HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe declared last Friday that “Zimbabwe is mine,” saying only Zimbabweans can remove him from power and that no African nation is brave enough to wrest it from him.
The ever-defiant Mugabe — in power for nearly three decades — hit back after the top U.S. envoy to Africa called for the “person who has ruined the country” to step down.
“I will never, never sell my country. I will never, never, never surrender,” Mugabe told members of his ZANU-PF party. “Zimbabwe is mine, I am a Zimbabwean, Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe never for the British. Britain for the British.”
He was cheered by flag-waving supporters at an annual three-day convention in Bindura, 60 miles northeast of Harare, the capital. Some wore shirts printed with pictures of Mugabe’s face and sang his praise: “Stay with us. We know you are our president.”
Mugabe, 84, has ruled the country since its 1980 independence from Britain and refused to leave office following disputed elections in March.
He has faced renewed criticism amid a humanitarian crisis that has pushed thousands of Zimbabweans to the point of starvation and left 1,123 people dead from cholera since August. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have called for Mugabe to step down.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that “last time the world checked, Zimbabwe belonged to the people of Zimbabwe.”
“You know, again, it’s a statement that I think sums up in a concise way what is at the root of Zimbabwe’s problems,” he said.
The U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs said last Thursday that questions about how much longer Zimbabwe can withstand hunger, disease and political stalemate before disintegrating ignore that “there is a complete collapse right now.”
“We think that the person who has ruined the country … that he needs to step down,” Jendayi Frazer said.
Mugabe last Friday called Frazer a “little girl” and questioned which African countries “would have the courage” to order a military intervention. Most neighboring countries, including regional giant South Africa, are opposed to such an intervention.
“What the Americans want just now is the removal of President Mugabe,” he said. “But President Mugabe has been elected by his people and we have told them, as we have told the Europeans, that the only persons with the power to remove Robert Gabriel Mugabe are the people of Zimbabwe.”
Critics blame Mugabe’s policies for the ruin of the once-productive nation. Mugabe blames Western sanctions for the economic meltdown, though the European Union and U.S. sanctions are targeted only at Mugabe and dozens of his clique with frozen bank accounts and travel bans.
Mugabe repeated charges that the European Union, former colonizer Britain and the United States were exaggerating the cholera epidemic to urge regime change.
“They just want to see Mugabe go,” he said. “No wonder why they are making all these allegations of a cholera crisis and that Zimbabwe is collapsing.”
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez spoke out in support of Mugabe last Friday, and Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry said the health emergency should not be used by other countries to “politically destabilize” Zimbabwe’s government.
Zimbabwe once had one of the best health care systems in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, most of its hospitals have been forced to close because they cannot afford medicine, equipment or wages.
The country’s decline began in 2000 when Mugabe began an often violent campaign to seize white-owned commercial farms and give them to blacks. Most of the land ended up in the hands of his cronies and production has dropped, sending the agricultural-based economy into a tailspin.
Zimbabwe once exported food. Now the hungry scrounge for corn kernels spilled on the way to market.
Mugabe lost Zimbabwe’s March presidential elections to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose party also ended the 28-year domination of Parliament by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. But official results said Tsvangirai did not win outright. He withdrew from a runoff because of state-sponsored violence against his supporters.
Last Friday, Mugabe harangued his party leaders and supporters over his loss, accusing some of them of supporting the opposition — charges that highlighted splits in the party over Mugabe’s continued leadership.
“I know some of you were campaigning for MDC,” he said. “No wonder I lost dismally, but some of you won your seats.”
He warned: “Now we know you and we are watching you closely.”
Mugabe and Tsvangirai agreed in September to form a unity government but have been deadlocked since over how to share Cabinet posts.
Tsvangirai said last Friday that he will ask his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, to halt negotiations unless political detainees are released or charged by Jan. 1.
He told reporters in Botswana that more than 42 members of his opposition party and civil society have been abducted in the past two months. They include three journalists. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
“The MDC can no longer sit at the same negotiating table with a party that is abducting our members and other innocent civilians and refusing to produce any of them before a court of law,” Tsvangirai said.
Associated Press writer Sello Motseta in Gaborone, Botswana contributed to this report.