Zimbabwe's farms are ruined, its economy has evaporated, and its people have begun to starve and die of cholera. What better time to call a feast? According to reports in Zimbabwe's domestic press on Thursday, President Robert Mugabe and delegates to the annual conference of his ruling Zanu-PF Party will chomp their way through 124 cattle, 81 goats and 18 pigs over the course of their deliberations in the central town of Bindura. "Even if no more beasts are donated," said Geoffrey Nyarota, managing editor of thezimbabwetimes.com, referring to the practice of delegates donating animals to the leadership, "124 head of cattle is an inordinately large quantity of beef." With 5,000 delegates expected to attend, he added, it worked out to "40 delegates per bovine over four days — that is not to mention the pork, the goat, the maize-meal, the rice, among other basic foodstuffs currently in acute shortage throughout Zimbabwe." Noting he had attended weddings at which two bulls had fed 400 guests, Nyarota added, "This truly is incredible, especially in a country where millions of impoverished souls are starving."
The catering arrangements for the ruling party's annual shindig only reinforces the sense of grand delusion pervading the top ranks of Zimbabwe's regime amid the catastrophe they have brought upon their country. The U.N. has raised its estimate of the death toll from the cholera epidemic to 1,111, with 20,580 people infected. Concern is also growing over the fate of more than 20 opposition and civil-society leaders and activists who have not been seen since their abduction this past month. Mystery also surrounds an attempted assassination attempt against Zimbabwe's air-force chief Perrance Shiri, who was shot in the arm by unknown gunmen who stopped his car on Tuesday. Shiri is a key member of Mugabe's inner circle who commanded the notorious North Korean–trained 5th Brigade that massacred tens of thousands of supporters of a rival political movement during the 1980s
The government response to the expanding crisis is increasingly bizarre. Mugabe has denied that the cholera epidemic exists. (A spokesman later claimed he was being sarcastic.) And some of his ministers and spokesmen have blamed a Western conspiracy — which they claim is running militia training camps in neighboring Botswana with the eventual aim of recolonizing Zimbabwe — for the assassination attempt on Shiri. Even the cholera outbreak forms part of this dark conspiracy: Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu described the disease as part of a "serious biological chemical war ... a genocidal onslaught on the people of Zimbabwe by ... the unrepentant former colonial power [Britain], which has enlisted support from its American and Western allies so that they invade the country." A senior Zanu-PF official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TIME that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was behind the attack on Shiri. "It is the MDC and its Western donors who are trying to destabilize our country because we took land from the whites," he said. "We are going to stand firm to our values."
South Africa President Kgalema Motlanthe has dismissed the regime's claims. But University of Zimbabwe lecturer John Makumbe believes the purpose of touting these incredible fictions is that "the regime wants to create an impression that it is a victim when it is actually the perpetrator of violence."
Driving Zanu-PF's hysterical self-deception is the party's loss of popular support. The erstwhile liberation movement lost a general election in March, and after 28 years in power, Mugabe finished second in the presidential race behind MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The regime, which has always claimed for itself the mantle of revolutionary vanguard of the Zimbabwean people, responded with violence, killing close to 200 MDC members and jailing and torturing thousands more. Mugabe has since opened power-sharing talks with the MDC, but those have collapsed over the incumbent's insistence on keeping absolute control over the police and army, his key instruments of power. But without a political solution, Zimbabwe cannot escape economic disaster, because aid donors refused to prop up a dictatorial regime.
But Mugabe remains defiant. Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, former Home Affairs Minister Dumiso Dabengwa, a former Mugabe ally, said the 84-year-old dictator believed in violence as the only remedy. "When I was in government and in Zanu-PF, I used to tell Mugabe not to victimize and use violence against the MDC, but he did not listen. He refused to stop using violence against the MDC, saying that the power base of Zanu-PF was threatened. He was unrepentant. He believes violence is the solution." The U.N. estimates that 5.8 million people out of a population of up to 12 million will need food aid in the first quarter of next year. But that won't stop the cadres of Zanu-PF from eating their fill in Bindura.
—With reporting by correspondents inside Zimbabwe