Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe turns 93

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe turns 93

Hailed at independence in 1980 as a model African democrat, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe turns 93-years-old on Tuesday (February 21).

Mugabe, now widely seen as a tyrant whose policies have destroyed the economy of one of Africa’s most prosperous nations and plunged his country into political crisis, was confirmed last year as his party’s sole candidate for the next presidential election in 2018, when he will be 94.

Born in 1924 in Kutama, his political career began in 1960 with the formation of the National Democratic Party. A teacher by profession he was jailed in 1964 for 10 years for fighting white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia.

After his release he went into exile in Mozambique where he and fellow nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo joined forces to form the Patriotic Front guerrilla alliance to fight the white regime led by Prime Minister Ian Smith. During the war for independence Mugabe was known in liberal international circles as the thinking man’s guerrilla.

The turning point in the seven-year war came when Mugabe and Nkomo agreed to attend talks convened by the British government. Three months of intensive negotiations led to the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement which oversaw the transition to majority rule. After his election as the country’s first black prime minister in 1980, Mugabe offered forgiveness and reconciliation.

However, in spite of their military alliance, the old rivalries separating Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) were never resolved. In 1983 Mugabe crushed a rebellion by ex-ZAPU guerrillas in Matabeleland and government forces were accused of killing thousands of civilians.

Two years of talks culminated in an agreement in 1987 to merge the two parties, creating a one-party state. In 1990 Mugabe stood unopposed for the newly created post of Executive President incorporating the roles of prime minister, president and chief of the armed forces.

By the mid 1990s the once venerated freedom fighter was attracting international criticism of his increasingly autocratic rule and extreme rhetoric. In August 1995 he told thousands of people commemorating the country’s war heroes that homosexuals were not human. “If dogs and pigs know their mates, can human beings remain human beings if they do worse than pigs?” he said.

Mugabe won re-election in March 1996 after again standing unopposed, his two challengers having withdrawn their candidacy shortly before polling day.

In August 1996, at the age of 72, Mugabe married his 31-year-old former secretary Grace Marufu in a lavish wedding ceremony attended by over 15,000 guests, including African leaders and barefoot villagers. Mugabe’s first wife Sally died in 1992.

As Zimbabwe’s debt burden began to weigh heavily and a younger generation of voters responded less enthusiastically to his liberation war record, Mugabe shored up his power base with patronage. High inflation and rising interest rates provoked riots, and an increasingly independent trade union movement defeated his attempts to raise fuel and food prices and rejected a proposed tax to fund war-veteran grants.

In February 2000 Mugabe tasted defeat for the first time when voters in a referendum rejected a new constitution that would have given him yet more powers. He turned on the small white minority, blaming them for the referendum defeat. He pushed legislation through parliament allowing the seizure of more than half the white-owned farms and did nothing to stop self-styled war veterans, many of them too young to have fought in the liberation conflict, from occupying farms, often with violence.

In June Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party narrowly won parliamentary elections, gaining 62 parliamentary seats to the opposition MDC’s (Movement for Democratic Alliance) 57 seats. Two years later Mugabe succeeded in beating the MDC’s candidate Morgan Tsvangirai in violence-scarred presidential elections condemned by observers as flawed and unfair. Zimbabwe was subsequently suspended from the Commonwealth and Western countries imposed travel and economic sanctions on Mugabe and his government.

While Western leaders freely criticised Mugabe, few African leaders were prepared to publicly condemn an icon for many veterans of Africa’s liberation struggle. South African President Thabo Mbeki, facing savage criticism of his Zimbabwe policy, stressed the need to keep working with his ostracised neighbour during a visit to Harare in December 2003.

Mugabe’s “Operation Restore Order” in 2005 attracted further international condemnation as 700,000 people, largely urban supporters of the MDC, lost homes and businesses in mass evictions. Police and bulldozers demolished street stalls and shanty towns in a campaign authorities claimed was aimed at cracking down on black market activity.

Mugabe routinely blamed former colonial power Britain and its allies for orchestrating a Western sabotage campaign against him. Addressing thousands of ZANU-PF supporters attending his 83rd birthday celebrations in February 2007, Mugabe vowed United States President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair would never bring about a regime change in Zimbabwe.

International criticism of Mugabe further sharpened in March 2007 after images of Morgan Tsvangirai’s battered face were beamed around the world. The opposition leader claimed he and a number of MDC activists were badly beaten while in detention after being arrested by police for attempting to attend a banned prayer rally.

With millions of Zimbabweans confronting food and fuel shortages, as well as the highest inflation in the world at over 100,000 percent, Mugabe faced the most serious challenge to his 28-year rule in presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections in March 2008.

ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since independence and failed to reverse the defeat in a partial vote recount. Following a five-week delay, Zimbabwe’s electoral body announced Tsvangirai won most votes in the presidential election, but not enough to avoid a run-off against Mugabe. The opposition claimed the results were rigged to deny Tsvangirai outright victory.

Ignoring unprecedented pressure from former African allies, a unanimous U.N. Security Council declaration a free and fair run-off was impossible and the threat of further international sanctions, Mugabe went ahead with the election in which he was again the sole candidate. Tsvangirai pulled out of the vote citing state-sponsored violence against MDC candidates and supporters.

After being declared the winner with over 85 percent of the vote Mugabe was swiftly sworn in for a new term.

With his 28-year-rule extended, Mugabe agreed to establish a unity government with the MDC whereby he retained the presidency but for the first time ceded some of his powers to the opposition. The agreement was signed in September 2008 following weeks of tense negotiations brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Six months later Mugabe administered the oath of office as Tsvangirai was finally sworn in as prime minister.

With European Union and U.S. sanctions still in force, Mugabe used his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2009 to accuse Western countries of “filthy antics” aimed at undermining the power-sharing government.

“The Western countries, in particular the United States and the European Union, who imposed illegal sanctions against Zimbabwe, have to our surprise and that of SADC and the rest of Africa, refused to remove those sanctions. If they will not assist the inclusive government in rehabilitating our economy, could they please, please stop their filthy, clandestine, divisive antics” he said.

With Zimbabwe’s coalition government threatened by disputes about how to share executive power, Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, took up the mantle of mediator. Zuma negotiated agreement on a package of measures to rescue the unity government during meetings with Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara in March 2010. But the unity government remained fragile and mutual suspicion and strategic considerations delayed democratic reforms.

The government was also deeply divided over Zimbabwe’s Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act which compelled foreign-owned companies to relinquish control of 51 percent of their local operations to Zimbabweans.

Tsvangirai claimed the heavily criticised act, which was signed into law before the disputed 2008 elections, undermined investor confidence and threatened a fragile recovery in the country’s economy. Mugabe insisted the law was a response to Western sanctions which he blamed for Zimbabwe’s economic woes.

Having been nominated as his party’s candidate to stand for a seventh term, Mugabe made it clear he was not ready to give up power. Speaking in February 2012, during an interview with state television aired on the eve of his 88th birthday, Mugabe said he would not be stepping down.

“No, the party will find a successor, the people will find a successor. I came from the people, and the people in their wisdom, members of the party, will certainly select someone once I say I am now retiring. But not yet. At this age, I still can go some distance can’t I?” he said.

Mugabe signed a new constitution into law in May after it received overwhelming approval in a referendum in March. The charter imposed restrictions on presidential powers and a two-term limit. The new rules were not applied retroactively however, theoretically allowing Mugabe to rule for a further decade.

Mugabe, the only ruler the southern African nation has known since independence from Britain in 1980, has come under pressure from a deteriorating economy, corruption and cash shortages that have seen the central bank introducing a new “bond note” currency in November 2016.

In July of the same year, he was deserted by some of his once stalwart supporters, war veterans that have backed him in previous elections.

Still, Mugabe retains unrivalled support in ZANU-PF, which is grappling with factional fights as party officials maneuver for advantage in a post-Mugabe era.

ZANU-PF’s various entities, including the youth and women’s wings, confirmed him as the sole candidate to contest the 2018 election at the end of a two-day conference in December 2016, which was held in Masvingo town, 300 km (186 miles) south of the capital, Harare.