ZANU-PF is here and will be there in the future."
Opposition leaders have accused Mugabe and his party of using proceeds from the nation's eastern diamond fields to fund a parallel government amid fears the money will be used to influence the elections by buying votes and funding violence and intimidation against those who oppose Mugabe's rule. A recent report by a Canadian-based diamond watchdog, Partnership Africa Canada, claimed that at least $2 billion in diamond revenue has been stolen from the Marange diamond fields by Mugabe's loyalists since 2008.
Larry Mavhima, a top ZANU-PF official overseeing the construction of the conference center, told state media that allegations of diamond theft against his party are "nonsense and a lot of hogwash."
"If we have stolen that money then those people can go and report to the police," he was quoted as saying.
Loyalists have described Mugabe as a "food warrior" who has the people's needs at heart as opposed to his rivals in the coalition, the Movement for Democratic Change. Mugabe has begun doling out fertilizers to impoverished farmers from a $20 million agriculture fund he says was created by "well-wishers."
Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza has described the convention as "an annual ritual meant to keep the party's faithful alive."
Mugabe has been in power since this southern African nation, formerly known as Rhodesia, gained independence from Britain in 1980.
Mandaza said talk of Mugabe's succession in ZANU-PF will be avoided at the annual convention.
"They will pretend like everything is fine because it is very divisive to raise the issue of succession," he said. "The trick is always to avoid it and hope nothing will necessitate it."