Former president of Zimbabwe

Born: February 21, 1924;

Died: September 6, 2019

ROBERT Mugabe, the former President of Zimbabwe, who has died of cancer at the age of 95, was one of the canniest and most ruthless politicians of modern times. Despite wrecking a beautiful country that at independence was one of Africa’s brightest hopes – and notwithstanding his own long and steady descent to international pariah status – Mugabe tenaciously maintained supreme power in Zimbabwe for 37 years.

He made his name in the 1970s as a guerrilla leader fighting the white regime of Ian Smith. After months of negotiations, the 1979 Lancaster House agreement paved the way for Mugabe, leader of the ZANU-PF party, to take charge of what was then white-ruled Rhodesia and which became black-dominated Zimbabwe.

As with so many African “big men,” Mugabe began with what seemed the best of intentions. He wanted to turn Zimbabwe, a country of spectacular beauty, into a modern state and improve the lot of his people. He built a coalition government with Joshua Nkomo, whose ZAPU forces had also fought the Smith government. But the discovery of arms at ZAPU-owned houses led to Nkomo’s dismissal. A brutal crackdown on ZAPU supporters, mainly from the Ndebele, Zimbabwe’s second largest ethnic group, followed, negating early political promises of unity and democracy.

The task of crushing ZAPU and the Ndebele was given to Mugabe’s elite North Korean-trained 5th Brigade, led by the ruthless Perence Shiri. Under Shiri, the 5th slaughtered nearly 30,000 people, most of them peasant villagers. Most of the dead were killed in public executions involving up to 12 people at a time. Shiri, under Mugabe’s patronage, became one of the richest and most powerful men in the land and was promoted Air Marshal.

More extra-judicial killings followed the 5th Brigade’s rampage. The economy nose-dived in tandem with inflation which at one point, in 2008, reached a scarcely comprehensible 500 trillion percent. Schools and hospitals fell apart. Millions fled to South Africa, Britain and elsewhere. In 2009 the worthless Zimbabwe dollar was abandoned and the US dollar was adopted as the national currency.

It had all begun hopefully. At Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in April 1980, attended by Prince Charles, Mugabe pledged reconciliation Mandela-style, telling fearful whites: “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally with the same national interest, loyalty, rights and duties as myself.” Zimbabwe, it seemed, was on the threshold of an era of great promise. Mugabe was widely acclaimed a hero, a revolutionary leader who had embraced compromise and pragmatism. Western governments lined up with huge offers of aid.

The honeymoon was short. Mugabe was particularly keen to win the trust of white commercial farmers. One of the country’s most privileged groups, numbering only about 6,000, white farmers owned two-thirds of the best land, feed the country and much of Africa, providing Zimbabwe with foreign exchange from imports and employing one-third of the wage-earning labour force. As a quid pro quo for his magnanimity towards the farmers, Mugabe sought 2.5 million acres of former white land, mainly farms in the north-east that had been abandoned during the liberation war, to resettle 18,000 black peasant families.

But by 1987, after whites continued to support die-hard candidates [during an initial seven-year period when a number of seats were reserved in Parliament for whites], Mugabe furiously denounced them as “racists” who abused the trust he had put in them. “Those whites who have not accepted the reality of a political order in which the Africans set the pace will have to leave the country,” he said. Switching to chiShona, the indigenous language of his own majority Shona ethnic group, he said: “We will kill those snakes among us, we will smash them completely.”

He established a de facto one-party state, declared martial law and began ruling through a vast system of patronage. As he became increasingly authoritarian, he spoke admiringly of various dictators, including Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu just before he was overthrown in Bucharest by popular revolution.

In 2000 Mugabe set up a commission to draw up a new constitution to be put before the electorate in a referendum. Among other things, it extended his rule for ten years and proposed land expropriation without compensation in the belief that it would secure the rural black vote. The result was a stunning defeat for Mugabe. He reacted with fury. Ten days after the declaration, Mugabe supporters armed with axes and machetes invaded white farms and assaulted the farmers and their families. Some farmers were killed. Their properties were ransacked and most were forced to flee the country.

Mugabe declared Zimbabwe’s fertile land nationalised, provoking an international outcry: the best confiscated land and farmhouses went not to poor peasants but to Mugabe’s ministers and cronies, including his wife Grace and other relatives. Zimbabwe’s economy plummeted and 400,000 black farmworkers were thrown out of work.

In 2008, as conditions worsened, Mugabe permitted a presidential election that was plagued by state-sponsored violence and vote-rigging. He lost to Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the new Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, but refused to cede power. More than a hundred MDC supporters were killed and thousands injured. To stop the violence, Tsvangirai agreed to share power, with Mugabe retaining the main Presidential role with Tsvangirai as his less powerful prime minister. So powerful did Mugabe remain, and so contemptuous was he of Tsvangirai, that at one point a quarter of the MDC’s Members of Parliament had been arrested, with some of them being dragged into courts shackled in leg irons.

Mugabe vowed that the opposition would never be allowed to rule Zimbabwe. “Never ever,” he said. “Only God will remove me.” His legacy was a ruined, traumatised and corrupt country that will need decades to recover. Zimbabwean Senator and prominent human rights lawyer David Coltart commented: “Regrettably the negative aspects of Mugabe’s legacy – violence, disrespect for the rule of law, corruption and abuse of power – live on in the new Mnangagwa regime.”

In 2017 the army toppled the ailing dictator. His departure was greeted with elation across the nation. He was succeeded as President by his long-time colleague, Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as The Crocodile. For a short while, Zimbabweans believed their conditions might improve under Mnangagwa. But crackdowns have only worsened this year as security forces abducted and tortured government opponents and the economy has continued to decline.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born near the Kutama Jesuit Mission in 1924 in the Zvimba District northwest of Salisbury [now Harare] in then Southern Rhodesia to a Malawian father and a Shona mother. He held seven university degrees, most obtained while studying in prison as political dissident under white rule, before he went into exile to lead armed struggle. In 1984 he was honoured by Edinburgh University “for services to education in Africa”. A decision in 2008 to revoke the degree because of his human rights abuses was the first in the university’s history.

Mugabe’s first wife died in 1992; their only son died aged three from cerebral malaria. In August 1996 Mugabe married his former secretary Grace Marufu, 41 years his junior, with whom he already had two children. The Mugabes had three children who survive him: Bona, Robert Peter and Chatunga Bellarmine.