Thousands of Zimbabweans joined a march through Harare in support of veteran President Robert Mugabe on Wednesday after the main opposition party staged its own rally last month.
The marchers, many of whom were transported to the capital by bus, sang songs praising Mugabe and wore t-shirts displaying his image as they gathered at a central square to hear him address the crowds.
“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 supporter of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, told AFP.
“Our president has the people at heart and we support that a lot.”
Learnmore Muzarabani, 28, a farmer, said he was marching to show his loyalty 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 to attend what organisers had dubbed a “million-man” march.
“Comrade Mugabe is not sick, people lie,” supporters sang in one song defending the 92-year-old 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 speech venue, searching people while heavy security patrols were on the streets of Harare in vehicles and on horseback.
Last month, thousands of 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.
Mugabe, 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 marked by economic decline, repression of dissent, vote-rigging and mass unemployment and emigration.
The ZANU-PF party has been divided between rival factions jostling to succeed Mugabe, who has avoided naming a successor.
Despite signs of ageing, he still appears regularly in public walking unaided and gives long speeches that often blame the west for Zimbabwe’s troubles.