Mugabe: Liberation hero turned despot
Zimbabwe’s veteran leader Robert Mugabe once quipped that he’d rule his country until he turned 100.
But, aged 93, his grip on power seems to be ebbing as tensions erupt between his loyal ZANU-PF party and the military that has helped keep him in office.
First heralded as a liberator who rid the former British colony Rhodesia of white minority rule, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was soon cast in the role of a despot who crushed political dissent and ruined the national economy.
The former political prisoner turned guerrilla leader swept to power in 1980 elections after a violent insurgency and economic sanctions forced the Rhodesian government to the negotiating table.
In office he initially won international plaudits for his declared policy of racial reconciliation and for extending improved education and health services to the black majority.
But his lustre faded quickly.
Mugabe took control of one wing in the guerrilla war for independence — the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its armed forces — after his release from prison in 1974.
His partner in the armed struggle — the leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), Joshua Nkomo — was one of the early casualties of Mugabe’s crackdown on dissent.
Nkomo was dismissed from government, where he held the home affairs portfolio, after the discovery of an arms cache in his Matabeleland province stronghold in 1982.
Mugabe, whose party drew most of its support from the ethnic Shona majority, then unleashed his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Nkomo’s Ndebele people in a campaign known as Gukurahundi that killed an estimated 20,000 suspected dissidents.
It was the seizure of white-owned farms nearly two decades later that would complete Mugabe’s transformation from darling of the West into international pariah — though his status as a liberation hero still resonates in many parts of Africa.
Aimed largely at placating angry war veterans who threatened to destabilise his rule, the land reform policy wrecked the crucial agricultural sector, caused foreign investors to flee and helped plunge the country into economic misery.
At the same time, critics say, Mugabe clung to power through increased repression of human rights and by rigging elections.
– ‘Reptilian quality’ –
“He was a great leader whose leadership degenerated to a level where he really brought Zimbabwe to its knees,” said University of South Africa professor Shadrack Gutto.
Britain’s former foreign secretary Peter Carrington knew Mugabe well, having mediated the Lancaster House talks that paved the way for Zimbabwe’s independence.
“Mugabe wasn’t human at all,” Carrington told biographer Heidi Holland. “There was a sort of reptilian quality about him.
“You could admire his skills and intellect… but he was an awfully slippery sort of person.”
In the final decades of his rule, Mugabe — one of the world’s most recognisable leaders with his thin stripe of moustache and thick-rimmed spectacles — has embraced his new role as the antagonist of the West.
He used blistering rhetoric to blame his country’s downward spiral on Western sanctions, though they were targeted personally at Mugabe and his henchmen rather than at Zimbabwe’s economy.
“If people say you are dictator… you know they are saying this merely to tarnish and demean your status, then you don’t pay much attention,” he said in a 2013 documentary.
After decades in which the subject of succession was virtually taboo, a vicious struggle to take over after his death became apparent among the party elite as he reached his 90s and became visibly frail.
He had been rumoured for years to have prostate cancer, but according to the official account, his frequent trips to Singapore were related to his treatment for cataracts.
Mugabe’s second wife Grace — his former secretary who is 41 years his junior and has been seen as a potential successor — boasted that even in his 80s he would rise before dawn to work out.
“It’s true I was dead. I resurrected as I always do once I get back to my country. I am real again,” he joked in 2016 after returning from a foreign trip, mocking rumours that he had died.
But in his later years, he has stumbled and fallen more than once and delivered the wrong speech at the opening of parliament last year.
– The Catholic Marxist –
Born on February 21, 1924 into a Catholic family at Kutama Mission northwest of Harare, Mugabe was described as a loner, and a studious child known to carry a book even while tending cattle in the bush.
After his carpenter father walked out on the family when he was 10, the young Mugabe concentrated on his studies, qualifying as a schoolteacher at the age of 17.
An intellectual who initially embraced Marxism, he enrolled at Fort Hare University in South Africa, meeting many of southern Africa’s future black nationalist leaders.
After teaching in Ghana, where he was influenced by founder president Kwame Nkrumah, Mugabe returned to Rhodesia where he was detained for his nationalist activities in 1964 and spent the next 10 years in prison camps or jail.
During his incarceration he gained three degrees through correspondence, but the years in prison left their mark.
His four-year-old son by his first wife, Ghanaian-born Sally Francesca Hayfron, died while he was behind bars. Rhodesian leader Ian Smith denied him leave to attend the funeral.
Years later, Mugabe had two sons and a daughter by second wife Grace.
The First Lady has been viewed as a front-runner to succeed her husband after decades of his vice-like grip on power.
“His real obsession was not with personal wealth but with power,” said biographer Martin Meredith.
“Year after year Mugabe sustained his rule through violence and repression — crushing political opponents, violating the courts, trampling on property rights, suppressing the independent press and rigging elections.”