Robert Mugabe, the first prime minister and later president of independent Zimbabwe, who traded the mantle of liberator for the armor of a tyrant and presided over the decline of one of Africa’s most prosperous lands, died Friday. He was 95.
The death was announced by his successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President, Cde Robert Mugabe,” he wrote on Twitter, using the abbreviation for comrade. “Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten.”
In August, Mnangagwa had said that Mugabe had spent several months in Singapore getting treatment for an undisclosed illness.
Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state before his ouster in 2017, was the only leader Zimbabweans had known since independence, in 1980. Like many who liberated their countries, Mugabe believed that Zimbabwe was his to govern until the end. In a speech before the African Union in 2016, he said he would remain at the helm “until God says, ‘Come.’”
Throughout, Mugabe remained inscrutable, some would say conflicted. Remote, calculating, ascetic and cerebral, a self-styled revolutionary inspired by what he once called “Marxist-Leninism-Mao-Tse-tung thought,” he affected a scholarly manner, bespectacled and haughty, a vestige of his early years as a schoolteacher. But his hunger for power was undiluted.
In an interview with state-run television on his 93rd birthday, in February 2017, Mugabe indicated that he would run again in presidential elections in 2018.
“They want me to stand for elections; they want me to stand for elections everywhere in the party,” he said. “The majority of the people feel that there is no replacement, successor, who to them is acceptable, as acceptable as I am.”
He added, “The people, you know, would want to judge everyone else on the basis of President Mugabe as the criteria.”
Events proved him wrong. In November 2017, army officers, fearing that Mugabe would anoint his second wife, Grace Mugabe, as his political heir, moved against him. Within a dramatic few days he was placed under house arrest and forced by his political party, ZANU-PF, to step down.
The military insisted that the ouster did not amount to a coup, although it had all the trappings of one, with armored vehicles patrolling the streets. The officers took control of the state broadcaster to announce their action.
Yet remarkably in a continent where deposed leaders often meet grisly fates or flee into exile, Mugabe and his wife were allowed to remain in their sumptuous 24-bedroom home in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.
In his final years in power, Mugabe presided over a shattered economy and a fractured political class that was jockeying for influence in anticipation of his death. Although often viewed in the West as a pariah, he was, in many corners of Africa, considered an elder statesman thanks to his liberation pedigree, his longevity and his eloquence in articulating a broad resentment of Western powers’ past and present policies toward the continent.
If Nelson Mandela of South Africa, his contemporary, won universal admiration for emphasizing reconciliation, Mugabe tapped into an equally powerful sentiment in Africa: that the West had not sufficiently atoned for its sins and had continued to bully the continent.
Mugabe had in his early days belonged to a generation of African nationalists whose confrontation with white minority rule fomented guerrilla warfare in the name of democracy and freedom.
But once he won power in Zimbabwe’s first free elections, in 1980, after a seven-year war, he turned, with a blend of guile and brutality, to the elimination of adversaries, real and imagined.
He found them in many places: among the minority Ndebele ethnic group and the clergy; in the judiciary and the independent news media; in the political opposition and other corners of society pushing for democracy; and in the countryside, where white farmers were chased off their land from 2000 onward.
Always able to outwit and coerce political opponents, he was reelected to a seventh term in office in 2013.
A New Wife Ascends
Electoral triumph was not the end of the story, however. In late 2014 Mugabe purged his governing party, replacing his vice president, Joice Majuru, with Mnangagwa, a hard-line loyalist, and elevating his second wife, Grace Mugabe, a former typist some four decades his junior, to high office in the party.
There were even suggestions that he sought to establish her as the head of a dynasty or at least to assure her of a place in the eventual succession.
It was precisely that stratagem that brought his downfall. Grace Mugabe’s maneuvers and ambitions unsettled the very people in the military and security elite who had backed Mugabe in return for a share of the spoils. The army officers who pushed him from office had once helped solidify his hold on it.
If his political instincts at home had finally deserted him, his grasp of continental diplomacy had not. To the annoyance of his adversaries at home and in the West, his stature across Africa seemed only to rise in his 90s, even as he grew frail and was given to mental lapses. (In one instance he read the same speech to Parliament twice.)
In 2014 he assumed the rotating, one-year presidency of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community. Then, in early 2015, the African Union, the continent’s main representative body, appointed him chairman for the year.
Later, at a time when the election of President Donald Trump had stirred consternation among America’s European and NATO allies, the usually anti-Western Mugabe surprised them when, speaking of Trump, he urged global leaders to “give him time.”
He also endorsed one of Trump’s core electoral promises.
“Well, America for America, America for Americans — on that we agree,” Mugabe said, reprising one of his oldest slogans: “Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.”
The refrain reflected his relationship with Zimbabwe’s onetime British colonial masters, whom he reviled in public while adopting the dress and mannerisms of the English upper crust, which he seemed secretly to admire.
Ruling in the name of the African masses, he was uneasy with those same ordinary people, whose lives descended into destitution as a gaudy elite accumulated mansions, Mercedes-Benzes and millions of American dollars.
Worthless Money, Shopping Sprees
Unemployment exceeded 80%. When a bank note with a face value of 10 trillion dollars was introduced in early 2009, it was worth only about $8 on the black market. Zimbabwe’s money became so worthless that it was effectively replaced by outside currencies, including the South African rand, the U.S. dollar and China’s yuan.
Mugabe morphed into a caricature of dictatorship: vain and capricious, encircled by the flashy spending of his second wife and other family members, who lived in luxury at home and went on shopping sprees and long annual vacations in the Far East. (That wife, the former Grace Marufu, had been his secretary and mistress, and Robert Mugabe, despite a strict Roman Catholic upbringing, fathered two children with her while still married to his first wife, Sally Hayfron.)
Grace Mugabe survives him, as do his daughter, Bona, two, sons, Robert Jr. and Bellarmine Chatunga. and a stepson, Russell Goreraza.
Mugabe’s public policy campaigns could be quixotic; he inveighed, for instance, against homosexuals as “worse than dogs.” And as his country became more isolated, his achievements — victory over white minority rule, a vast expansion of secondary education, health care for the black majority in the 1980s — were eclipsed by corruption and his quest to crush dissent.
“His real obsession was not with personal wealth but with power,” British writer Martin Meredith observed in his book “Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe” (2002). As Mugabe declared in June 2008, referring to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change: “Only God, who appointed me, will remove me, not the MDC, not the British. Only God will remove me!”
Bookish and Scarred
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born Feb. 21, 1924, in Kutama, northwest of Harare, in an area set aside by the white authorities for black peasants. Educated by Catholic missionaries, he was a studious, earnest child who later recalled being happy with solitude as he tended cattle, so long as he had a book under his arm.
His father abandoned the family when Robert was 10, leaving him to deal with a mercurial and emotionally scarred mother, according to “Dinner With Mugabe” (2008), a biography by Heidi Holland.
“The color bar sliced through every domain of society,” he said of his childhood.
His political thought, like Mandela’s, took shape in South Africa at Fort Hare Academy, which he attended on a scholarship from 1950 to 1952, earning the first of a string of degrees in education, law, administration and economics.
“The impact of India’s independence, and the example of Gandhi and Nehru, had a deep effect,” Mugabe said in an interview with The New York Times before Zimbabwe’s independence. “Apartheid was beginning to take shape. Marxism-Leninism was in the air.”
“From then on I wanted to be a politician,” he said.
Mugabe taught in Northern Rhodesia, as Zambia was then called, and Ghana, where he met Hayfron, who would be his first wife. In Ghana, he experienced African independence for the first time and was impressed by the African socialism of that country’s first leader, Kwame Nkrumah.
Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia — the legal name of his country then, when it was still a self-governing British colony — in 1960. He was soon invited to address a rally organized by the National Democratic Party, led by his future ally, rival, mentor and enemy, Joshua Nkomo. Four months later he became the party’s publicity secretary, and his career in the fractious world of nationalist politics had begun.
In 1963, Mugabe sided with the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole in a revolt by the more militant Shona-speaking clans, who made up a majority, against Nkomo, leader of the Ndebeles, who accounted for only 18% of the population. They formed a breakaway party, the Zimbabwe African National Union, or ZANU.
A year later, in a crackdown by the white authorities, Mugabe, Sithole and many other activists were arrested and began prison terms that would last 11 years.
The first seeds of bitterness were sown.
While Mugabe was in detention, his only child died in Ghana. The white authorities of Rhodesia, who had unilaterally declared independence in 1965, refused to let him attend the funeral. He was enraged. But many years later, he said, he lost that anger because “suffering had been rewarded with victory.” Some people, however, questioned whether the bitterness and resentment had ever completely dissipated.
His years of detention were a time of great political and intellectual activity. In prison, Mugabe, like Mandela in South Africa, advanced his education, enhancing his reputation for book learning. It was, he told friends, a time of preparation for the struggle to come. It was also a time of upheaval within the Zimbabwe African National Union.
In the early 1970s, a group of leading aides who had been incarcerated with Mugabe and Sithole accused Sithole of “selling out” to the white authorities during those years in return for prison privileges. Sithole was ousted as party leader, and Mugabe inherited a party split into clan factions, each given to internecine bloodshed.
In 1975, he and an aide, Edgar Tekere, slipped out of Rhodesia to Mozambique.
Voice of Guerrillas
It was from Mozambique, with its long and porous frontier with Rhodesia, that Mugabe conducted his war while Nkomo fought from Zambia. Mugabe struggled to win the allegiance of his party’s guerrillas, even as the propaganda of the white minority in Rhodesia depicted him as a bloodthirsty Marxist — the incarnation of the minority’s atavistic fears of black domination.
Although he was the political voice of the guerrillas, he was never seen to bear arms or fight in battle during the war against white minority rule, from 1972 to 1980, in which about 27,000 people died, most of them black.
To the outside world, he was an enigma. When Henry Kissinger, the U.S. secretary of state, toured southern Africa in late 1976 in an inconclusive quest for a settlement of the Rhodesia crisis, many of those accompanying him had only a vague sense of who Mugabe was.
In October 1976, under pressure from black African leaders, Mugabe and Nkomo were forced into an alliance — a marriage of convenience, actually — called the Patriotic Front. It dissolved in late 1979 when a British-brokered peace agreement was signed at the Lancaster House conference in London, seven years to the day after the war had started.
The British hailed the pact, establishing the independent state of Zimbabwe, as a triumph for their diplomacy. But Mugabe had been a reluctant signatory; his African backers, most notably Mozambique and Tanzania, had pushed him to abandon a war that he thought his guerrillas were winning. The agreement left ambiguities that would haunt the new country throughout his rule.
For all that, Mugabe, returning home from exile early in 1980, offered friendship and reconciliation to his foes. Many whites believed that somehow the former Rhodesian authorities, or white-ruled South Africa, or Britain, would thwart his rise to power, and indeed there were many reports of frustrated conspiracies by the white-led military.
But in the first election Mugabe won convincingly, securing 57 of the 100 parliamentary seats and capturing the prime ministry. The victory was attributed in part to a tribal vote among the majority Shona, in part to Mugabe’s following as a liberation hero, and in part to intimidation of voters by guerrillas loyal to him.
“Remain calm,” Mugabe told the nation after an electoral process that some British Foreign Office strategists had hoped, as they acknowledged much later, would deny him victory. “Respect your opponents and do nothing that will disturb the peace. We must now all of us work for unity, whether we have won the election or not.”
For all who witnessed the speech, it seemed a remarkable display of conciliation and magnanimity.
But the honeymoon was short-lived. Mugabe’s guerrilla followers battled those of Nkomo in 1980 and 1981. Determined to create a one-party state — the model then for many African countries — Mugabe dismissed Nkomo from the Cabinet in February 1982 after an arms cache was found at a farm owned by a company controlled by Nkomo and some of his followers.
It was the prelude to a much bloodier time, from 1983 to 1985, when Mugabe sent his North Korean-trained 5th Brigade into the western area of Zimbabwe known as Matabeleland, Nkomo’s political power base, to hunt down so-called dissidents. Most of the estimated 10,000 people who died in the campaign were civilians.
Less remembered was the election in 1985, when the white minority voted to award Ian Smith, the last white prime minister of Rhodesia, all 20 parliamentary seats that had been guaranteed for whites at Lancaster House. Smith, who had waged war to keep whites in power, had once vowed that majority rule would never come to Rhodesia, “not in a thousand years.”
For Mugabe, the vote in favor of his white nemesis was an affront, a rejection of all his conciliatory gestures that had permitted the white minority to enjoy its sunlit African idyll, almost as if the government had not changed at all. It was from that moment, some of his biographers have said, that his commitment to conciliation weakened.
In 1987 oversaw an uneven merger of his party with Nkomo’s ZAPU, which was dissolved. His rival’s power base was now eliminated. Then, later that year, Mugabe engineered constitutional amendments that scrapped the figurehead presidency enshrined at independence and permitted him to take the title of executive president, combining the roles of head of state, head of government and military commander-in-chief.
The changes also abolished the constitutional provisions for the white minority to be guaranteed 20 parliamentary seats.
On Jan. 1, 1988, Prime Minister Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s first executive president.
For much of the 1980s, Mugabe’s control was never really challenged. Enormous spending on education and health had produced a prosperous and increasingly urbanized country, and he had basked in acclaim — the model leader for postcolonial Africa. That changed in 1990, when Mandela, finally free after 27 years in prison, became Africa’s global statesman.
Mandela exuded a gravitas and natural authority that Mugabe could never match, and many believed that his resentment of Mandela’s easy dominance of the global stage turned Mugabe inward, to nurse his grievances.
But time bombs were ticking. They exploded in 2000.
A new generation of Zimbabweans, the so-called born frees, who had grown up since independence benefiting from expanded education, were now clamoring for jobs that were not there.
In a referendum in February 2000 on a new constitution, which would have entrenched Mugabe’s power even more, the Movement for Democratic Change, an upstart party supported mainly in the towns and cities, scored a huge upset, defeating Mugabe’s plans.
Stunned by the challenge to his monopoly hold on the political process, Mugabe accused his black opponents of being lackeys of the white farmers who had openly helped bankroll the Movement for Democratic Change, which was led by a former labor leader, Morgan Tsvangirai (who died in February). And he accused the farmers and many others in the white minority — whose numbers had fallen to about 70,000 from a peak of 210,000 after World War II — of being agents of British colonialism.
Parliamentary elections in June 2000 further weakened his grip. The opposition won 57 of the 150 parliamentary seats, mainly in urban districts. At the same time, Mugabe faced increasingly restive veterans of the independence war, a volatile constituency whose state-run pension funds had been looted by government officials.
When the so-called war vets began invading and seizing farms, Mugabe, wary of losing even more political support, not only did little to stop them; he actually encouraged them, even though most were too young to have fought in the independence struggle.
The post-independence effort to redistribute land had gone slowly, with neither Britain nor Mugabe nor the white farmers pushing to resolve the issue. Twenty years after independence, a white minority, accounting for less than 2% of the population, still controlled more than half the arable land. By 1998, although Mugabe had promised new land for 162,000 black families, only 71,000 white households had been resettled. Then came a dramatic turn.
White Farmers Ousted
Starting around 2000, Mugabe’s lieutenants sent squads of young men to invade hundreds of white-owned farms and chase away their owners. The campaign took a huge toll.
Over two years, nearly all of the country’s white-owned land was redistributed to about 300,000 black families, among them 50,000 aspiring black commercial farmers and many of Mugabe’s loyalists. By late 2002, only about 600 of the country’s 4,500 white farmers had kept parts of their land.
The violent agricultural revolution had come with a heavy price: The economy was collapsing as farmland fell into disuse and peasant farmers struggled to grow crops without fertilizer, irrigation, farm equipment, money or seeds. Food shortages, at first ascribed to drought, only worsened as farmers were forced to stop farming. When food aid arrived, people who had opposed Mugabe said government officials had denied them handouts to punish them.
For years, people spoke of potential “endgames” by which Mugabe would be offered some kind of escape route. But the electoral season of 2008 showed just how determined he was to cling to power.
In March of that year, Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, outpolled Mugabe in a presidential vote and claimed victory. But after weeks of procrastination, the official vote counter said there had been no outright victor, even though Tsvangirai had won the most votes.
The authorities scheduled a runoff, but in the wake of beatings and killings of opposition supporters, Tsvangirai, taking refuge in the Dutch Embassy in Harare, withdrew from the ballot. Mugabe won with an official tally of 85% of the vote in a one-horse race.
Months of tortuous negotiation followed before Mugabe, as president, was able to swear in a reluctant Tsvangirai as his prime minister. It was the first time since the postelection government of 1980 that Mugabe had admitted an adversary into his cabinet. But the reality was that he was still very much in charge, retaining control of the military, the intelligence services and other tools of power.
In the disputed 2013 elections, Mugabe was again declared the clear winner, ending the power-sharing arrangement with Tsvangirai. Many Zimbabweans seemed resigned to this display of Mugabe’s thirst for power.
“I will never, never sell my country,” he declared in 2008. “I will never, never, never surrender. Zimbabwe is mine, I am a Zimbabwean, Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.”