MASVINGO, Zimbabwe — The lavish annual birthday parties for President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who has been in power since the country gained independence in 1980, have been a stage from which he has swatted away challengers and secured his larger-than-life hold on his nation.
“Mugabe’s birthday,” a state-run newspaper proclaimed this month, “is like that of Jesus Christ.”
But when Mugabe — the world’s oldest head of state — celebrated his 92nd birthday here over the weekend, his advancing age and visible frailty focused attention on the increasingly fierce struggle within his party to succeed him. The jockeying for power was too much for Mugabe to ignore.
Blaming “senior party members” motivated by “their own evil interests” — as well as the British and the Americans for sowing divisions within his party — Mugabe said: “Factionalism, factionalism and, I repeat, factionalism has no space. It has no place at all in our party.”
The president’s admonition, his second in two weeks, is unlikely to extinguish the feuding inside Zimbabwe’s governing elite. It raises the possibility that, as in other African nations led for decades by a single leader, the struggle for succession here could be long and painful for Zimbabwe — as well as for its neighbors, like South Africa, which has already received hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans fleeing political and economic turmoil.
Mugabe, who said this month that he would govern “until God says ‘come,’ ” has already announced his intention to run for re-election in 2018. But he has been unable to suppress images of his mortality.
In recent months, video footage captured by television cameras and cellphones has shown Mugabe stumbling or sleeping at public events. He has appeared confused and in one instance even repeated in its entirety a speech he had already read.
The images have reinforced the atmosphere in Zimbabwe that an era is coming to an end.
Mugabe’s birthday party, which has been held since 1986 and was broadcast live on television, took place this year at the Great Zimbabwe, a historic site here about 200 miles southeast of Harare, the capital. Tens of thousands of party members were bused here, most wearing party regalia emblazoned with the president’s face.
Children paraded in military fatigues and chanted anti-Western slogans, praising Mugabe as the conqueror of the British.
In a region hit hard by a drought that has ravaged swaths of southern Africa, Mugabe released 92 balloons into the air to start the festivities and later cut a cake weighing about 203 pounds. Zimbabwe recently declared a “state of disaster” in drought-stricken rural areas and said that a quarter of the population may lack food in the months ahead because of poor harvests.
The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, described the party as “obscene,” and Zimbabwe’s news media reported that it cost $800,000. Even some partygoers who said they had come for the food — 50 cattle were slaughtered — were critical.
“It is amazing that a president presiding over a state which fails to pay its workers on time, a country with a sea of poverty and going through one of the worst droughts in living memory and hunger, can see it fit to spend a million dollars celebrating his life, which has meant nothing but suffering for us,” said Caleb Moyo, 34, a bus driver who described himself as a former local organizer now disillusioned with the president.
On the stage, however, loyalists extolled Mugabe.
“We see Mugabe as Africa’s Moses and towering icon,” said Pupurai Togarepi, the youth leader of the governing party, ZANU-PF. “That is why we celebrate in this way.”
But Togarepi, as well as a provincial party leader, acknowledged the party’s open fissures in Mugabe’s presence, and apologized for them.
In the weeks leading up to the party, tensions rose between the two groups fighting to control ZANU-PF, known popularly as Team Lacoste and G40. The factions — each led by officials with long ties to Mugabe and with little difference in ideology — have traded increasingly vitriolic attacks in public.
Team Lacoste is allied with one of Mugabe’s two vice presidents, Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose nickname is the Crocodile. A veteran of ZANU-PF, Mnangagwa has led the ministries of defense and justice, and is believed to enjoy strong backing among the security forces. His allies have been increasingly vocal in pressing for the president’s retirement to make way for Mnangagwa.
Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, who has the support of the G40, pointedly attacked Mnangagwa and his allies at a party rally a few weeks ago, accusing them of trying to topple Mugabe.
Grace Mugabe, 50, a former secretary to the president who became his second wife in 1996, has become politically active in the last couple of years. Supported by some senior party members, she is believed to have engineered in 2014 the firing of Joice Mujuru, who served as one of Mugabe’s vice presidents for 10 years and was considered a leading contender to succeed him.
In turn, Grace Mugabe and her allies have drawn rising anger from Zimbabwe’s war veterans, who have long mobilized support for Mugabe. The war veterans say that Grace Mugabe and her backers are opportunists who wield influence only because of their proximity to the president and do not have popular support.
On Feb. 18, the police fired tear gas and water cannons to break up a planned march by war veterans on the party’s headquarters in the capital. At the party here, many members were openly hostile toward the G40.
“The danger of allowing Mugabe’s wife to lead a faction which takes over from Mugabe is that we will end up in a civil war situation,” said Gilbert Kurangwa, 67, a war veteran. “She is only as powerful as Mugabe is around, and when the old man is gone even those supporting her will turn against Grace.”
Perhaps because the attacks were loud enough, Mugabe defended his wife from the stage here.
“It is shameful the way Mrs. Mugabe is being criticized,” Mugabe said. “Who may be the enemy among us?”